Thursday, January 29, 2009

More Nigerian Languages Risk Extinction

By Niyi Odebode

In 2007, the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organisation organised a series of workshops to protect dying Nigerian languages. After the workshops, the organisation in collaboration with the Federal Ministry of Tourism and Culture planned to embark on programmes which included mapping and documentation of indigenous languages in Nigeria and organising creative writing competition in the languages.

The world body said that from August 2008 to December 2009, it would seek partnership among state governments, private sectors, international organisations and relevant stakeholders to prevent the death of the languages through a series of programmes it had mapped out.
Two years after the workshops, investigations by our correspondent showed that many parents, particularly the elite, encouraged their children to speak English at the detriment of their indigenous languages.
A resident of Ikoyi, Lagos, Mr. Solomon Akintude, narrated his encounter with a son of his friend. Akintude told our correspondent that he had visited his friend on the last Boxing Day. ”We both hail from Ekiti State. It was over a month I saw him and I decided to pay the visit,” the engineer said.
According to him, both of them were in the man‘s sitting room, conversing in Yoruba Language, when his friend’s five-year-old son came in. ”After making futile attempts to understand our conversation, the boy said, ‘daddy both of you are speaking a dirty language,” Akintunde said.
A civil servant with the Federal Ministry of Transport, Mrs. Tayo Sofenwa, whose two children, Tope and Lara, attend Kidsville School, on Odunlami Street, Victoria Island, Lagos, also said that the children were encouraged to speak English both at home and in school. When asked whether the children, whose father hails from Abeokuta, could speak Yoruba, the woman answered in the negative.
Justifying the family‘s attitude to the indigenous language, the civil servant said, ”English language is our official language. It will be wise to get the children as vast in it as possible to prepare them for a future outside Nigeria.”
Investigations showed that Nigerian indigenous languages were affected by negative attitudes of Nigerians. Last year, a member of Igbo sociocultural group, Ndigbo, Peter Umeh, urged the Igbo to preserve their language.
He said that the lgbo language was gradually becoming extinct because some lgbo children could not speak the language following the failure of their parents to teach them.
A lecturer at the Department of English, University of Lagos, Dr. Sola Osoba, explained what could have informed the engineer’s son’s reaction to his father’s indigenous language. ”Many of us have a negative attitude to our languages. We want to show visitors that our children can speak English,” Osoba said.
Osoba warned that at the rate Nigerians encouraged their children to despise their indigenous languages, some of the languages might cease to exist in future. According to him, a language dies when it has no speakers. He explains that death of a language is what is called language extinction.
According to, out of 521 indigenous languages in the country, 510 are living languages, two are second languages without mother-tongue speakers, and nine are extinct.
The dead languages included Ajawa spoken in Bauchi State; Auyokawa in Jigawa State; Basa-Guma in Niger State; Gamo-Nigi, Bauchi State; Homa, Adamawa State; Kpati, Taraba State, Kubi, Bauchi State, Mawa, Bauchi State and Tsehenawa in Jigawa State.
One of the reasons Nigerian parents prefer use of English by their children is to enhance the competence of the young ones in the language, which is the formal means of communication in the country. A Lagos-based lawyer, who craved anonymity, said, ”English is the official language in the country. The earlier a child is competent in it, the better. He can learn the indigenous language later.”
But Osoba described as erroneous, the view that inability to speak indigenous local languages would promote competence in English. ”We learn English in a second language environment. We don‘t learn it in the native speakers’ environment. The fact that your child cannot speak your indigenous language does not guarantee his competence in English,” the lecturer said.
Osoba stated that when one considered process of language extinction, one would know that it was possible in Nigeria because of inter-tribal marriages and attitude to local languages.
He added, ”For instance, in a family, the husband may be Yoruba and the wife Igbo. Both of them may not understand each other‘s language. The language that is mutually understandable to them is English. To such a family, the problem is not a negative attitude.”
According to experts, the common process leading to language death occurs when a community of speakers of a language becomes bilingual and gradually shifts allegiance to the second language until the speakers stop using the original language. Language extinction can also occur when their speakers are wiped out by genocide or diseases.
Linguists also believe that a language can go into extinction if it is spoken by a few elderly people. If such speakers, for example, are 50 years and above, there is a possibility that the language will die.
Some languages are endangered when there is a possibility that they may go into extinction, According to Herman Batibo, in Language Decline and Death in Africa, a language is endangered when there are fewer than 5,000 people speaking it; when the speakers are minority and they have negative attitude to their language; and when parents no longer teach their children the language.
Advising Nigerians to protect their languages, Osoba said that more roles should be assigned to them. He suggested that the languages should be codified. The lecturer noted that some indigenous languages were not codified. Osoba also said that books and newspapers should be written in the languages.
Also, a former Dean of Faculty of Social SciencesUNILAG, Prof. Lai Olorode, said those who discouraged their children from speaking their languages were culturally illiterate. According to him, such children are always alienated and lack confidence. “Inability to speak indigenous languages does not make a child intelligent,” he said.
Olorode disclosed that some Nigerians had been coming home to get teachers who could teach their children indigenous languages. He wondered why those who were resident in the country should have negative attitudes to their languages.
According to him, with what is happening in the United States, particularly the inauguration of Barack Obama, every African should be proud of his culture and language. ”We are in the era of globalisation. We should not allow our languages to die,” he said.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Jimmy Carter's Eyes

