Answer Me in Mother Tongue – CNF by Clementine E. Burnley

Answer me in mother tongue

If I ask the wrong questions of her, Ma Gwen remains a powerful, prayerful middle-aged matron. With the right move she unfolds into Gwen, a slight-figured thirteen year old afloat, on a steamer that will take two weeks to arrive in Lagos. She leaves behind her Raleigh bicycle, and the sketch of Carter Bridge her small uncle Francis has made because who needs a drawing when the real thing awaits. 

Did you want to travel five hundred miles to school?

It is 1945. Gwen’s part of Cameroon is located at the edge of the eastern region, at the edge of British Nigeria. At Apapa Docks she sits on her suitcase and while she waits for Uncle Mr Udofia, she plays with a wooden puzzle that can be rearranged into seven different shapes. She will live with the Udofia’s and their children until she finishes school. 

What happened to the language that shaped your cries before you were born?

When Gwen leaves she speaks Patwa and English. When she returns from Lagos Yoruba has blurred her mother tongue. Children who speak a second language are held to learn other subjects faster at school. 

Why are Ga, Patwa, Krio not on the school curriculum?

Mum’s sentences and intonation are infused with Yoruba expressions but she never talks about how she learns to speak it, whether it is hard or easy, whether her accent shows in her words, or what the other young people in Lagos know of the Cameroons. In one photograph she sits at a polished wooden table with a girl who looks about her age. Both are dressed in tailored khaki skirt and shirt combinations. There is no name written on the back. 

‘Ask me another question,’ she says. ‘You think I can remember faces now?’

She does not speak of the daily routine at the Udofia’s. I imagine she rises early every morning to wash her face and hands at the inside sink, which would have been a novelty— she grew up in a house with slats of wood for walls and no inside bathroom. I insert my favourite breakfast of pap with sugar or bread and milky tea.

Because I do not have the small details of her, I guess at Ma’s childhood routines from how she brings me up, — morning devotions, a few paragraphs read aloud in turn out of the King James version of the Bible, then school, chores, homework, dinner, bed.  I wear a sky blue uniform, like hers. The schools in former British colonies require similar pastel colours and the same plain lines as in her time.

Who needs a voice more than you?

A good mother will give up her voice, if it is asked of her. Ma Gwen shows me how the strength of my woman-ing is established by what I will give up for my family. 

Is a woman a body of knowledge in translation?

In Cameroon Patwa is called broken English. Yoruba words continued to flavour her Patwa for the rest of her life. I take on ‘gist’ because it is a standard Cameroon Patwa word for juicy gossip. I could tell from the context what she meant by ‘shebi,’ and  ‘jor’ but I had no impulse to adopt them and to be known as foreign.

The British Ghanaian poet Victoria Adukwei Bulley fills one of many knowledge gaps for me. Her project “Mother Tongues” gathers a body of material in translation between Ga, her mother’s language and English. 

The language I was raised on is English. Even though I grew up in Cameroon, and Adukwei Bulley grew up in England, we share the experience of being brought up outside the west Africa which I suspect, is stored deep inside our parents. 

Is it really better to be silent than to be a child who cheeks their mother?

When my Fulani great-grandmother Jarahtu marries an English speaker and walks with him from the Adamawa Plateau to the Atlantic coast, they both know she will never see her family again. She gives her children Fulani names, and speaks Fulbe to them. 

Why did my great-grandfather teaches his children to read and write in English? Why did they not learn to read and write Fulbe in the Tamasheq script, which many Hausa women wrote their novels in?

In the next generation my  grandmother Nene Jarahtu gives up her mother tongue because her own mother has showed her how to shed a language as easy as yam peels curl off a knife blade and drop to the bare soil.

Why did my mother never mention the fact that one of the men in our family portraits had been enslaved, and all had been colonised. Why did we only know about their actions after they entered the church, the civil service, or founded schools where they taught English and religion?

I piece daily life in Lagos together from scattered clues, and sudden interjections Ma Gwen makes, when her memory is prompted by a random thought, song or an image.

‘Oh, my fine box,’  she says to a stack of three painted metal trunks as we walk in the New Town market, which is now the Old Town, since several newer and bigger markets exist.

The right question unlocks competing memories instead of a logical sequence.
Ma Gwen hums a few bars of ‘Ave Maria.’

‘Imagine o. Papalist anthem, they called it.’ She has never forgotten the sound a Catholic song made when it entered a Protestant church.

The yellowed sketch of Carter Bridge triggers another memory, — the onset of illness in her small uncle Francis.  Ma Gwen turns it over in her hand. Her gaze drops to where the linoleum has cracked to reveal grey cement and she does not speak for a while.

‘This my good floor too, is spoilt now,’ she says. ‘You think anyone in this country can lay a floor like this any more?’

Now educated Cameroonians say mental health. My mother says the madness of Uncle Francis is sudden and complete. ‘He was a draughtsman,’ she says and ‘clever-clever.’

‘Na so him take crase. Dem bin get fo’ go bring am.’ She does not say who goes by steamer to collect her small Uncle from Lagos. 

At ten years old I take Uncle Francis his food sometimes, place it outside his door and hurry away. I hear him singsong, ‘Have you been to Carter Bridge?’  

I go to Lagos in 2018. When I ask about the name Udofia I am told it is not Yoruba. It could be Udo-Affia? The Udofia’s are probably from Cross Rivers in Eastern Nigeria. I intend to visit the bridge and even see a sign, but things happen and I never make it there. 

Clementine Ewokolo Burnley is a feminist migrant mother, and community organizer. She’s been in the final selection for the Amsterdam Open Book Prize, the First Pages prize and has attended Chimamanda N. Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus Trust Workshop. Her most recent work appears or is forthcoming in Folkways Press Anthology ‘We are not Shadows,’ The National Flash Fiction Anthology 2020, and Barren Magazine. You can find her on She tweets (2) Clementine (@Decolonialheart) / Twitter

Author photograph, Clementine Burnley, photo credit: Anna Deacon Photography

Gallery: family photographs, copyright, Clementine Burnley

Banner Image: Burnley family photograph, digital manipulation, Moira J Sauce

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