Yoruba Is the Gift My Grandmother Gave Me

In Editor's Pick, Language by Titilope Sonuga


I am barefoot in my grandmother’s church. I let my body sink into the familiar feeling of the wooden seats against my back. When I stretch my legs out and point my toes, I can almost touch the bench in front of me, where the women in their geles obstruct my view of the altar. All of our heads are covered—in scarves, in hats, in handkerchiefs pulled hurriedly out of our mothers’ purses before entering—because something holy is being spoken here. In most of my childhood spaces, I feel outside the conversation, like something is always being said just above my head, out of reach, in a language I am not allowed to speak at school; a language my parents speak to each other but rarely to us. Yoruba is a language that exists entirely in the realm of my grandmother’s house, and here, in this church, where it is mine and ours, where I finally feel like a part of something. A feeling swells in my chest, like pride, like belonging. If this is the language we speak to God, then it was this woman that taught me how to pray. 

We rise and fall on cue to the sound of the organ. We murmur our responses to the altar’s call, where my grandfather draped in regal white sits amongst the elders. Then the music begins, and the bodies that surround me begin their hypnotic sway from side to side. My grandmother’s hip brushing against my right shoulder, in time with my mother’s brushing against my left. I am caught in the tide, scanning between the bodies trying to catch a glimpse of the choir, their white satin garments glistening in the light. My eyes are fixed on the man with the censer, the chain rope wrapped around his clenched fist, the orb swinging wildly around him, never missing a beat. He wraps us in incense, and our song rises with the smoke. This euphoria swells the room, this smell, this worship, this language, spoken where we are closest to heaven. It must be a holy tongue.


I dream in English. Like all dreams, that reveal themselves to be dreams, it is always in small misplaced details; a living room in the wrong house, a face that doesn’t quite match its voice, teeth falling endlessly from an open mouth. There are parts of me that feel like the strange landscape of a dream, one detail contradicting the other. It is in Canada, where it feels like I am relearning everything about myself, that I realize that I don’t remember ever learning to speak Yoruba. I don’t remember being spoon-fed the words one by one. All I know is that I know it. That I always have. That maybe somewhere in my toddling around, my mother, my grandmother, my aunties placed this gift on my tongue. At school, in Nigeria, we only spoke English, the remnants of a colonial history peeking through every aspect of our daily lives. In Canada, we only speak English at school, the remnants of a colonial history peeking through every aspect of our daily lives. And there is othering, even in English. A hierarchy of sounds, of words bent on the bow of our tongues. This English has a new melody, it is not the one of my childhood, of Fadeyi, of Surulere, of Ogba, of people watching on my grandmother’s balcony, where the sing-song of our voices in the streets, even in English, a nod to the music of our mother tongues. I’m 13 when we arrive here, already lost in translation, on the margins of girlhood and womanhood. It is September, and the air is cold and unyielding. A foggy mist forms when we open our mouths, like the edge of a dream.

When my parents and I attend an interview at the high school they want me to attend, the principal tells them that I am too young. He speaks slowly, as though they cannot understand him, when he tells them I have to go back two years to junior high school. They speak to each other in Yoruba, they speak to him in English, they agree. Nobody speaks to me. What I was spared, in the end, was the brutality of my 13-year-old self in a high school with children in a hurry to no longer be children. I came to understand the grace in starting over, of having two more years to be a child.  By graduation, my body is brand new, my voice is more rooted in my chest, and my tongue retrained and obedient to new music. At home, my father speaks Yoruba to us now, we answer in English. When my mother speaks, we answer in Yoruba. We all know what we lost on the journey to this place, what was swept up in the tide. We grasp for a shared language like a tether.


My sisters and I develop a shorthand. A language we speak with just our eyes—so many things a raised eyebrow can say. So many secrets a smile can hold. When we moved to Canada, where these gestures stretch to their very limits, where we needed something more to act as a bridge in a world threatening to pull us apart, we reached back for our mother tongue. We closed the space between us with Yoruba; on the bus, at the mall, in rooms with faces that look nothing like ours. We shared secrets in plain sight and used our laughter as a balm; we built a bridge back home. I crossed the bridge, a woman, and returned to Lagos, a storyteller. I wrote poems on the streets of my childhood. I wrote my way back into myself in a tongue that was not the one my grandmother gave me, but one I created for myself. I let my contradictions sit side by side. I found new spaces for the parts of me that did not quite fit. I offered myself grace for all the ways I had forgotten and all the ways I never will.


My son is two, and he wants more of everything. He moves through the world like a sponge. His curiosity is insatiable. I catch him in moments imitating me, mimicking the way my mouth moves when I speak. He shows me that nothing I learnt was by accident, that every word I know in Yoruba was, in fact, spoon-fed to me, daily, religiously, repeatedly. So, we practice. I say to him, “imu,” and he points to his nose. I say, “ẹnu,” and he points to his mouth. I say, “ori,” he points to his head. He repeats after me, laughing, his mouth flies open with glee. I place this small gift on his tongue.