“Iya Oyo,” I called, after polishing the bowl of amala she made for me, “what does Yèyé mean? Is it different from Ìyá, which means mother?”
It was Baba Oyo who answered me, raising his glasses and looking up from a book without a cover that he was reading. Because I had also read that book on his table, I knew the book was titled “Ogboju Ode Ninu Igbo Irunlole,” by D.O. Fagunwa, one of the old books he had in his library.
“Yes and no,” Iya Oyo replied as a rejoinder.
Baba Oyo immediately lowered his glasses and continued reading his book. He must have read this same book a hundred and one times.
“What does yes and no mean?” I asked Iya Oyo.
“It is true that Ife, Ijesa and Ekiti people refer to Iya as Yeye,” Iya Oyo said. “But throughout Yorubaland those of us who are Ìṣẹ̀ṣe devotees also refer to Ìyá as Yèyé. We say Yèyé Ọ̀ṣun, for instance.”
“You also say Ìyá Ọ̀ṣun,” Baba Oyo insisted.
“In our songs we call on Yèyé Ọ̀ṣun,” Iya Oyo maintained. “What does a Kiriyo like you know about Ìṣẹ̀se!”
My interest was aroused. “So, Iya Oyo,” I pleaded, “what is the real difference between Iya and Yeye?”
“We will leave Ìyá for another day, because it is very complex,” she said.
“What of Yèyé?” I asked.
“Yèyé is much simpler,” Iya Oyo started. “There are two syllables in Yèyé: yè and yé.
The first syllable, yè, implies safety, as in Mo yè–I am safe/secure/sheltered.
“The second syllable, yé, is to produce, as in yé ẹyin, like a hen laying an egg.
“Yèyé therefore is like the hen that lays an egg (as in yé), and proceeds to secure it, protect it, to ensure its safety, (as in yè). That is the meaning of Yèyé. It is not enough to produce the child, the mother also protects the child.
“That is complex,” I sighed.
“Where it is complex is this: when the hen lays the eggs, we say ‘Ó yé eyin.’ And, later, when the hen incubates the eggs and they become chicks, we say, ‘Ó ti pa ẹyin.’ But you know that ‘pa’ means to kill, right? Before the hen could make the chicken, therefore, it must kill the egg.”
Baba Oyo interrupts, “And ‘pa’ also means to break or crack something, as in ‘pa’ obì’, or break the kolanut. The hen cracks the shell of the eggs to release the chicken.”
Iya Oyo throws him a look, as if to say that his interpretation is prosaic, ordinary, simplistic. “Pa which means to break or to crack is a form of violence, just as in killing. When you break or crack something you are killing it, are you not? That is the paradox I am explaining to Moyo. The agony, the killing, that linguistically accompanies the act and language of being a mother is what I am explaining to him. A man cannot understand that simple idea.”
“Moyo is a man,” Baba Oyo clarified. “He is at least a man-child.”
“That is why I am explaining it to him now,” Iya Oyo replied, “so that when he is older he is able to appreciate it.”
“What of ‘pa àlọ́,” I asked. “That means to tell a story, and it also has ‘pa’ in it.”
“We will leave that for another day,” Iya Oyo concluded, exhausted. “Let’s just pray to Olodumare to be our Yèyé, to not only yé (or produce us), but to also ensure that we are yè (protected) from all evils.”
Baba Oyo and I responded with “Àmín, àṣẹ” at the same time.
My new painting is a reflection on the idea of Yeye, as Iya Oyo elaborated on that word.
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