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from the January 2007 issue

The Grammar of Easter (You Don’t Say That in English)

“From historical drama to contemporary themes, explored through novels, short stories, and poems, Akin Isola, who writes almost exclusively in Yoruba, remains one of our most versatile Nigerian writers.” — Wole Soyinka

The rate at which Christian festivals were upstaging the local, traditional ones was accelerating. To the older generation, who professed the traditional religious faith, the rapid transformation was simply stupefying. To the middle-aged, younger generation, the educated elite, the change was a welcome miracle, an evangelical achievement, the rewards of which they hoped to reap in paradise. They returned to their small villages in full Christian fervor and forced their parents to renounce their old faiths by burning their precious religious artworks.

Those elderly men and women were skeptical about the new faith, which they only heard about, since they could neither read nor write. They would stand embarrassingly mute whenever hymns were sung from the hymnals or whenever common prayers were read from the prayerbook, in call-and-response fashion. Some of them succeeded in learning the Lord's Prayer by heart, although they did not believe in it because they knew, by tradition, that they had many fathers, not just one, in heaven.

To us, the youngest generation of primary school pupils, the religious transformations were inconsequential. Children simply adopted the religion of their parents, whatever it was. But we had our own peculiar problems. We could operate confidently in our own language. We had learned many things about our culture in our own language. We had even been taught many things about the Christian faith translated into Yoruba. The first three years of school, the "primary" classes, were taught in our own local language, Yoruba. English was introduced only in the fourth year of school, the "Standard One" class. The highest class in the small village school was "Standard Two." To graduate from a primary school, you needed to go to another bigger school to read standards three to the final six, and you were supposed to be a little proficient in English. The large majority of pupils in our school were in the primary classes. Our problems about the Christian religion arose whenever it was discussed in English by our teachers and visiting evangelists.

To us, the main difference between Christian and traditional religious festivals was in the type of food served. At traditional festivals, the smooth pounded yam with delicious vegetable stew and bush meat was paramount. Yam flour paste with ground-bean stew and mutton was also served. At Christian festivals, however, the queen of food was rice, especially white rice with chicken. We children loved rice, because it was not our staple diet. It came only at Christian festivals and was never served during traditional religious festivals. Never.

Christmas was the important Christian festival in our village. It was always most lavishly celebrated with a lot of rice and chicken and drinks. We would eat and eat, and pray for the quick return of Christmas. Other Christian festivals were celebrated simply. Easter, for example, used to be celebrated with all kinds of simple plates and some fish.

But now, some evangelists had started saying that Easter was, as a matter of fact, more important to Christians than Christmas! How about the rice? In an attempt to emphasize the overall importance of Easter this year, a white evangelist was coming to visit our school at Easter. He was not coming to worship with the congregation on Sunday. He was coming to see the school and talk to the pupils.

A week before the visit, the headmaster announced an elaborate program of cleaning. The premises were swept, the grass was cut and the paths were lined with stones on both sides. Classes were suspended for cleaning sessions. Fortunately, the visit coincided with the beginning of the Easter break, when timetables were usually not strictly followed.

By midmorning on the day of the visit, all pupils were ordered to line up on both sides of the road bringing the august visitor. We were to burst into a song of welcome, specially composed to honor him, as soon as he appeared. Suddenly, out of a bend on the approaching road, emerged four hefty men carrying a strong stretcher made of bamboo ribs and palm branches on which the young white evangelist was sitting cross-legged. We broke into the welcome song, clapping and singing. The villagers also came out to watch the spectacle. The whiteman waved to all of us. The headmaster and the teachers were waiting to receive the visitor at the entrance to the school compound. We left the road and ran to the football field, where we lined up in rows according to our classes.

At the entrance to the school compound, the four hefty men lifted the stretcher off their shoulders and gently placed it on the ground. The white reverend smartly stood up and walked off to shake hands with the teachers. Two Black reverends accompanied the white one. They were not carried. The headmaster then led the other teachers and the visitors to us. He introduced one of the African reverends as the Inspector of Schools. The Inspector took over and introduced the white reverend.

"Boys and girls," he said, "we are lucky to have among us today the Mission's new Agent Superintendent of Ibadan and Area."

Our problems had started! They were all speaking in English! And no one saw the need for any translation! Yes, we were pupils in a school, but it was a junior primary school!

We were not complete strangers to English. Even before we started going to school, we had been picking up some familiar English words. But when you started talking of "agent superintendent" and "profound evangelical commitment," you certainly were being unfair to us!

After the long introduction, which seemed to have delighted the white evangelist, we all remembered what we had been taught to say: "Welcome, Sir. Thank you, Sir!"

When the white evangelist started his address our problems were compounded. In fairness to him, he tried to speak very slowly. But all his words were nasalized! Why was he speaking through his nose? As he spoke on, however, we continued identifying a few more words.

"I greet you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ!" he said.

But we didn't know how to respond in English. Every greeting in Yoruba would demand a response.

"Easter, the death and resurrection of our Lord, is the center of our Christian faith. It is therefore the most important religious festival for Christians," he added.

Our headmaster and the teachers nodded, apparently in agreement with the whiteman, but perhaps more to demonstrate to us that they understood perfectly every word he used. Some villagers who had come to witness the ceremony drifted away when they discovered that no Yoruba would be spoken.

The visitor continued: "Easter not only defines the Christian faith, it also grants us a completely new life in Jesus Christ. Hallelujah!"

