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Iya Oyo

They gave us an assignment when I was an undergraduate taking a Yoruba class.

We were asked to find five proverbs on mental illness.

I was in luck because Iya Oyo and Baba Oyo were visiting us in Ile Ife at that time and I found her at the back of the house, lounging.

That was easy, I thought.

“Iya Oyo,” I said after exchanging greetings with her, “I need ten proverbs on mental illness.”

“Just ten?” she asked. “I can give you one hundred.”

She started and I quickly jotted the first five:

1. O rẹ́sẹ̀ ẹ wèrè o ò bù ú ṣ̣oògùn

Ibo lo ti máa rí tọlọgbón fi ṣeré?*

2. Adẹ́tẹ̌ rí wèrè, ó kán lùgbẹ́.*

3. Ohun tí wèré fi ńse ara ẹ̀, ó pọ̀ ju ohun tó

fi ńṣe ọmọ ẹlòmíràn lọ.*

4. Wèrè èèyàn ní ńwípé irú òun ò sí; irú ẹ̀dá

pọ̀ ó ju ẹgbàágbèje lọ.*

5. Àì gbọ́n léwe ni à dàgbà di wèrè.*

6. Bí ọmọdé bá…*

I stopped her there. “Only five. I have enough, Iya Oyo. Thank you,” I said.

“I told you I could give you a hundred,” she said. “Go and bring my pipe from my room. You will find some tobacco in a tin on the table.”

I dashed to her room and returned with her pipe and tobacco. I wanted to take my leave. But she stopped me.

“Moyo, why are there so many people suffering from mental illness in this city?” Iya Oyo wanted to know. “When I was young, we had scores of proverbs on mental illness, but I never met anybody in Oyo with mental illness. On the streets of this city, there are so many of them walking around with nobody taking care of them. That’s insane.”

“But then why do you have so many proverbs on mental illness, if there was nobody with the ailment?” I asked her.

“The proverbs were not meant for those with mental illness,” she explained. “They were meant for people with sound minds. We used the proverbs to discuss several aspects of life—but we didn’t address them to mentally sick people.”

I thought about her question and found no answer.

I left her pondering the question.

Even today, I cannot find an answer to her question.

But before I left, Iya Oyo threw me a proverb on mental illness that also doubled as a prayer, to which I answered “Àmín àṣẹ.”

“Yóó san, kò san, kÉlédùà má fi wèrè dán wa wò.” *


Please help to translate the proverbs for those who don’t speak or read the language.*

*Since nobody is translating, I will; the translations do not convey the beauty or wit of the Yoruba original:

1. One who fails to take advantage of an easy situation forfeits a lifetime opportunity.

2. The Covid patient mocks the flu sufferer.

3. One who cuts himself just to scare others is the greater loser.

4. Only the fool says none is comparable in greatness to him.

5. The stubborn child grows into obstinate adulthood.

6. When a child says…..

The last one is: Whether curable or otherwise, may we not suffer infirmity.

Alas, the translation does no justice to the pleasures, puns and word-play of the original language.

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