OJU L’ORO WA!
By Pius Adesanmi, PhD.
Thursday, November 5, 2009.
Oju l’oro wa is a Yoruba adage meaning "the face is the abode of discourse." When and how did the Yoruba genius come up with this adage?
Often, the African genius packs ancestral wisdoms and an entire world into just one saying. If you are the type that constantly tries to listen to the wisdoms of your cultural matrix, you encounter them constantly in glittering nuggets as the business we call living takes you around on its quotidian grind.
If you are outside of your cultural world, if Euro-America is where your head has led your feet in the quest for your daily bread, every encounter with the enduring verities of your people’s proverbs becomes an occasion for critical reflection. It is even better if those living out such verities of your culture, wittingly or unwittingly, are Euro-Americans. You remember quietly that only a couple of decades ago, these people dismissed such sayings as foolish and childish, the products of primitive and pre-logical minds.
I stand in line behind her at the bank. She is a stereo/type here in the Western world. She is anywhere from the mid-seventies to the advanced nineties. She is bent, wrinkled, uses a cane, and wears thick-rimmed glasses.
Whenever I see her, my mind pictures the proverbial dry bones in Things Fall Apart. She can be quick to anger and very easily irritated, her temper not helped by the insidious but devastating ageism of her culture. Never mind those signs in the bus and other public spaces that implore you to give way and room to seniors. Those are the politically correct and hypocritical veneers worn by a deeply ageist civilization. Scratch that surface and the bitter truth becomes evident: her type is not to be revered as a repository of knowledge. Her culture considers her an eyesore, to be packed off to old peoples’ homes where, if the situation demands, she could be made to wear a diaper.
If she is lucky, she gets the occasional visit from her child/children. If she is unlucky, she gets the occasional post-card. Sometimes, she escapes this fate, lives alone in an apartment in town and runs her errands once a week, always the same places: bank, post office, grocery store, dentist, family doctor, and Vet doctor, all errands that would be run for her by doting children, grandchildren, sons and daughters-in-law, and the entire town in my own part of the world.
You pray quietly not to be behind her in traffic as she is likely to be doing twenty miles an hour where the limit is eighty. You pray not to stand in line behind her at the bank or post office. Political correctness requires that you do not say these things. The West prefers polite, quiet, and civilized ageism. Hence, you notice that if she is first in line, the younger, more productive segments of society for whom time is money quietly disappear. They will come back later.
You see, you can’t really blame them. This old lady has time on her hands. Unlike the young, her best days are behind her. She is not hurrying. She cannot afford to hurry. Hurrying only inches her closer to that final destination every human is reluctant to reach. So once she gets to the teller, she throws in a conversation about every mundane issue in the world while endorsing checks, paying bills, and reviewing her account.
Her cat is misbehaving. Her dog was at the Vet’s yesterday. Speaking of which, she is thinking of changing Vets. Dr Woodstone is no longer what he used to be. The weather has been crazy lately, eh? Developers are putting up another high-rise in her neighbourhood. What’s the world coming to? The line builds up behind her…
Then she’s finally done. As she turns to leave, the polite teller adds: “Ma’m, have you considered internet banking? You could do these things from the comfort of your own home, you know?” She smiles and I curse the teller quietly. Now he’s opened up room for another hour of mundane conversation! She turns back to teller: “sure.
I try to do my banking online but I just don’t like it. Maybe it’s me but I prefer to see the face of the person who takes care of my money. I can’t help it. I prefer to see your face as we review my finances. Internet banking cannot do that.” By now, I am no longer glancing at my wrist watch every second. I’m no longer irritated. I’ve logged in to that automatic part of my cerebral software that is always processing every detail to determine their value for cultural scholarship.
I prefer to see your face… the internet cannot do that. I look around me. I’m the only non-Caucasian in the room. In essence, the teller and all the customers heard: “I prefer to see your face.” It doesn’t go deeper than that for them. I’m the only one who heard differently. She spoke English, I heard Yoruba. She said: I prefer to see your face. I heard: oju l’oro wa (the face is the abode of discourse).
Unknown to everyone in that banking hall, an entire ideoscape of cultural significations had jumped into the elderly woman’s conversation with the teller and I was processing it in situ. I was reaching out to the old woman from an entirely different universe of discourse. I was tempted to tell her that her preference for the face of the teller, the flicks of the eyelids, the twitch of every muscle, the creases of the brow, the smiles, the frowns, and the dance of the lips, are all crucial to the morphology of human contact in my own part of the world where communication is communion and communal.
I was tempted to tell her that there is a bitter irony in the fact she is fighting a battle against the intrusions of too much technology while in my own part of the world we are losing the war against the dehumanization and depersonalization of discourse. It has become well-nigh impossible to insist on ways of being underwritten by that Yoruba philosophy, oju l’oro wa, when we all now live in the civilization of impersonal propinquity that defines the MAC (mutually assured connectivity) age. Within a single decade, I have watched as MAC invaded the theatres of my interactions with my immediate and extensive extended family back home, transforming what used to be psychically empowering human contact into perfunctory phatic interaction.
We moved from the family insisting that I come home at least once a year to their insisting on regular cell phone conversation. Now my army of undergraduate nephews and nieces are no longer insisting on any of those forms of contact. They make the cell phone feel really passé. Now, it’s all Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and Hi-Five. They expect me to spend a few hours every day chatting with them in virtual space. Five, ten years ago, it used to be: “Uncle when are you coming home now? We want to see you”.
Now, nobody is asking to see me anymore. They are content with asking me to sign into Facebook and sending me stuff like: “Lol! Uncle, thanx 4 d pics. Really 9ice. Saw ur mom 2day. OMG! She looks good 4 her age. Yes, I saw it too. LMAO!”
In essence, it’s not just difficult to create a space of valuation for oju l’oro wa in this new universe of discourse, one’s vocabulary must also begin to resemble ancient Chinese calligraphy. Everything is short hand and fast-foodish. When my ignorance of the vocabulary of virtual communication was threatening to cut me off from half my family back in Nigeria, I had to declare a personal state of emergency. I went online to look for a glossary of virtual space communication. There I saw things like (LOL = Laugh out loud, OMG = Oh my God, LMAO= laughing my ass off, etc).
Joking about all these with my mom, she laughed and told me that things have gotten to a stage where some of those nieces and nephews spend weeks in the same town – they are mostly in Universities in Ilorin, Ibadan, and Zaria)- without seeing one another.
Apparently, one of my nieces had phoned my mom and when asked if she’d delivered a message to another niece in the same school, she told my mom that they hadn’t seen each other in a while but they chat everyday on Facebook.
And yes, she delivered my mom’s message to her on Facebook! Both nieces are undergraduate students of Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria! I imagine them in different cyber cafes on opposite ends of campus or each in her hostel bedroom with a Blackberry. It’s now too much of an effort to meet up at a cafeteria and do oju l’oro wa.
In the midst of all this despair about the fate, space, and place of the human in the MAC age, an age that is really beginning to look like a dangerously literal version of Francis Fukuyama’s “post-human” age, an old Caucasian woman insists on oju l’oro wa in a bank in far away Canada! Africa has a way of winning little battles in the arena of meaning.
Pius Adesanmi is a a poet and Associate Professor of English at Carleton University, Canada, where he is also Director of the Project on New African Literatures, PONAL.