Your Mother is My mother is Your Mother is My Mother.
“Iya Oyo, does your name mean the mother of Oyo, or the mother in Oyo?” I asked Iya Oyo one day.
“It means both,” she responded. “To my entire community of Oyo, I am the mother of all, young and old. If anyone is hungry and comes to me, it is my responsibility to feed them. Anybody who needs a place to sleep and comes to me, I will roll out my mats to them. I am their mother, and that is why I am Iya Oyo. At the same time, I live in Oyo, therefore if I travel anywhere, I am the mother who lives in Oyo.”
Baba Oyo, interrupting her, said, “Do you know if Oyin has returned from her trip?”
Iya Oyo shook her head, saying, “She will go straight to Shaki to visit her daughter as soon as she delivers her handwoven goods to her customers in Ogbomosho.”
Baba Oyo continued: “Nobody could ever guess that Asake is not Oyin’s biological daughter, the way she—“
Iya Oyo cut Baba Oyo off sharply, “What is biological and non-biological? A daughter is a daughter. These books you read are confusing you, Akin.”
Iya Oyo gave him a look that made him turn away to fidget with the couple of books on his table: the Yoruba translation of the Holy Bible, a few Christian pamphlets, some novels by Fagunwa, and one or two volumes that had lost their covers, looking worn out and brown from age and weathering.
Iya Oyo continued to address him. “Bí a bá fa àgbò fún Ṣàngó, à á sọ okùn rẹ sílẹ̀ ni. (When you offer Sango a ram as a gift, you must let go of the tethering rope). Oyin has been mothering Asake since Asake was a baby. She even breastfed Asake. So what is this talk of biological mother you are bringing up, shameless man?”
Baba Oyo, not giving up so easily, smiled, saying, “It was not real breastfeeding. There was no milk. Just wet nursing. Like the rubber pacifiers they give babies these days. When Asake needed real milk, Mojere, (the biological mother), took care of that business.”
I was intrigued.
“Iya Oyo,” I asked, “Oyin had no child of her own?”
“You shut up your dirty mouth,” Iya Oyo shot back at me. “Oyin is not the agemate of your mother, who, by the way, we rescued from that strange village where nobody understands the language they speak.”
“Moyo doesn’t know Oyin,” Baba Oyo said, coming to my defense. “See, Moyo, Oyin is Iya Oyo’s youngest sister. Oyin is barren and—“
Iya Oyo, cutting him off again, said, “Don’t listen to him. He lies. We don’t have barren women in Yoruba culture.”
“But…” Baba Oyo began.
“But nothing,” Iya Oyo completed the sentence for him. “No woman is barren. Everybody knows that Asake is Oyin’s daughter. What is this nonsense you are saying? Are you trying to confuse Moyo? I have told you that these books you read are turning you into a strange person.”
Baba Oyo calmly picked up his Bible from the table, went outside to the shade under the Ose tree, and sat on the bench permanently placed there.
I went to join him.
There, I asked Baba Oyo the full story of Mama Oyin and Anti Asake. He told me the story.
Baba Oyo explained that Iya Oyo was right.
He told me that the term for a woman unable to bear a biological child is Àgàn.
But he also explained that it is a cruel name, because Agan is formed from “gàn,” which means to make fun or jest of.
Ẹ̀gàn means to ridicule, and like Àgàn also comes from gàn, the word for ridicule.
Àgàn, he explained to me, is, therefore, a woman you make fun of, and you ridicule, just because they have no children.
And since it is cruel to ridicule people, nobody ever calls others Àgàn, except a lunatic who has lost his sense.
“A kì í tojú oníka mésǎn kà á. (Never count the fingers of a person who has lost a digit).”
I nodded my head several times to confirm that I understood what he was saying.
He reached in his pocket and brought out a roll of peppermint, took one out of the roll and gave it to me, then throws one into his own mouth.
That was when I fully learned about the Yoruba concept of motherhood.
All children belong to the community. It does not matter who biologically mothered a child, Baba Oyo explained. The biological mother is merely the vessel for bringing the child to the world.
The dialogue between Iya Oyo and Baba Oyo about Yoruba motherhood was at the back of my mind, as I made this drawing several years later.
I had read Christopher Okigbo’s poem, and decided to illustrate it with this drawing.
Okigbo even likened motherhood to a river and gave me the idea that the same concept of motherhood probably exists among the Igbo people of Christopher Okigbo.
The title of the drawing, therefore, is “Your Mother is My mother is Your Mother is My Mother.”