Of scientific fiction and Yoruba language

A review of Bode Oje’s book, Journey to Second-Earth by Yemi Ogunsola.

WHICH smart writer will be so foolhardy as to attempt capturing the most complex theories and concepts  of science and space travel in Yoruba vocabulary?

Hardly  any.

How, for instance,  will he express in Yoruba “space-time continuum”, “Theory of relativity”, “light years”, “automatic rifle”, “atomic fission”, “galaxy”, “Milky Way”, “black hole”, “depth psychology” etc, etc?

Even as they are, some of the words make some heads swim…

But Bode Oje sees things differently. In his 141-page book, Irin Ajo Sinu Ayedimeji (Journey To  Second-Earth), he dives head-first into the very vortex of these scientific terms and concepts and captures them in vintage, if sometimes  quaint,  Yoruba.

But then the reader discovers to his pleasure that quaint is not so bad after all, and can in fact, be exhilarating when handled by a skilled storyteller.

The story takes off in the rural community of Afimosoro which residents are thrown into panic by an early morning volcanic eruption. Amidst efforts to understand the fiery phenomenon which claims many lives, Durodogbon,  lad of twelve, plies his father, Oyedimo, with questions which the latter finds difficult to answer. And so he sends his son to his younger brother, nicknamed Awamojinle.

Durodogbon’s uncle, who from experience knows the purpose of his nephew’s visit, gives the boy an old book to read. The boy discovers the book to be an account of a trip to the stars generations ago.

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There were about 25 persons (most of them scientists of note) who set out in a rocket-propelled spaceship (afinagbera). There was only one female among them, Fimosewa. Virtually impervious to romance, she was quick to the draw in both verbal and firearm warfare but she had a close pal in the only military fellow on the trip, Abinupota.

Their destination was a distant solar system (ido ayibiiri) within our own galaxy (ido agbarere) called the Milky Way (Olona Wara/Alabala wiwo). One of the five moons orbiting the seventh planet to the sun (star) of the system in question had been observed through the telescope (ero-aworere alagbada)  (Hubble Telescope?) to be very similar to the Earth.

The account was by the only journalist among the astronauts, Olowa, who prodded the scientists with numerous questions about the mysteries of science, astronomy, space travel, depth psychology, geology, eternity, telescopes etc.

As the space ship cruised into deep space (ofurujagado), a wonder-struck Olowa described the panoramic view of stars, clusters of stars, galaxies and others at closer range in a craft cruising at a speed “faster than lightning.”

“Irawo po ninu osalalu (universe), won si wa ni ido orisirisi. Ido irawo kan kun fun egbeegberun aimoye irawo, ofurujagado si kun fun egbeegberun aimoye ido-agbarere (galaxy) wonyi. Ido-agbarere tiwa ni a npe ni olona wara (Milky Way) sugbon ti iba dara ki a pee ni alabala wiwo. Oruko yi suyo latipa gbigbe orile-aye wo ido-agbarere tiwa yii. Nibiti oju orun ti dile fun kurukuru ojo, o see se ki eniyan ri okan ninu owo ido-olona wara bi o ti la opo imole koja laaarin awo sanmo.”

The immensity of deep space is captured in the coinage ofurujagado connoting — in sound, rhythm, and linguistic imagery — vast emptiness that ends in nothingness.

Though a large part of the outward trip was taken up with the crew getting to blend and work as a team in space and engaging in discussions (often initiated by the journalist) on various mysteries of science, trouble awaited the astronauts at their destination.

It came in the form of, first, a carnivorous mushroom, a tornado and an all-seeing eye that lurks underwater.

Later came the crab men (akanniyan), whose hostility eventually forced the astronauts to beat a hasty retreat into the space shuttle (oko oniko) to return to the mother ship (EGBE) that had been left in the planet’s orbit.  Hand grenades left with the fatally wounded commander of the team, Alawofin, aided in the escape of the astronauts.