by E. C. Osondu

When she was three the girl accidentally upturned the boiling pan with which her mother was frying bean cakes on herself. The hot oil left two thick lumps of scar tissue across her eyes, blinding her. Her mother had told everyone who came to sympathize with her that she believed that a nurse had said they’d cut off the scar tissue in the hospital and the girl would be able to see again. Actually, she had not been told this by a real nurse but by a doll-baby nurse. This was the name given to auxiliary nurses in the general hospital where she had stayed with the child for three months, watching the eyes covered by gauze and gentian violet.

No one blamed her for what happened to the child. No one in the village spent all their days watching their children. A woman had thousands of chores—fetching water and firewood, washing clothes, cooking for the family—and looking after the children somehow fitted itself around these activities. She had left the child by the boiling oil and had run inside to fetch her salt container. She needed to sprinkle a pinch of salt into the boiling oil to know if it was time to dunk the ground beans into it. By the time she ran back out, the little girl had grabbed the boiling pan of oil. She had screamed and a crowd had gathered quickly. As is traditional in the village when such things happen, many took a look at the child and ran back to their homes to bring different medications, some useful but most useless. Some came with an expired bottle of gentian violet, another came with a smelly black bottle filled with the fat from the boa constrictor killed five years back. One came with a lump of wet cassava which she said would cool the skin and leave no scars. All these were dumped on the girl’s face. Someone screamed for the Midwife. The Mid ran the village dispensary. She did more than deliver babies: she wrote prescriptions, sold drugs, and gave injections. Mid took a look at the child and ordered that she be taken to the General Hospital in the local government headquarters which was a good ten miles away. A commercial motorcycle taxi was called, and the woman, holding the child close to her, rode away to the hospital. The crowd gathered around the fire which had grown cold and began to talk about the incident.
“It is always money, money, money for the young women nowadays. In my time this would not have happened.”

“It was not her fault. She has to take care of herself and the baby. You know her husband simply woke up one morning and walked away.”

“I have seen worse burns in my time. She is young and the skin will heal very nicely. You’ll be shocked when you see the same child many years hence. There will be no single blemish on her skin.”
“My boa oil can heal anything. They need not have taken her to the hospital—just a drop of the oil every morning and she would heal perfectly.”

“Oh the oil from the boa constrictor that was killed years back, I remember it was so big people thought it was a log of wood that had fallen across the road. From the black marks on its back you can tell it had lived for close to forty years.”

“I have a bottle of the oil myself. I simply forgot to bring it.”

“I wonder why Mid told her to take the child to the General Hospital. With the different medications we have applied even if the skin was burnt by the fires of purgatory she should heal.”

“You know she is the eyes and ears of the government among us here. Her job is more than giving babies with running stomach salt and sugar solution to drink. They sent her here to speak as the voice of the government. If you disobey her you could get into trouble.”

“You know since she got here the tax collectors now know the best days to come, they now come on days when everyone is at home. Who do you think tells them?”

People in the crowd looked at each other as if they had spoken too much and began to disperse. Towards evening, the driver of the motorcycle taxi came to tell the woman’s neighbors that she had asked that they bring a few of her clothes to the hospital. She also told them to search under her sleeping mat and bring all the money there to the hospital.

The people in the village gathered and drew up a roster of people who would take food to her in the hospital. Some volunteered to go pass a night with her in the hospital but were told not to bother by the woman. The hospitals were overcrowded and families of patients slept in the open verandah of the hospital. Those who had gone to the hospital said the place stank of carbolic acid and death. They said that because of frequent power outages, the ice melted from the bodies of the corpses in the mortuary and the corpses stank like decomposed frozen mackerel. They said the doctors and nurses had their own private clinics and preferred that patients came to consult them there rather than in the general hospital. They said the child’s eyes were covered with gauze and that she could not swallow and had to be fed through a straw.

