I called one of my former teachers, and he picked up phone.
he is 80 and it is always fun to speak with him.
“It is not hard, baba, thank you,” (“Kò le, bàbá mo dúpẹ́,” as I said in the Yoruba language.
“Hmmm, that is hard.” (“Ìyẹ́n le o” he replied).
I laughed. I remembered Iya Oyo’s description of the word “le” as a word with two opposite meanings.
“The word ‘Le’ could be both good and bad,” Iya Oyo told me one evening, as we sat in front of the house.
She was explaining to me the remark of a man who just visited. Iya Oyo had asked the man what the situation was. The man answered “Ó le, kò sì tún le.” It means “It is hard yet it is not hard.”
After the man was well on his way, I asked Iya Oyo why the man was speaking in contradictions. “How could something be both hard and not hard at the same time?” I asked her. “It was either hard or not.”
Baba Oyo answered, “Things don’t work that way.”
Iya Oyo supported his response. “True. But he used the word ‘le” in his remark, not so?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“One of those words that bend both ways is ‘le,’ as you will find out as you grow up,” Iya Oyo said. “You have to be careful with that tricky word called le.”
Baba Oyo chuckled, as if he had gotten in that type of trouble before.
“If someone says, for instance, ‘Aye le,’ what does it mean?” Iya Oyo asked me. “Is that a good thing?”
“No, because it means the world is hard or le,” I responded. “It means people are bad. That’s not good’
“Fine,” Iya Oyo responded. “But what does ‘Ṣé ará le’ mean? Is that a good thing?”
“Yes, certainly, it is a fine thing,” was my response. “It is a question asking if I was fine, and I would answer with ‘Koko ni ará le’ meaning I am in sound health.”
“You are beginning to get what I mean,” Iya Oyo explained. “The name ‘Ale” is a name given to people who are smart. It means one who is sharp, courageous, confident and is not afraid. But when they say “Ojú ẹ̀ le,” that is not good. The same word, ‘le,’ is the root of both expressions. But the saying ‘Ojú ẹ̀ le,’ suggests unhappiness—his look or expression is hard.”
Baba Oyo supports her with, “Ọmọ́le is just like Ale. Both are good words from ‘le.’ They are names for people we admire.”
“But when they say ‘Orí ẹ le’ meaning his head is hard, that is bad. However, when they say ‘Ẹ̀yin rẹ̀ le,’ meaning his back is hard, that is totally good. Ọ̀rọ̀ ná à le—the word is hard—is not good. Ọ̀rọ̀ represents the situation and does not mean a word in the direct sense. But those who like to drink, they like Ẹmu líle, or ọtí líle—meaning hard drink or strong liquor with a high alcoholic content.”
“You must use the word ‘le’ with caution,” Baba Oyo concluded.
Therefore when I called my former teacher as he asked me “Ṣé kò le?” (Hope it is not hard), and I answered Rárá, kò le (No, it is not hard), he was punning on word ‘le’ as someone who understands the language very well.
“If it is not hard (le), that is not good,” my ex-teacher said, with a long laugh. “You are still a young man; ǹkan gbọ́dọ̀ má a le ni—things must be hard for you at this stage of your life.”
I started laughing, saying, “Alagba, things are hard, sir. Ó le, sir.”
“We thank Olodumare,” he said; “otherwise we would recommend a doctor immediately.”
I recalled Iya Oyo’s lesson on ‘le,’ and fully understood that my ex-teacher was operating on the second level of meaning.
Kí ara wá le (may our body be LE, that is, well); but kí ayé wa má le (may our life not be LE, that is, difficult) is our prayer to Olodumare.
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