When Hear Word! Came to Harvard—Finally

DEC 21, 2017

 by Professor Biodun Jeyifo

Cast members of HEAR WORD! Naija Woman Talk True


Following a workshop presentation of Hear Word! at the Harvard Dance Center in 2016, Harvard Professor Biodun Jeyifo wrote this article for Nigeria’s The Nation newspaper, reflecting on the complex relationship between gender and language reflected in the production. The article has been excerpted for this printing.

Gboro, iyawo gboro/
Gboro, iyawo gboro so’ko lenu! 

[Listen, woman, listen/
listen, wife, listen and obey your husband!]

—From a popular Yoruba
“apala” song of the 1960s

On a literal, non-idiomatic level, the Yoruba word gboro, that I have translated as “listen” in the epigraph to this piece, is more accurately translated as “hear word.” But as every self-respecting translator and linguist knows, literalism is the death of language, especially in its capacity to enable us to actually say what we mean and mean what we say. This is why “listen” is a much better translation of gboro in English than “hear word,” which is almost nonsensical in the English tongue.

But then, along comes Nigerian Pidgin, which uses this same bad translation, “hear word,” as its normative term not only for “listen,” but also for “listen and obey.” Tracing our way from this normative Pidgin mistranslation back to the song fragment in our epigraph, we find rather unexpectedly that in Yoruba, “gboro” also means “listen and obey.” More felicitously, it means “listen and comply with what you hear, what you’re told.” Thus, both in Yoruba and Pidgin English—and I dare say most Nigerian languages—the word for “listen,” when used beyond the mere phenomenology of sound, really serves as a powerful normative tool for enforcing obedience and compliance with the established order of things.

This is why though in the song fragment in the epigraph only one woman, one wife is addressed, the command is actually to all wives, all women: “wives, obey your husbands; women, accept that it is a man’s world!” In contemporary radical cultural theory and criticism, a word, a phrase that has such power of constructing and imposing identity is said to be ideological in the most effective way possible. But what does all this have to do with the subject of this essay? Well, these thoughts on language, gender, identity, and human equality came to me after Hear Word!, an all-female theatrical production on the condition of women in contemporary Nigerian society came to Harvard, but only after I had thought deeply about the impact of the performance.

In getting to the heart of the discussion in this piece, I draw attention to the main artistic and structural features of the performance. Hear Word! combines the best of individual character acting with ensemble group performance. In laywoman or layman language, that means that in some of the twenty-two pieces of stories making up the entire production, it seemed that one was watching a slice of a dramatic play exploring the emotional and psychic depths of one character’s soul, while in other pieces, it seemed as if one was watching experiences common to women as a group, as half of the human race within one particular national community, Nigeria. What exactly does this observation, this claim, mean?

If you are either an outright misogynist or a covert male and/or female opponent of gender equality and the empowerment of women of all social groups and classes in Nigeria, you could—and perhaps would—argue that Hear Word!seems to be doing too much all at once. The twenty-two pieces in the production just about cover the demographic and regional diversity of the whole country, from the North to the South-south and from the East to the West. The list of issues and topics it covers is truly staggering: the chastening oppressions of child marriages in some parts of the North; in the South, the moral cynicism of families that participate in the trafficking of their own daughters and nieces in the international trade in abducted or enslaved sex workers; the chillingly unhappy fates of widows in “traditional” marriages in which the deaths of husbands transform women into non-persons in many parts of the country; sexual violence, rape, and the ensuing silencing of the victims after the act, within and outside the family as a social unit; the relentless, unending, and “universal” chorus of the preference for male as opposed to female children; the ubiquitous practice of training girls and young women to devalue and degrade the girl or woman who tries to set goals and targets that are considered “male”; the often slow and inchoate nature of girls’ and women’s coming to consciousness of themselves as innately valuable and worthy of respect from men and other women. The list goes on and on, and, moreover, the stories and anecdotes are legion: Hear Word! Naija Woman Talk True is truly a compendium that apparently wishes to tell it all, almost as if no other chance will ever arise to tell these stories again. So, how did the combination of individual character acting and ensemble performance of the whole group rise to the challenge of this driven, relentless inclusiveness of all the alienating challenges that women face in Nigeria today?


HEAR WORD! Naija Woman Talk True Production Photo

In responding to this question, we must return to our opening reflections on the linguistic and ideological dimensions of the phrase “hear word” as a Nigerian Pidgin rendition of the most controlling and repressive term for the oppression of women, from infancy as a girl-child to adulthood as a married, unmarried, or widowed woman. Everyone reading this piece who speaks and/or understands Nigerian Pidgin has heard the phrase used in one or two of its many controlling forms: “you no wan’ hear word?”; “the porson wey no dey hear word, na trouble go teach am sense!”; “wetin we fit do for dis pickin make e begin dey hear word?”; “Ha, you no know am, dem done beat am, beat am, still she no de hear word!”

It was a stroke of simple but profound genius for Hear Word! Naija Woman Talk True to have hit on this keyword, this trope of ideological control and normalization of oppression that universally applies to diverse groups and situations but finds its greatest functional power of coercion and intimidation in application to women and children as the anchor for all its otherwise staggering number of tales, anecdotes, dances, jokes, and songs.

At the most obvious level, as one watched the play, it became more and more apparent that the first part of the whole performance comprising about twelve of the twenty-two stories dealt with “hear word” in its repressive, negative constructs while the closing ten narratives reversed the dominant, controlling form and began a counter-discourse, a counter-narrative of liberation in which the term “hear word” was now being addressed to both the oppressors and the dominated. But at a more fundamental level beyond the structure of the contents of the production, the whole performance came to encode a powerful feminist vision of both oppression and liberation as being, in the final analysis, embodied. Speaking for myself, I think that the inspired combination of brilliant individual character acting with ensemble performance made this possible.

Honorable Minister of Information and Culture, are you reading this piece? This is a show that did Nigeria proud at its first international outing at Harvard. This outing, this journey of this performance must now extend far beyond Cambridge, MA, to other parts of the world with large Nigerian and African diasporas.

Biodun Jeyifo is Professor of African and African American Studies and of Comparative Literature at Harvard University.

Related Productions