The woman and her daughter stayed in the hospital for a long time. Longer than people stayed in the hospital when they went to have their hernias removed. No one followed the roster anymore; the villagers became busy with planting of their crops. Another woman began to fry akara by the roadside and people began to buy from her. Occasionally people spoke of the woman and her daughter and then looked away embarrassedly.
One day the woman returned with the little girl who had by now grown a bit. Two thick layers of scar tissue now covered the girl’s eyes. She was blind, which was rather odd. A blind little girl was unheard of. In the village, people became blind when they grew old. They said everyone chooses the part of his body that would age more than the other parts. Some chose their ears and became deaf as they grew old. Others chose to age in their teeth and lost all of them.

The girl’s mother smiled and did not say much. She did not complain that she had been abandoned in the hospital. She soon went back to her business of frying akara by the side of the road. There was no animosity between her and the other woman who had also started frying akara. She said the sky was wide enough for birds to fly without their wings touching each other.

The child sat by her mother and would sometimes pass salt and other items to her. The mother would leave her to go into the house and people would come and buy akara and the girl would collect their money and give them the correct change. This was very strange because the girl had not been to school and even if she had she was blind, so how could she distinguish between one currency note and another?

One day a little girl went missing in the village. Sometimes children would go missing but they would normally be found within a few hours. This was different. No one had seen the girl. When a child went missing, the mother of the child would tie her headscarf tightly around her waist and go around the village crying and asking Who has seen my child? It was generally believed that by the time she lost her voice, the missing child would be found. By the second day the child was still missing. The mother had lost her voice but the child was not yet found. When the mother walked past the woman frying bean cakes, crying and screaming, “Who has seen my child?”, the blind girl spoke for the first time.

“I know who stole the missing girl.”

“Be quiet and don’t get us both into trouble.”

“I saw him give the girl a piece of candy; he tied her mouth with a rag, and threw her into a jute bag and rode away on his motorcycle.”

The woman had never heard the child say that many words. Whenever the child chose to speak, she spoke in a whisper. Many people assumed she never spoke at all.

The mother called out to the woman. She said out loud what the child had said. The villagers gathered. There was only one man they knew who rode a motorcycle and had a jute bag: the man who bought cocoa beans from the villagers. They sent some young men after him. They caught him with the child two towns away. He had cut a hole in the bag through which he fed the girl. He had kidnapped the child for juju money-making rituals. It was rumored that little virgin girls could be charmed and made to vomit money through juju. He cried and said the devil made him do it.

The parents of the kidnapped girl brought a gift for the blind girl and her mother. There was no attempt to explain how the girl arrived at the knowledge she had. Some people said she must have heard something. They said her blindness had sharpened her ears. Her mother suspected something but said nothing.
One day the girl said softly to the mother, “Father is never coming back.”

“Why do you say that? I am not sure you remember your father, you were so tiny when he left.”
“He ran away with the Catechist’s wife’s younger sister.”

“How do you know that?” the woman asked, puzzled and frightened.
“They were traveling to Mokwa. He was going to start a new life with her, the car in which they were traveling broke down on the way; all the passengers came down while the driver opened the bonnet to find out what was wrong. He was crossing to the other side of the road to ease piss, and a car coming from the other side knocked him down.”

“Oh my child how do you know these things?” the woman asked.

“They buried him by the roadside, his grave is overgrown with weeds, he’s never coming back.”The woman was quiet for a while. Everything about the story sounded true. She began to cry quietly to herself.
All things eventually come to light. People in the village sensed the girl’s true powers and began to come to her for answers.

“Will there be plenty of rain this year so I can plant cassava instead of yams?”
“My black sheep did not come home with the rest of my sheep last night. Where could it be?”
“My son who lives in the city has not come home for five years. Is he dead or in prison?”
“My son who died three years ago: was his death a natural death or did my husband’s other wife poison him while I was out of the house?”

“Is the price of cocoa going to rise or fall this year?”
“My husband has been sick for years now; do you think he will recover?”
The girl answered all their questions in a whisper, she answered honestly. Her answers sometimes caused trouble, tore families apart. Her mother would sometimes speak to her by way of signs to be quiet but she spoke up all the time. The answers flowed out of her mouth like a gentle stream. She said what she had to say and was quiet.

