While teaching my second Yoruba class on Wednesday, I had mentioned the word “Oyinbo” to my students in passing, within a conversation, when I didn’t intend to, and when the topic of discussion at the moment could have proceeded a bit smoothier had I not committed the second unforgivable error of subsequently attempting to explain its usage in Nigeria. I have had cause to think about the word usage for quite a while now and I have mostly questioned its use, so I might have been a little too enthusiastic in responding when the questioner took cue from my explanation on a totally different matter and asked whether when I said that children called foreigners “Oyinbo” in my country, I meant that they used the word to make jest of them. In any case, I reasoned, it was just a matter of time before one Nigerian teacher in an American class somewhere drops the unlucky word into a class conversation and sparks an unending racial debate, so I jumped in and tried my best to explain. The choice such an unlucky professor might face would be easier if he would just ignore the gentle tug of his own academic conscience and not pause for a moment to explain to his whole class the meaning, connotation and usage of the word “Oyinbo”. Most sane instructors would go for the first option mainly perhaps because it is a less complicated one that saves a lot of sweat and time. However, a totally naive and perhaps optimistic young teacher might actually take a stupid chance and proceeded nevertheless, never being fully aware of the possible end result of his thankless venture.
Now, let’s examine the word, “Oyinbo”, which is supposed to refer to “(a) White Person/Caucasian/Non Black-African”. The etymology has never been agreed on, and even though a famous scholar once wrote that it is derived from “Oyin + bo” which roughly means “(Someone) peeled by the honeybee,” the word still doesn’t make much sense on its own. The word is used today both in urban, rural, and in educated circles to refer to the foreigner, most especially those with fairer skin colour (African Americans included). Those excluded from the authentic list of Oyinbos and are often called into the list mostly in jest are the really fairskinned Africans, and the Albinos. Every other person with European/Caucasian blood in them are Oyinbos, and they are called by that name both in public and in private, which brings a huge question on whether the users of the word ever mean it as a derogatory expression. The answer of course would be a NO. However, I personally have never considered it a compliment of any sort when while walking with a white/caucasian person (even within a campus environment), passers-by most of whom are complete and unwelcome strangers yell “Oyinbo!” while pointing and giggling excitely at the now totally embarrased stranger. Most of all these cases are a confirmed result of illiteracy, mental retardation or some sadomasochistic instinct on the part of the yeller to make a public nuisance of both themselves and their foreign target. Of course! But this fact doesn’t remove from the despicableness of the act, or make the word in that instance less derogatory-like. “So, when used in a civil, polite conversation, Oyinbo is mainly a harmless term of reference, but it is insulting only when it is yelled out loud, especially by a(n unaquainted, unfriendly) stranger.” How does one explain all of this easily in a class of an elementary course on language and culture without raising red flags and unnecessarily preconditioning the mind of impressionable students to a hostile, negative cultural experience? That was my dilemma on that beautiful Wednesday afternoon.
I resolved the situation in favour of common sense, and the concise explanation I gave before moving to the next topic was a “No please, that’s not a derogative word. It is a fun word of endearment used by the Yoruba to refer to those they perceive differently because of their skin colour.” But I left the class a little worried that I myself do not totally agree with that description for its lack of depth and breath to capture all that the word “oyinbo” entails, and for the way that definition might be wrongly construed as a racist/derogatory tag. Fact is, the image that flashed across my mind when I think about it is that of a cacophonous horde of dirty little stray children chanting “Oyinbo pepper” after a foreign pedestrian on a public Lagos park, and totally enjoying the embarassment on the face of that now despairing foreigner who curses under her breath, wonders what went wrong with this world, and wishes she had not taken up the invitation to come visit Nigeria. Yorubaland.
What do you think?