This article is part of a series sponsored by Ding.
My mum used to speak with her mum, my grandma, every single day. My Yorùbá was even less developed than it is now, but almost every phone call without fail, I would hear my seventy-something-year-old grandmother ask her fifty-something-year-old daughter if she had eaten. For many of us from the Global Majority, we recognise that simple question as the deepest of international love languages.
My mother was the link between here and there; here being damp, blustery England and there being the sun-baked red earth of Nigeria – Abeokuta, Ogun State to be exact. She would pass updates between our family back home and us cast adrift in the West; which cousin was doing what, how things at my grandmother’s school were coming along, the general state of things. She translated the Yorùbá songs that my grandmother would use to hail her first great-grandchild – my oldest son – and she would filter news and life updates from us back to my grandma.
Then my mother died. Suddenly, unexpectedly. But after I finished hurling my phone across the room and after I finished making plans to immediately drive up to Birmingham, my next thought was, ‘I need to go to Abeokuta.’ Already I could feel the connection dissolving.
I feel like there is so much missing from our communication because I don’t speak Yorùbá.
As a child of the diaspora I am constantly concerned about the cultural traditions that get lost in translation. There are the things that we can afford to lose or allow to evolve, and then there are the things that keep us anchored to our histories that we may not miss until it’s too late. But ironically I have spent less time thinking about the connection itself, what that practically looks like and how it is maintained across 4,000 miles, a sea and an ocean.
As a family, we travelled to Nigeria infrequently, but there were always the phone calls. I used to dread the moment when I heard a parent say, “She’s here! Do you want to speak with her?” They’d then hand over the landline – always a grey or black plastic handset – and I would put it to my ear and hear a far away voice shout my name and ask how I was.
“Fine,” I’d answer. “And how is school?” “Fine.” “Good.” Then time would stretch and splinter, filled only with the hiss of white noise as I waited for permission to hand back the phone and go back to doing whatever I was doing. I found these brief, excruciating exchanges with elders, whose faces I couldn’t pick out in a line up, pointless. But now, I can appreciate what my parents were trying to do.
I’m an adult and my mother is gone. A year after we buried her in England, I traveled back to Abeokuta with my dad, my brother and my two sons. It has been over a decade since I’d been back to the south of Nigeria specifically, but everything, from the taste of Lagos humidity to the songs of the school children playing outside my grandmother’s windows, felt familiar and intimate. Certain sights even sent memories I didn’t know I had swimming towards to the surface; seeing teenage girls in the uniform of my mum’s secondary school pulled an image of her in the same yellow and white dress, her hair cropped short and slender legs crossed at the ankles, to the forefront of my mind.
On returning to England, I set a weekly reminder to video call with my grandma. She speaks English fluently but I feel like there is so much missing from our communication because I don’t speak Yorùbá. Still, I persist. I greet her and she congratulates me on my efforts. She asks after “her children” (her great-grandchildren), exclusively referring to them with the names she gave them on their birth, and when I fail to understand her after a few attempts, she smiles and switches to English.
Sometimes we talk by torchlight as she waits for the generator to come on, sometimes she shows me the prints she’s had made from the pictures I send her by WhatsApp. I hold my smartphone up to the faces of my two boys as she sings to them Yorùbá. I sing along in a low tone, correcting my pronunciation and trying to wrap my mouth around the tonal vowels. Often, they will smile silently and the youngest one might even dance, catching the melody with claps and giggling at how big his forehead looms on the screen.
When I was a child, those awkward phone calls would be facilitated by phone cards, and your adolescence would be secured the day you got sent to the corner shop to buy one – the right one! – watching the shopkeeper peel from a stack held together by a rubber band. Thankfully, with the abundance of wifi and advances in technology, a video call is easier to hold a two and five-year-old’s attention. But the data needed to connect is still relatively expensive in Nigeria and many other African countries. How and when this will change is a conversation for another day, but until then an international mobile top-up service like Ding is Godsend. I can easily and immediately top up my grandmother’s data from a distance, and though she doesn’t ask this of me, it’s the very least I can do for everything our video calls give me and my boys.
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