Prosperity began to come to the village because of her. People planted the right crops at the right time and got very rich harvests. Evil was rare. People stopped stealing because they knew she would find them out. More farmers bought motorcycles. Life had never been better.
The mother stopped frying akara. She made a comfortable living from the gifts the girl received. She was happy for once in all her life. She always felt the girl’s eyes on her and sometimes shivered slightly when she felt the girl was looking at her. The girl’s voice did not change, her breasts were small. The mother was happy when she began to bleed in tiny drops every month. Thank goodness she is a woman she said to herself.
People said different things about the source of her power but no one denied it.
“Her power is from the river goddess. When she speaks it is the river goddess speaking.”
“It is the Holy Virgin that gives people such gifts, that is why she is called the voice of the dumb and the eyes of the sightless.”

“She is not Catholic, not even Christian—she does not mention the name of God.”
“God who took away her eyes gave her the gift of sight, and now she sees more than those of us with two eyes.”
People said all sorts of things but still came to her for answers. On occasion the mother would say the girl was tired and needed to rest, but the girl would come out of her room and provide answers to whomever needed them. People reminded the mother that she could now afford to take the child to the Baptist Missionary Hospital in the big city. The mother acted as if she did not hear them. She did not think it was wise to tamper with the will of God, she told those who were bold enough to ask her. Besides, if the girl thought it was such a good thing she would have said so. Quite a few agreed with the Mother; after all, those of them with two eyes did not see as much as she did.

At about this time, the former American President Jimmy Carter launched hisR iver Blindness Eradication Program. The program sent doctors and nurses to villages to distribute drugs for the prevention of river blindness. They did eye examinations and distributed glasses which the villagers referred to as Anya Jimmy Carter—Jimmy Carter’s Eyes. The frames of the glasses were second-hand, gifts and donations from affluent Americans. This time around though, it was going to be slightly different; they were coming with eye surgeons to help remove cataracts. The bearer of this piece of news was the Midwife. She told the villagers that she had made it happen, that the village was not originally in the plan for the cataract surgery; she had lobbied for them to be included.People were excited about this piece of good news. One of the old men in the village said the former President was kind because he had been a groundnut farmer before he became a President.
They had already been to the nearby village and had sent a notice to the chiefs that they were coming. The Midwife said they would be moving from house to house.

At first everyone looked forward to the visit until the woman mentioned that this would be an opportunity for her daughter to have the scar tissue covering her eyes removed. It was free and the girl was bleeding, she was now a woman and needed to get married. She had only said this to a few people. It soon got round the village that the girl was going to undergo surgery. There was anger, there were complaints, there was resentment and then people began to complain aloud.

“This program is not for people like her, it is for people losing their eyes to river blindness.”
“She lost her eyes due to her mother’s carelessness. Her mother should bear the cost of her surgery in a proper hospital.”

“What guarantee is there that she will see again? Even if the skin is lifted, I hear the eyeballs are dead and blank. Please, no one should make the poor child suffer for nothing.”
“They say her mother wants a husband for the girl, I know many men that will gladly marry her the way she is, she is a bag of wealth.”

“It is the mother that needs a husband. Why did she never remarry after her husband ran away, as we all know the husband is dead, the girl said it herself.”

“The girl belongs to the entire village now, not to her mother alone. She ceased being the mother’s property as soon as she received her gift.”

“You are right you know—if the gift was for her alone she would have stopped at telling her mother about her father’s disappearance.”

“You are right, she sees things for everyone, she was sent to prosper the village.”
“Why are the Americans sending the eye doctors to us? Do they mean to tell us they have cured all the blind people in America?”

“The Elders should meet and tell the woman what to do just in case she does not know.”

Words got to the ears of the Elders and they being people who acted in the interest of the inhabitants of the village decided to prevail on the mother of the girl to do the right thing. They made their points—they told her that her daughter’s gift was for the good of all, that if it was for her mother alone she would have been seeing things for the mother alone. They spoke to the woman for a very long time. The woman told them that the girl was already bleeding and was a woman. She wanted her to marry and have children. Midwife came along with the Elders. She explained the difference between a cataract and the girl’s condition. It was very possible that the girl would not recover her sight after the surgery, this might traumatize the girl and she may even lose the gift of speech which would be a double tragedy. They talked to the woman for a long time. The elders told her that they would gladly marry the girl off to any of their sons. She cried, and then she nodded and agreed with them.

On the day the American eye doctors came, the woman and her daughter locked their doors and remained inside till they left. Some people got new glasses; some had surgery. Everyone was happy. The girl and her mother were referred to as heroes who had put the interest of the town above their own interest.
When the planting season began, people came to the girl with their questions but alas she had no answers. The stream had dried up.

