Skip to main content

Two poems by D. A. Ọbasa

  • Akintunde Akinyẹmi

Many words in Yoruba frustrate trans-lingual transportation by the sheer complexity of their polysemic range. Such words are so culture-bound that they do not translate easily to English, especially when their metaphysical polyvalence in Yoruba has no equivalent in English. Therefore, my translation of Ọbasa's poems in the appendices below yields place to mediation, as I am constrained to try out or devise a series of strategies of transposition and transference, which in the words of Ọṣundare leads to ‘kiss and quarrel’ between the concerned languages. According to him, when two languages meet, they achieve a tacit understanding on the common grounds of similarity and convergence, then negotiate, often through strident rivalry and self-preserving altercations, their areas of dissimilarity and divergence.

  • View HTML
    • Send article to Kindle

      To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

      Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

      Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

      Two poems by D. A. Ọbasa
      Available formats
      Send article to Dropbox

      To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

      Two poems by D. A. Ọbasa
      Available formats
      Send article to Google Drive

      To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

      Two poems by D. A. Ọbasa
      Available formats
Hide All

1 See Ọṣundare, N. (2000) ‘Yoruba thoughts, English words: a poet's journey through the tunnel of two languages’ in Brown, S. (ed.), Kiss and Quarrel: Yoruba/English strategies of mediation. Birmingham University African Studies Series 5. Birmingham: Centre of West African Studies, University of Birmingham, p. 15.

2 Dingwaney, A. (1995) ‘Introduction’ in Dingwaney, A. and Maier, C. (eds), Between Languages and Cultures: translation and cross cultural texts. Pittsburgh PA: University of Pittsburgh .

3 Ibid .: 4.

4 Appiah, K. A. (1993) ‘Thick translation’, Callaloo 16 (4): 808–19; quote from pp. 817–18.

5 Yoruba is a tonal language, which belongs to the Kwa family within the Niger-Congo phylum of African languages. The speakers occupy south-western Nigeria and can be found elsewhere – in the Republic of Benin and Togo in West Africa and, as members of the African diaspora, in the Americas. Speakers of the language are divided into many sub-ethnic groups, each with its own peculiar dialect. According to Sope Oyelaran, the dialects of the Yoruba can be classified as follows: West Yoruba (Ọ̀yọ́, Ìbàdàn, Ẹ̀gbá, Ọ̀họ̀rí-Ìfọ̀hìn, Ṣakí, Ìjìó, Kétu, Sábẹ, Benin, Ifẹ̀ (Togo), Ìdásà, Mànígì); South East Yorùbá (Oǹdó, Ọ̀wọ, Ìjẹ̀bú, Ìkálẹ̀, Ìlàjẹ); Central Yoruba (Ilé-Ifẹ̀, Ìjèṣà, Èkìtì); and Northern Eastern Yoruba (Ìgbómìnà, Kàkàǹdá, Ìbọ̀lọ́, Jùmú, Búnú, Ọ̀wọ́rọ̀, Owé, Ẹ̀gbẹ̀) ( Oyelaran, O. O. (1978) ‘Linguistic speculations on Yoruba history’ in Oyelaran, O. O. (ed.), Department of African Languages and Literatures Seminar Series I. Ile-Ifẹ, Nigeria: University of Ifẹ̀ ). This classification, according to Lawrence Olufẹmi Adewọle, is referred to as a ‘dialect continuum’ because the dialects are characterized by a high degree of mutual intelligibility which diminishes with territorial distance ( Adewọle, L. O. (1987) The Yorùbá Language: published works and doctoral dissertations 1843–1986. Hamburg: Helmut Buske Verlag, p. 11). As one moves from one end of the continuum to the other, some phonological, lexical and even grammatical differences can be found in the dialects. Thanks to the missionaries and a formal school system, a ‘Standard Yorùbá’ language that everyone can understand emerged as a written language during the second half of the nineteenth century.

6 Egun language is spoken in Porto Novo, the Republic of Benin. However, a number of speakers of the language live and work in Lagos State. So, the language is used in Nigeria regularly.

7 Hausa language is spoken in Northern Nigeria and several other West African countries. Hausa speakers in Nigeria are itinerant traders found throughout the country.

8 In lines 35 and 36, Ọbasa creates an image of himself as a town-based, learned intellectual whose poetic creation (he assumes) is better and superior to those of the countryside-based indigenous oral poets. Here we can see the town–countryside polarity, where a city- or town-based person thinks the countryside bumpkin is an ignoramus.