The African reverends also shouted "Hallelujah." The teachers quickly joined them. So, we also joined them.

As he spoke on, the whiteman became increasingly inspired. He had almost forgotten that he was addressing junior primary school pupils in Africa!

"Let me read to you what I consider the most important verses in the Bible. I am going to read three verses from Romans 19."

Our teachers looked rather surprised when the whiteman mentioned Romans. They had thought that the most important verse in the Bible was John 3:16! "For God so loved the world . . ."

The African evangelists simply nodded in agreement with the whiteman. The battle line between Christmas and Easter seemed drawn.

The whiteman brought out his Bible from his bag, opened it and started reading. He was deliberately emphasizing certain words and phrases as he read.

"Romans, chapter 6, verse 3: "Know ye not that so into his death?"

And verse 4: "Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life."

And now verse 8: "Now if we be dead with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. Hallelujah!"

We all shouted "Hallelujah!"

At this point, it became evident that the white evangelist believed that he was succeeding in his mission. He only needed to drive it home a little more. So, he decided to have some audience participation.

He continued. "I want you all, as Christians, to remember that we are one with Christ. You know that even when Christ was born, we were born with him? Yes! When Christ was born, we were born with him. What did I say?"

We all repeated what he said. But now he said the first part of the sentence and asked us to complete the sentence:

"When Jesus was born . . ."

And we said, "we were born with him."

He made us repeat it about three times.

"And now," he said, "when Jesus lived . . ." He stretched out his hand to us expecting us to complete the sentence.

But we did not have so much English! However, some courageous ones among us tried to follow the structural pattern of the first example he gave us, "  . . . we were born with him." And so we shouted, " . . . we were lived with him."

He shook his head vigorously and said, "No! No! No! You don't say that in English!" He really couldn't believe that anyone could say that! He looked at us intently and said, "OK, now listen. When Jesus lived, we lived with him." He repeated it three times and said, "Is that clear?"

We shouted, "Yes!"

"Now, when Jesus lived . . ."

" . . . we lived with him!" we shouted many times.

"Good! But after terrible tribulations, his enemies conspired against him and crucified him! They crucified him! Even then, when Jesus was crucified . . ."

He stretched out his hand to us again, asking us to complete the sentence.

We were now completely confused! We had no rules of grammar to guide us. So we quickly remembered the very last example he himself gave us: " . . . we lived with him." And so we naturally shouted: " . . . we crucified with him."

The whiteman opened his mouth and couldn't close it. He could not find words to express his surprise. At last he said "No!" very emphatically. "You don't say that in English!"

Our headmaster and other teachers became very uncomfortable indeed. They were looking at us threateningly, but what could we do?

The whiteman eventually tried to be calm. He said, "Boys and girls, listen very carefully now. These are very important matters of faith. You don't trifle with them. When Jesus was crucified, we were crucified with him.You say we were crucified with him. Is that clear now?"

We shouted, "Yes, Sir!"

And he now said, "When Jesus was crucified . . . "

We all roared, " . . . we were crucified with him!"

He looked pleased and continued his address. "After the crucifixion, the supreme symbol of Christianity, Jesus died on the cross. And when Jesus died . . ."

We all shouted,"We were died with him!"

The white evangelist's face turned red! His hair stood on end. He roared at us with all his force, "No, no, no! You don't say that in English! What's wrong with you?" He seemed to have temporarily lost his temper. "Do I have to teach you what to say every time?"

We were very afraid. If it was our headmaster, he would have reached for his cane.

"When Jesus died," the whiteman said, "we simply died with him. When Jesus died, we died with him. Is that clear?"

"Yes, Sir!"

"So, when Jesus died . . ."

" . . . we died with him," we chorused.

"I must complete this glorious journey with you," said the evangelist. "You know, when Jesus died, they had to bury him. A tomb was offered, and he was buried. And as I was telling you, even when he was buried . . . " He stretched out his hand again. He had not given up on us.

This time many of us just kept quiet. The female teacher was trying to help by moving her lips. But we could only watch, we could not read her lips.

The evangelist had to repeat the sentence. "When Jesus was buried . . ."

Only a few of us said, " . . . we buried with him."

Rather than fly into a rage this time, the whiteman looked at us and shook his head. "No, no, no! You cannot say that in English! When Jesus was buried, we were buried with him! Can you say that now? You always leave out the 'were'! Come on!"

We all said it three times as he ordered. "We were buried with him."

"And now, finally," said the whiteman, "this is the glorious ending of the life of Jesus on earth, with a mighty triumph over his foes. The third day, up from the grave he arose! Jesus arose! He arose! Hallelujah! We are now new men in Jesus Christ. We are alive, because when Jesus arose . . ."

It was our turn again to complete the sentence!

Many of us remembered that he said we always left out the "were." So we would put it in now.

" . . . we were arose with him," we chorused gleefully.

The man was amazed at our hopeless inability to follow simple instructions. He threw up his hands and looked at the headmaster. "How do you explain this?"

The headmaster was nonplussed. "We will try harder, Sir," he said.

He turned to us, looked at our pitiful faces and said:

"Just say: we arose with him."

And we said repentantly: "We arose with him."

In his closing prayer, the white evangelist specifically asked God to grant us sharper minds that could easily understand simple matters.

We penitently said "Amen!"

That was how the English language changed the concept of Easter in our minds forever, but it did not affect our ranking of Christian festivals.

Copyright 2007 by Akinwumi Isola. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2007 by Akinwumi Isola. All rights reserved.

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