YABA: The Word That Will Send You To The Mirror In South Sudan

"South Sudan today is a cultural melting pot seeking its soul to resolve and pull something out of the concoction that can be honourably called South Sudanese Culture."

By John Oryem*

I love few words that are associated with people’s ages in my region. For one, growing up and getting old in Sudan, South Sudan is an interesting thing. This, as well gives me another advantage to follow metamorphosis of our common lingua franca.

Lately, one word often humbles me once I hear it directed at me. As we were growing up in the 80s, any grandfather in the village or town was YABA. With low voice and composed posture, children would address their grandfathers with that word. In our culture, children should not call their elders (fathers and mothers) by their names. Or should I rightfully say, during our time! It was something amounting to a crime if your tongue slips to address an elder by his or her name. So, most children growing up like us never knew the names of their parents and grandparents until later years. When elders engage in conversations, they use their praise-names or heroic names acquired through bravery or events.

YABA. Way back in mid 90s, I had an opportunity to come into contact with a retired American marine-turned literary critic and theater specialist. He lives in Long Island. As he was in his early 70s and me in my early 20s, I had to employ my cultural respect each time I wrote to him. “Dear Yaba, Robert Charles Rhodes…….” I had to explain to him why I often used the word YABA in my letters. He later realized why I kept on addressing him YABA all the time. I told him in Africa you just don’t call your grandpa by his legal names.  To my surprise one day, when I got such a letter, my elderly American friend signed off, “Yours, sincerely, YABA Robert Charles Rhodes!” Thereafter the word YABA continued to color our correspondences.

A’MU. This word is commonly used by children addressing their uncles among Arabic speaking countries. Growing up in North Sudan gave us opportunity to address our elders as A’MU. Being called A’MU gives fulfillment, respect and self-assurance that one has achieved comfortable status in the community around.

Now that we too reached certain age that qualified us, the very soothing word, A’MU came under our possession. That title comes with ease as few greying, balding or wrinkle begins to pop up unexpectedly. Men, some men, being repulsive to mirrors, do not go to consult their physical appearance to appease their partners or family members. When one becomes an A’MU, he too must behave and give others respect that they shower him with in life. An A’MU must be a guardian, family head and community leader who should see that everything in the neighborhood is right.

HAJJ. Though it is religious in nature, one gets peace and satisfaction in life when addressed as HAJJ. A HAJJ is supposed to be someone who had performed his religious obligation, pilgrimage to Meccah and Medinah, Islamic holy cities that attracts millions of believers annually; to accomplish one of their religious obligations and pillars of Islam. At certain age, one is also a HAJJ without ever reaching Meccah.

In combination, A’MU and HAJJ among Arabic speaking communities, the words are used concurrently to mean the same thing. An elder would easily accept being called a HAJJ or A’MU without preference for the two words.  Juba Arabic speakers have since grabbed the words HAJJ, A’MU and YABA in their daily talks. Nowadays I hear children in South Sudan call their mothers HAJJA! We called ours Mama, Aya-Iya, Maa etc.  

Back to YABA in South Sudan. When comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) was signed in 2005, many refugees, IDPs and diaspora South Sudanese rushed home to resettle. South Sudan today is a cultural melting pot seeking its soul to resolve and pull something out of the concoction that can be honorably called South Sudanese Culture. One thing and word has already taken lead, YABA.

A colleague who grew up in North Sudan visited Juba in 2008, as he strolled along Konyo-Konyo market, each time he greeted groups of children, youth or elderly folks, his greetings were met with “Ahlen ya YABA!” (Thank you Yaba). For a while he looked bewildered, guessing if an old man was trailing him. His suspicion being called YABA persisted. Before he could round his evening walk, he thought of not greeting people along the highway if they continue to wish him old age too soon. But he was bringing to South Sudan culture of passionately greeting everyone in front of you. He has adopted that way of life while in North Sudan.  

Thoughts of being called YABA consumed him to his bones before reaching his hotel room along the Nile. As he entered his room, he rushed to the bathroom to confirm something. What he wanted to know was, “how old I’m to be called YABA?” Few days later, he shared his grim experience of being called YABA in South Sudan. The only remedy we could offer him was, “as we are called A’MU and HAJJ here, they too in South Sudan say YABA when they mean the same thing here.” He opened his heart to us to reveal how the word YABA tormented him, forcing him to rush to the mirror to confirm why he was only 45 and he is called YABA!

The other day in Kator, Juba, I witnessed a brawl between a waitress and a man in his 60s. The waitress politely reminded the man of his menu orders as noise was overwhelming. Being lunch time, lots of noise in restaurants is associated with that period. “YABA what did you order?” The man pretended not to have heard the young lady. She again repeated, “YABA what did you order?” Her voice was louder, prompting other “eaters” at the restaurant to gaze at the lady. The man shouted at the waitress, “Please, I’m not YABA, do not call me YABA!” The waitress apologized as other people eating their lunch burst into laughter. For they knew the man was actually a YABA.  

*YABA John Oryem, South Sudan 

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