9 Lines 37–42 are a well-known saying common among oral poets of many genres to challenge members of their audience not to be afraid to expose their (the poet's) inadequacies during the performance, if they notice any. For more information, see Oludare Ọlajubu (1978), ‘The Yoruba oral artists and their work’ in Oyelaran (op. cit.).

10 This is a form of greeting mostly used for the kings, chiefs and war leaders in precolonial Yoruba society. During that time, these individuals owned horses as a form of transportation. Every day, each patron's domestic staff would take the horse of the master out to graze, and to ‘show’ the generality of the people that the patron is well and healthy.

11 This refers to the carved image of a deity, god or goddess (the òrìṣà) that has human features such as eyes and ears but is unable to use them as humans do.

12 That is, we should know that everything has a limit, so we should know when to stop whatever we are doing or are involved in: i.e., learn to leave the stage when the ovation is loudest.

13 Pounded yam is made from cooked or boiled yam that is pounded in a mortar with a pestle to produce a smooth paste that is eaten with cooked stew. Only very few types of yam are useful for making good pounded yam, and the yellow yam is not one of them.

14 This confession of allegiance, known in Islamic tenets as ‘Shadahah’, is usually said to Allah and Mohammad his messenger before initiating anything like eating, drinking, meeting, etc.

15 The poetic ingenuity in his punning on the name of King Napoleon to create comic effect in lines 52–6 is more alive in the Yoruba original than in the English translation. In the original, Ọba nàpó, nàgìrì Napoleon / ọba nà ’kòkò, nà ’ṣaasùn / ọba n'awo-n’ẹ̀gbẹ̀rì / ọba n’ẹ̀ṣọ́-n’ẹ̀ṣọ ́/ ọba n'olóógun-n'olóógun, Ọbasa manipulates two features of Yoruba oral literature, wordplay and euphemism. He is punning on the verb (to beat) in Yoruba and the first syllable of the name Napoleon to describe how King Napoleon brutalized everybody – the rich, the poor, the old and the young – during his reign. This punning on the name Napoleon is a confirmation of Ruth Finnegan's observation that ‘names contribute to the literary flavour of formal and informal conversation, adding a depth or succinctness through their meanings, overtones, or metaphors. They [names] can also play a direct literary role’ ( Finnegan, R. (1970) African Oral Literature. Nairobi: Oxford University Press, p. 427).

16 The expression in lines 65–6 that Napoleon's eyes ‘turned red … black … and glossy light-blue’ means that he suffered greatly while in prison.

17 Lines 104–7 are used as an analogy to describe the ignorance of the Mahdis.

18 To refer to a person as someone bringing up a sneeze by tickling the nose means that the person is picking a needless quarrel.

19 We are not unaware of the ambiguity in ẹgbàá ọ̀kẹ́, which could be translated as either ‘2,000 x 20,000’ or ‘2,000 sacks or bags’. Ẹgbàá in Yoruba numerals is the equivalent of 2,000, but ọ̀kẹ́ could refer to either the numeral 20,000 in Yoruba or a sack or bag of cowries. In precolonial times, when cowries were used as a form of currency or exchange for buying and selling, one sack or bag (ọ̀kẹ́) contained 20,000 pieces of cowry shells.

20 According to Abraham, this is an imaginary numeral to express the idea of many ( Abraham, R. C. (1958), Dictionary of Modern Yoruba. London: University of London Press, p. 178).

21 Shaykh Sai'd Hayyat (1887–1978) was a Mahdiyya follower in Northern Nigeria. He fought a religious war during his lifetime, but was defeated by the government. For more information on Shaykh Sai'd Hayyat, see A. G. Saeed (1992) ‘A biographical study of Shaykh Sai'd Hayyat (1887–1978) and the British policy towards the Mahdiyya in Northern Nigeria, 1900–1960’, unpublished PhD thesis, Bayero University, Kano, Nigeria.

22 The city of Iddah is located in present-day Niger State, north-central Nigeria.

23 ‘Kamaruland’, where Shaykh Sai'd Hayyat was exiled by the colonial government, may be Kamaru town near Jos in present-day Plateau State, north-central Nigeria (Karin Barber, personal communication). A poem like this is further evidence of Ọbasa's interest in social, religious, political and economic events beyond Yorubaland.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

  • ISSN: 0001-9720
  • EISSN: 1750-0184
  • URL: /core/journals/africa
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed