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This Thing About Gossiping in Your Local Dialect

I was on a bus going to Yaba when we stopped at Ketu to pick up around eight Hausa-speaking women in a bus that had space for only 5 more passengers. It was a struggle, but trust Danfo drivers to find a way to squeeze passengers in. This elderly woman who was in the front row had to make room so two people could squeeze into a seat meant for one passenger, pending when other passengers would get down at Ojota.

Then came the gists in the Hausa language, and it was cool. Beautiful women chatting away happily in their local dialect in a city like Lagos? Nothing could go wrong. Not until the elderly woman said, “Why are you insulting me?” *curse word* “I shifted for you and made myself uncomfortable so you both can manage here and you’re insulting me. You think I don’t understand your language?” *More curse words*. What followed was an embarrassing silence, then a flood of apologies.

I chuckled and thought, “I’ve been here before.”

I schooled in a predominantly Hausa-speaking state. And when you’re a stranger in a land whose native language you do not understand, you tend to gravitate towards people like you. So naturally, I had some Yoruba-speaking friends. Among them was this particular friend who loved to talk about other people in her local dialect(s). She could speak 3-4 local languages and when she met someone who could speak them also, there was a high chance she’d talk about others in that dialect. For instance, we could be walking behind someone and she’d say in Yoruba, “Look at this person’s shoe, it looks like his face, hahahahaha.” Or a student who we used to call rainbow because she loved colours could walk into the class and she’d say, in Yoruba “What sort of combination is this? Did she look in the mirror before leaving home? Hahaha.” Or we could be in the back seat of a bus and she’d tap me and say, in Yoruba, “Oh, this person has such a big head, haha.” My friend was not being a malicious person and these little gossips were, well… not harmful? While she found them funny, they made me uncomfortable. I laughed the first few times, but I soon realised we talked about people – she doing the talking, me the laughing – too often and it wasn’t okay. It was becoming a thing – making fun of strangers we knew nothing about. People minding their businesses, simply existing. I thought, surely, we could do better? So I gradually stopped laughing at these jokes.

Beyond the fact that these little pockets of gossip were not healthy for either of us, one of my fears was what happened on the bus to Yaba: what if the person/people you’re talking about can understand your dialect? What if they let you talk for a while before letting you know they can hear you? Once, my friend gisted me about how she had made fun of a man’s head and when she was about to get down from the bus, he turned to her to let her know he understood all along. Another time, she had insulted a driver she assumed was a Northerner because of change and it turned out he was a Yoruba man who grew up in the North. I remember laughing and saying, “This would teach you to keep your mouth shut.” It wasn’t all bad though, one time, she and another friend were going on and on about how handsome a guy was in Esan language and he could hear it all.

Random people understanding her jabs, insults or adulations – as the case may be – did not teach my friend any lesson, until she resumed school after a semester break, her eyes twitching uncontrollably, her mouth tilted haphazardly nearly touching her left ear, looking like she suffered a stroke on her face. It turned out that days before we saw her, my friend had insulted an elderly woman.

They’d had a row in the market place and she had washed her – of course, in the Yoruba language. Although the woman did not understand what she was saying, she felt the weight of the insult and cursed her. My friend woke up the next morning with one of her eyes closing and her mouth tilting towards her left ear.

It’s almost a decade since we left school but whenever we catch up, I remind her of that time we had to nurse her face back to normal simply because she couldn’t bridle her tongue and we laugh over it.

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Feature Image by Ketut Subiyanto for Pexels

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