It was with a little apprehension that I walked slowly into that Peck Hall classroom at 1.30pm on Monday to begin my first teaching assignment. I had waited for this day for a long while, but when the reality stared me in the face just before I entered the class, I wondered for a micro-second whether it would be worth all the travel. My outfit already stood me out of the crowd, and anyone who bothered to look in my direction on the corridor could not have missed the fact that I looked different, and could only be “that professor from Africa.” I mean, who still wears native caps these days but the Africans? On one hand was my bike helmet, on the other were the copies of the course syllabus and behind me was the bag that had needed texts. They were all waiting for me when I entered, on time, and I immediately contrasted that fact with Nigerian university system where students would still stroll into class thirty minutes after the lecture would have already started, offering no word of remorse even when the teacher stops talking and stares at them from his lectern. Two students came in just some seconds before I closed the classroom door, and they were apologetic.
“Ẹ káàsán o. Ẹyin akẹkọọ,” I started, and the class went silent! A thick, almost disqueting silence quieter than a deafman’s graveyard.
A second trial yielded a few suppessed sounds, but it attracted a more encouraging response. “Ẹ káàsán o. Ẹyin akẹkọọ.” I said, again and I picked up a chalk to write it out. Then I wrote my name, in full, pointed at it, and contined.
“Orúkọ mi ni Arákùnrin Kóla Ọlátúbòsún. Ẹyin Nkọ?”
Everyone kept quiet, and looked a little amused. A few giggled, and it was just what I was waiting for.
I touched my chest, moved away from the board, and repeated. “Orúkọ mi ni Arákùnrin Kóla.” Then I pointed at the one with the most mischievous smile. “Iwọ nkọ?”
She looked lost, as did a few more, and then after a little moment of almost uncomfortable silence, the bulb lighted in someone’s brain and he shouted from the back, “Ross!”
“Beautiful.” I responded, the first time I would speak English in the class. They all felt at ease from then on, and each volunteered their name in turn: “Keonia, Adam, Amber, Tonde, etc.”
“But you shouldn’t just say your name,” I corrected. “You should preface it with ‘Orúkọ mi ni…’ then put in your name. Let’s do it again in pairs, shall we?”
“Kíni orúkọ rẹ?” “Orúkọ mi ni Amber. “Iwọ nkọ?” “Orúkọ mi ni Tonde.”
“Kíni orúkọ rẹ?” “Orúkọ mi ni Trish. “Iwọ nkọ?” “Orúkọ mi ni Ross.”
“Kíni orúkọ rẹ?” “Orúkọ mi ni Keonia. “Iwọ nkọ?” “Orúkọ mi ni Adam.”
…and that went all around the class of thirteen students, only three of whom are black – out of which one (Tonde) is a Nigerian Ijaw.
I turned out to be a better experience than I imagined, and I left the class feeling elated and swollen-headed. This is going to be fun. I am actually teaching my language in an American university. The aim of the course, if you’re interested in knowing, is to make authentic Yoruba speakers out of those bright and brilliant American students. By the end of the class that lasted one and a quarter hour, we seemed to have forgotten about time, and all they wanted to say is “Sé alàáfíà ni”, “Báwo ni”, “Dáadáa ni. Iwọ nkọ?” If you have a child in Nigeria, Britain or America today to whom you have refused speak your language, you would have only yourself to blame when after they reach the age of twenty-one, you have to put thousands of dollars out just to make them learn it well, this time from those to whom it’s not even a first language. As for me, I’m having fun here, and discovering interesting new things about my language, and how it comes across to the complete strangers hearing it for the very first time.
By the next class, each of those students would have chosen their own personal Yoruba names to be used in class and everywhere else. No more Ross, Trish or Adam. Let the Yorubanization begin!