The return trip turned out to be a journey to nowhere … or maybe, to somewhere least expected. After surviving a near-fatal encounter with a black hole that threatened to swallow their ship, the astronauts came under the scrutiny of an alien craft. After what they thought was a lucky escape, the crew discovered that all but seven of the members had been beamed into the strange craft to be heard of no more.

And so the new commander couldn’t be blamed for ordering the craft to speed towards the Earth at maximum speed.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what sealed the fate of the astronauts. The space ship sped so fast it exceeded the speed of light (300,000km/second) — and landed in the past!

Dinosaurs,  mastodons and sabre-toothed tigers — then Neanderthals (agannigan) and Cro-magnons — did not give them a red-carpet reception.

In the inevitable battle, Abinupota had to be cautioned by the new commander on his deadly use of firearms:

“I told you to stop shooting them, you refuse. Don’t you remember we are in the past? Don’t you know what will happen if you perchance kill your own ancestor? It means you won’t even be born at all not to talk of accompanying us in our trip to the future!”

Treachery, even in such elevated company reared its head causing five of the adventurers to get stranded in time.

Durodogbon, that inquisitive lad suddenly realises, that he is a descendant of one of those five astronauts!

In the end, Bode Oje’s story is an exploration into different aspects of the sciences ranging from astronomy, space travel to natural history, geology and quantum physics — using the Yoruba language. Quite fascinating are his bold coinage of Yoruba words to craft a fabulous story.

Oje, an ardent student of philosophy, challenges all speakers of the Yoruba language  with coinages like igbaayenigbakoko (space time continuum), ofurujagado (space), arogbeka (theory), ajepe (postulates), ilo meta (three dimensions) padi asunfonfon (sleeping pod) sigidi aroda (robots) aridimu (matter), winnipin (atom) kolooye (cell) EGBE (Exo-Galactic Bus Explorer/mother ship), abala elewoo (Milky Way) and many more.

He asks us to take them or improve on them; but never to ignore them because the Yoruba vocabulary must rise to meet the challenges of modern science fiction.

Another fascinating thing is that the author himself is a scion of Oje, custodians of the egungun cult which, research and the Ifa corpus  have shown to be a cult in commemoration of space travellers of antiquity.

The Pan-Africanist in Oje shines through as he sermonises through his characters that to take our rightful place in the comity of nations, Nigeria and Africa in general, must take science and technology seriously and not fail to marry it with Art/creativity and the social sciences.

Most commendable are meticulous effort by Oje, much like Betrand Russel, the philosopher, to explain scientific concepts in the simple language of the lay man; and he succeeds at this considerably. For instance, his explanation of time as a fourth dimension — after the three dimensions of length, breadth and depth.

There is a sidekick to the whole story mysteriously titled “Abala to di afeku” (The missing part) which tantalises the reader till the very end

The work is not without its flaws.

If Afimoso boasts so many scientists, why then should a volcanic eruption cause so much bafflement among them? The author’s request on page 15 that Yoruba irawo be taken to mean chunks of rocks that emit light of their own or merely reflect light from suns (stars) may spark debate since irawo in Yoruba means “star” which, technically, means all light-producing bodies (suns).

However, a counter–argument is that what the Yoruba call star includes anything that twinkles in the sky and these include objects, even artificial satellites, that only reflect the light of the sun.

The account of chess is too long and can discourage the average reader.

The idea that speeding beyond the speed of light lands a craft in the past and not the future is another debatable claim.

While fleeing Ayedimeji, we are told, Awoja, mortally wounded, was given hand grenades and he removed the pins immediately. Hand grenades take a maximum of twelve seconds to explode. But, strangely it took several minutes before the report of an explosion was reported. Then many minutes later an unlikely second explosion is reported.

Wrong tonal marks in a language as heavily tonal as Yoruba and combining words that are better written separately also pose challenges atimes. But all these can easily be rectified in the next edition.

Bode Oje’s effort remain a seminal work that blazes the trail for other writers to dare modern science fiction in African languages.


Nigerian Tribune