“Take out your writing materials and a sheet of paper and put away any reading materials right away. The Yoruba test is about to start.”
I groaned inside. Yoruba test. The one test in all the tests I have ever written in this school that I have never managed to pass – even once. It still baffles me how the subject is compulsory, in spite of the fact that over three quarters of the class (mostly Yoruba kids, weirdly enough) regularly fail both tests and exams. And the following term, the teacher would continue like nothing happened. Fortunately, my parents didn’t much seem to mind me failing the subject. If it had been Igbo though, I’m sure I wouldn’t have heard the end of it. And goodness knows I can’t write a line of Igbo to save my life.
Ah, our teacher, Mrs. Tijani, from the land of No-English. From the very moment she steps into class till she leaves, not one word of English would proceed from her lips, except on the rare occasion the principal is passing and she greets him. I heard she’s a university graduate. And I can’t help wondering if she was taught English in secondary school in Yoruba.
I had given up on trying to learn the language from the very first class. She had introduced herself in Yoruba (if I didn’t know enough Yoruba to know introductions, I would have thought she was teaching us Tijani. Also, she wrote YORUBA – with all the markings and everything, no less – in huge block letters on the marker board – I suppose for those of us who were still in doubt). I learnt enough though to say “Ekaaro ma” when she steps into the class, “beeni” whenever she asks “abi beeko” and “O ye wa, ma” whenever she asked (in Yoruba, of course!) if we understood the lesson in spite of the fact that I did not understand anything at all. On one occasion, I had, against my better judgement, shaken my head when she asked if we understood. And she explained the topic, all over again, in rapid fire Yoruba, not a word of which I understood and directed solely at me, to the point that I wasn’t so sure if she was explaining or insulting my dumb ass for making her repeat herself. By the time she was done and asked if I understood, I nodded my head vigorously like an agama lizard and threw in an “O ye mi, ma” for good measure. That was the last time I tried understanding a Yoruba lesson.
The first Yoruba examination I wrote in this school was a complete disaster. Like all the previous papers, the Yoruba exam was in two parts – multiple choice objective and theory. I blazed through the objective part by shaving at random (though it would take even the least perceptive eye to notice that my shading had a pattern to it. That way I didn’t spend too long asking myself if I should shade A or B when I obviously didn’t know the answer to the questions) and flipped over to the theory part. Mercifully, the instructions for the theory section was written in English. Unmercifully, the questions were completely in Yoruba. Sucker punch.
I gazed at the questions for all of ten minutes before glancing around to observe that most of my classmates were also gazing at their question papers like they had been asked to disprove Einstein’s theory of relativity. I turned back to the sheet in front of me. At least the teacher had mercifully titled the question “LETA KIKO”. Clearly something about letter writing. I wasn’t the best at writing letters in English. What gave the woman the impression that I was any better at writing letters in Yoruba? I shrugged. At least, I might as well find out what I was writing about.
It was a lost cause. I didn’t understand a thing. Fine, I could pick out “Ore e” so I guessed I was to write to a friend. But about what, I had absolutely no idea. The words “gbongan ilu mi” kept coming up in bold capitals, though. Maybe that was what I was to write about, I reasoned. I knew “Ilu mi” meant “my town”. But “gbongan”?
Sounded like a very large bell.
Why would I want to write to my friend about a large bell?
Someone was trying to call my attention. I had already decided that this was the one subject that wasn’t worth the exam malpractice.
Someone else clearly hadn’t.
I turned slightly to the left to see that Kayode, with all of a pair of tribal marks on both cheeks to prove his “Yoruba-ness”, was the one distracting me from trying to fail with a little dignity.
“Uche. What’s the meaning of gbongan?”
I wanted to laugh out loud. If Kayode with all his tribal marks, didn’t know the meaning of the word, how was I, an Igbo boy expected to know it? I envisioned the villagers of whatever village Kayode’s father was from thrashing him severely in the town square for failing to teach his son the language of his fathers.
I shrugged and turned back to my answer sheet. It was a letter so I might as well start with the basics. An address and a date. But then I had to stop almost as soon as I started. The address I had wanted to write was “Herbert Macaulay Street.” Was I expected to write it that way or “yorubalize” it, the result which would be something like “Habati Makoli Sitiriti”? At least, that was the best I could come up with.
At the end, I went with the English spelling. Last thing I wanted was for the woman to think I was making a mockery of her subject. Then an introduction to the letter;
“Ore mi, Jumoke,”
I was stuck. What next?
Now I was truly stuck. I knew no other pleasantries in Yoruba and, try as hard as I did, the answers didn’t just come to my brain as our school chaplain had suggested was possible at the last vigil we had. That was all I had as far introductions went. I just had to skip to the the body of the letter.
“Gbongan” I wrote and then stared at the word for ten minutes. What, in carnation, was a gbongan? It had to be a big bell. It certainly sounded like one. But even if it was indeed a bell, how was I supposed to write about it in Yoruba?
“Twenty minutes left!” barked the invigilator, startling me.
I added “Ilu mi” beside the “gbongan” I had previously written.
Fine, so it was a big bell. But I didn’t know how to say something was really big in Yoruba. Besides, how many sentences can you write about a bell in your town before you run out of ideas? How much more in another language. I paused to consider how to complete this first sentence.
“Ten minutes to go!”
I wrote “is very big” and added a full stop. My letter so far was scantier than a sack letter to an extremely unruly employee. I stared at this latest addition – albeit in English – and hoped it would provide a flash of inspiration an I would somehow recall some subconscious knowledge of Yoruba that would enable me write a letter that would be longer than six lines.
The inspiration came – not to me though, but to Segun who was sitting adjacent to me and hadn’t even managed to go as far as an introduction before that. All of a sudden, he was writing and writing and writing and had soon filled a page of his answer booklet and flipped to the next page. I, on the other hand, was green with envy. Why didn’t I get these sudden spots of brilliance during exams?
It wasn’t till the following term that we learnt Segun decided to write a letter to his aunt about his Yoruba teacher, completely in English and properly punctuated at that. Mrs. Tijani was not in the least impressed.
“Start going over your work!”
Well, there certainly wasn’t much to go over. I was done with that exercise in all of ten seconds.
“Pens down! Stop writing and submit your answer booklets.”
In previous papers, you would see people trying to get last words in, finish that equation, draw that line. In this one, all I saw were resigned faces like condemned men, some of whom had put their pens away long before the invigilator asked, shuffling towards the front of the class to submit their answer booklets.
I really don’t want to go over the result of that examination.
Especially as I’m now faced with a test I know as sure as anything I’m not at all prepared for. The invigilator heads to the marker board, glances at the sheet of paper in his hand and starts to write;
“Daruko awon asa ati olaju…”
I would really love to write about a gbongan right now.