In my early teens, I spent some time with my great-aunt. You know the type that is revered and feared by family and friends alike. The one that everyone, the entire adugbo defers to. She was a staunch Catholic and I can only write about her now because I know she is miles away in purgatory. Or heaven.
My visit stretched longer than the one week or two it was supposed to be, during which time she felt she had worn my mother’s shoes long enough to earn her the right to change a few things about me, like the fact that I spoke English and not Yoruba.
“I have no idea why you don’t speak Yoruba, from this moment on, there shall be no English in this house.”
I didn’t mind, it would be a burden removed if at last I spoke fluent Yoruba like everyone around me. I understood Yoruba fairly well, my trouble was with the intonation, I struggled to get it right and was self-conscious about the fact.
She was the first health freak I met. She drank Swedish Bitters, brewed herbal teas and concocted strange drinks. She was big on personalization too for she had her initials LYM, printed, engraved or embroidered on most items as the case may be. She had her personal printer, the way most people have a seamstress or a family doctor
We were seated at the dining table, where she strained an organic yeast tea. It stank. I had heard her lauding its healing properties to anyone who visited. Being a pretty woman even in her 70s, many offered their two cents worth on her rare beauty, sometimes attributing it to her drinking of the tea. I doubt that she regarded any of it as she was aware of the spell she placed her minions under. They’d say anything to sweeten her up. Who’d want to fall under the wrath of my great-aunt? She had a quiet laugh and her eyes twinkled when she smiled. Her speaking voice was equally quiet, deliberate and some worth threatening. She shifted about in her chair, looking first to the left, and then the right. “In my room”, she said partly to herself. Quietly.
Lọ mu basia wa.
(Go and bring the basia.)
What the hell is a basia?
I dared not tell her I didn’t know what it meant since she’d rain down some choice words on me. With one foot placed carefully in front of the other I made my way to her bedroom.
What is a basia? Toks think, think! What on earth is a basia? Baaasia… basiiaaa… I dragged out the word slowly hoping that its translation would be squeezed out if I stretched it long enough.
Once in her room my search began for any item whose name in Yoruba I was unaware of. I spotted a large rosary, a small chair, stack of Manila folders, a photo album, statue of Mary the mother of God, 2 Cherubim. None of these items seemed like a basia I thought to myself. Could it be the name of the latest lace? She had some bundles of muted coloured lace fabric on her bed and Nigerians are known to accord their fashions exotic names.
I returned, lamb-like to the slaughter and opened my mouth to tell her I couldn’t find it. I don’t remember how the words formed themselves.
“Basia bantu bantu???!!!”
I didn’t know what bantu bantu was either. She said something unsavoury in relation to my eyes, ( I have big eyes and my eyes often became the subject of conversation when I was with adults who’d run out of clever things to say). She also spread her arms out wide to demonstrate how sizeable it was- that, being either my eyes or the basia.
She was already impatient and this was only my first trip. My plan had been to make several trips each time presenting a different item until I got it right.
“Ooh!! Of course ma!” I feigned realisation.
I went back slowly but with a bit more confidence. What’s the largest item in her room? Besides the bed? Surely she didn’t expect me to drag her bed out did she? Or did she? I stared at her bed, feeling very foolish yet knowing I was intelligent. I looked around some more and then wandered into her bathroom. It was the first time I’d been in there, the shiny tiles were in navy blue and being an en-suite with only a tiny window, the bathroom was quite dark. The eeriness matched the fear that was brewing inside me. I prayed for the phone to ring, to buy me some time. I retreated to the bedroom, could it be in the wardrobe? I’d have some explaining to do if she caught me in her wardrobe looking for a large basia, besides didn’t she say it was in her room?
She is going to call my name any minute.
Another sweeping glance around the room this time grabbing chunks of courage with which I would tell her I didn’t know what a basia was. As I walked out of the bedroom I bumped into a large metal basin. I thought of the uncanny coincidence. Basia, basin..basin, basia... could it be? Or was God making fun of me? I ran out of time playing tennis with my own thoughts as she yelled my name.
With the large basin in the crook of my left arm, I steeled myself for big trouble and made my way to the dining room. With each step I reaffirmed to myself that learning to speak Yoruba fluently wasn’t worth this trouble. I didn’t miss the look of disdain on her face that said;
“What is wrong with you? I thought you said you didn’t find it the first time?”
My sigh of relief would be heard many years later in 2015.
That wasn’t the last time I got lost in translation, there were many others, including the time I made amala so soft, she had to eat it with a desert spoon. Hubby says I can write an entire book on the period I lived with my great-aunt, he is right. My experience spanned months and it was decades ago but the memories of what most would call a formidable woman makes an appearance every so often. I’ll be sure to invite you for a natter whenever that happens.