Woiye is a full-face, full-body word, getting its meaning not only from the context in which it is uttered, but by how shoulders are set, how lips are pursed, how eyebrows move, how foreheads crinkle, how eyes harden or soften. It is a word and a phrase, a sentence and a paragraph, a page and a story. It generates and sustains social relations, and it flavors all gossip, the genre in which it truly comes alive.
At its most sincere, woiye is used to express sympathy about an unfortunate—but not tragic—situation. It’s what you say when someone has the flu or had their phone stolen, situations that are not life threatening or shattering. Woiye means something like “I am sorry,” and “that’s fucked up.” This sincere woiye can be used with friends or strangers, but is rarely used by boys and men: the kind of sympathy it sincerely expresses is considered feminized. Too, this kind of sympathy does not build intimacy: you remember the person who says pole, the person who extends their heart and feelings in that particular way. The person who utters woiye is forgettable.
Woiye really comes into its own during a good gossip session. It may express glee at a rival’s misfortune, a woiye that comes with an arched eyebrow, wide-open eyes, and a half-smirk. It is popular among religious groups, uttered when the most self-righteous person is discovered to be a liar, a thief, a hypocrite, or, most frequently, a fornicator. It is what you say after you disclose that the leader of the worship team who constantly teaches purity was caught selling porn or has been having an affair with someone else’s husband. This woiye says, “I feel sorry for that person, but this is juicy.” You recount the story of what you’ve discovered and, at the end, punctuate it with “woiye.” And those who have relished the gossip are absolved for indulging in gossip. Woiye, in this instance, is the final garnish that makes the entire meal.
Yet another woiye focuses on cumulative bad events. It is uttered when, as in a country song, someone loses their house, their lover, their dog, and their favorite pair of shoes. It’s often accompanied by “imagine”: “woiye, imagine.” It tends to flavor anecdote or gossip: the person who has suffered the misfortunes is not present, and, most often, is unknown to those hearing the gossip. It is about “someone I know” or “someone at the office” or “someone I knew in high school” or “you know that woman who drives that car.” It tells a truncated life story, the kind of bite-sized pieces that go down nicely with a cup of tea and a mandazi.
Woiye is not precisely an interjection. It is not an “oh,” or an “oh, my.” It functions more as punctuation. Used only once, it may be an exclamation point or an ellipsis. As an exclamation point, it comes at the end of a juicy story: “His wife discovered he had another family, woiye.” At such moments, it invites listeners to share in the speaker’s emotion, most evident in tone and facial expression.
As ellipsis, woiye can start an entire conversation, prompting those present to demand details. One arrives at a scene and utters, “woiye!” Those present cluster around, demanding details. “What is wrong?” “What’s the story?” The questions absolve the gossiper of malicious intent; after all, those listening demanded details! This woiye can be uttered many different ways: it can be slow and extended, a dirge, announcing painful news. The “ye” is drawn out, as though summoning those present to cluster around. It can be punctuated by sucking your teeth, a sound that whets appetites. It’s never uttered with a laugh, though a smirk is never far away.
In some cases, it is uttered many times in a conversation: “that girl, woiye, what happened to her, woiye, I can’t even say, woiye.” Each woiye flavors the conversation, building tension. This woiye is used most often by the self-righteous, those, “you know I don’t gossip, but” kind of people who police everyone else. It masks its glee in salacious details with a thin veneer of care: “I’m saying this because it’s good to be informed. I am not gossiping. Nor am I enjoying this.”
It is in the hands of the self-righteous that woiye is most potent, because it licenses those present to imagine what cannot be said. Each woiye gives permission to listeners to build fantasy worlds. “That girl, woiye,” nudges imaginations into action, and no matter what details are added to justify the woiye, “that girl” now has a history and a case file, a mile-long list of transgressions and a scarlet letter stamped on her character. Woiye opens psychic gates and invites those present to imagine the worst, and worse than that.