Togolese Yoruba

An ethnic group in Atakpame, Togo, hold on to a distinct brand of Yoruba they inherited from their forefathers, writes AKEEM LASISI, just back from the West African country
Denisef Fantchede would have been a Nigerian but for an accident of history. She would, most likely, have been an indigene of Ile-Ife in Osun State. But she is a native of Atakpame, a community in Togo and one of those whose ancestors migrated to the West African country when tribal wars raged in the 17th century.
Yet, the same history that changed the course of her descent has made her multilingual. Fantchede speaks French, which is Togo’s official language. She speaks English, which she learnt in school and in neighbouring Ghana.
She is also fluent in Ewe, one of the indigenous languages in Atakpame. Most importantly, her mother tongue is Ife, which some scholars would call Ife Togo, an ‘independent’ Yoruba dialect spoken by the majority of Atakpame indigenes, who trace their origins to Ile-ife.

Largest Yoruba Settlement In Togo – Atakpame

Like Atakpame, like Idanre

In terms of landmark, Atakpame shares some similarities with Ibadan and Abeokuta. While the capital cities of Oyo and Ogun States flaunt the Olumo Rock and Oke Ibadan as their ancestral symbols, respectively, Atakpame, a settlement town that is about 160 kilometres away from Lome, the Togolese capital, defines its origin by seven mountains that surround it.

Just like many other towns in Yorubaland, where myths are explored to trace the people’s roots, Atakpame’s history is not complete without reference to the mountains. According to some elders of the town, the rocks played supernatural roles when the natives were engaged in battles with other ethnic groups. This is how Atakpame also shares topographical and historical similarities with Idanre, Ondo State, a town famed for the huge and acrobatic mountains that surround it.

According to Fantchede, Ife Togo is widely used in Atakpame because the people, who trace their descent to ile-Ife, are the dominant group there. She, however, expresses concern over the future of the language because not many young people speak it.

She says, “The number of young people who speak Ife here is decreasing because of changes in the society and the fact that it is not taught in schools. But I speak it any time I have the opportunity to do so. Our elders also use it constantly.”

Togolese Yoruba are 351,000 in population.

Strange bed fellows

As a result of the entrenched cross-fertilisation that Ife Togo has had with French, Ewe, et cetera, it is easier for the Yoruba in Lome, Cotonou and Ajase, among others, to understand one another than for the immigrant Yorubas in Lome to understand Ife Togo speakers in Atakpame – and vice versa. A Yoruba scholar, Dr. Felix Fabunmi, notes that a language that is spoken by many people, such as Yoruba, usually has dialects that may differ from one another.

Zangbeto in Togo

In a research he conducted on Ife numerals, the lecturer at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, acknowledges Ife Togo, Ife Benin, Tsabe, Ajase and Idaatsa, all of which he describes as Yoruboid, as being “the mother tongues of speech communities whose forefathers migrated from Nigeria to Dahomey, now Republic of Benin.”
This invariably covers the brand spoken in Togo, too. Fabunmi notes in a study titled ‘Vigesimal Numerals on Ife (Togo) and Ife (Nigeria) Dialects of Yoruba’, “Today, the capital of Ife (Togo) is Atakpame. The Ifè (Togo) dialect of Yoruba is spoken by approximately 90,000 people in Atakpame and the speakers stretch from the Benin boundary up to Atakpame in Togo.
“The majority of these Ife settlers migrated from Ija-Oku in former Dahomey into the Togolese territory and subsequently founded the city of Atapkame. There are several other early settlers or ethnic groups in Atakpame, such as Fon, Ewe,
Aposo, Kabrelosso and Ketokoli, but the people of Seti, Jama and Igberiko are predominantly Ife. Other Ife (Togo) villages include Alabata, Okutaya, Efujaye, Oko Asade, Asoko Ayepada and Yanmosile.”

Ife Togo is well tone-marked

Yoruba is a tonal language, comprising the high, mid and low tones. That is how a word such as ‘odo’ can mean different things as the tone changes. These include odo (mortar), odo (river) and odo (zero). Also, ‘ere’ can be translated as play, sculpture and profit in different contexts and with different tonal marks, just as ‘agbon’ can be a word for a basket, coconut or wasp.

Investigation by our correspondent reveals that the Ife Togo dialect retains the tonal property of the Yoruba language. Apart from the inflexions that the natives interviewed demonstrate in their speeches, words in the books that our correspondent bought in Atakpame are duly tone-marked. Perhaps the only difference is that the mid tone, which is no more marked in the modern Nigerian Yoruba language, is still marked in Ife Togo. Indeed, our observation also shows that Ife Togo has not responded to the series of orthographical changes that the standard Yoruba has experienced, especially since the early 1970s. As a result, while Yoruba grammar now forbids the collocation of two consonants in a word, which makes Offa, Otta, Oshogbo and Ogbomosho to be written nowadays as Ofa, Ota, Osogbo and Ogbomoso, Ife Togo still flaunts words such as nwon (they), itsu (yam) and Atakpame itself!