“It was not our fault. We should not blame ourselves for it,” one of the villagers said.
“Whatever has a beginning must have an end; even the deepest ocean has a bottom. She was bound to stop seeing things one day anyway.”

“It is the white man’s strong juju that did it, or don’t you know that white people are powerful?”
“The blind girl and her mother should consider themselves lucky, if it were in some other village they would have stoned them to death for possessing witchery powers.”

And so life returned to normal in the village and everybody’s conscience was at peace. Occasionally when a sheep went missing, the owner would be heard to bite his fingers and mutter, “If only that blind girl still had her powers.”

The Igbo agitation for state creation is a ruse

by Obi Nwakanma

Let me repeat this again: the agitation in certain quarters for new states to be created out of South Eastern Nigeria is a monumental distraction. The Igbo of South-Eastern Nigeria do not need another state. They need a massive infusion of resources for the rehabilitation of the five states already present and functioning at various levels of incompetence.

The Igbo need, far more urgently than a new state, a proper husbandry and accounting of the resources currently available to the current states of the South-East from the federal grants.
The Igbo need a different kind of equity. Parity of states will not fully resolve the crisis of resources, or the crisis of governance in the so-called states of the South East, which in truth are now no more than what I would call “Bakassi states” – mostly basket cases in which government seems absolutely absent from the ordinary or quotidian lives of the citizens.What the citizens of these sorry states currently in the South east really need is for the current governments in place to impact meaningfully on their lives. But that has not happened, in spite of the agitation for state creation in Nigeria. All that talk about bringing government closer to the people is sham.

People felt closer to governance when there were fewer states than now when every little corner of the Nigerian yardage seems to have become either an “autonomous community” or an “autonomous state.” In other words, there has been very little, discernible, direct or clear benefit to the ordinary citizen from the various dysfunctional exercises of state creation that has gone on in Nigeria since 1984. Instead what has become obvious is the alienation of citizens from government.Once capable and prosperous and potentially coherent political or administrative units were dismantled and in their places, these “magi cube” states have been created. The aim, it seems, was to intentionally dissolve the legitimacy and powers of the federating states of the union, create a powerful central government, and create a very weak federation in which control of the centre becomes the basis of the control of the federation.

For the Igbo of south eastern Nigeria, a long experience with political marginality has quite expectedly driven them to a search for parity with other so-called political regions on the matter of state creation. But on that question of political and economic justice for the South East and the Igbo people in general, the creation of a new state, vigorously canvassed by a very well organized and vocal minority among the Igbo, will not cut it. I say this from sampling a cross section of Igbo opinion on this matter: most Igbo do not care for the creation of new states in the East.

They do not see it as a solution to the problems of the East. Indeed a majority of the Igbo from my investigations regard this call for a new state in the east as simply part of a now familiar gimmickry by its current political elite who seem totally and frightfully out of touch with Igbo needs and expectations.The question for many Igbo is: what is the purpose for a new state in Igboland if it is not to serve the goals of further balkanization of the South east as a coherent, and potentially powerful political entity? What have the Igbo done with the current five states in the South-east? Whose benefit would this new agitation for states serve? The answer to the last question seems rather obvious.

The current agitation is driven by a cabal of interests whose goals are neither developmental nor visionary, but who seem given to the rather familiar “agbata-ekee” paradigm of political chop-and-quench. It does not matter what is at stake, for as long as the issue is the distribution of pork, this cabal of current political leadership seem prepared to undermine long term Igbo interests. In fact, it is not in the long term interest of the Igbo of the South East for another state to be created out of the South-East, in spite of what the retailers of this strange fantasy say.The argument for new states to be created out the South east is fundamentally premised on the grounds that the South eastern region of Nigeria has the least number of states among the six geographical zones. This is hardly a sensible premise to create states, because, of all things, no one is still in the business of making new lands. But besides that fact of nature, the premise presumes a certain injustice against the Igbo on matters of allocation. But frankly, equity demands that we come with clean hands and utter clear truths to power.

First, the Igbo position is not absolutely true. The Igbo have seven states in which they have great stakes. Aside from the five states of the South east, two states in the South-South have major Igbo presence, and the Igbo cities of Asaba and Port-Harcourt are capital cities of two major South-South states. We must take that into account. But my greatest dismay is in the immediate implications of this agitation.One of the most myopic developments in the political affairs of the South-East is the weakening of the delivery of governance by the breakdown or fragmentation of old administrative units and centers. The South-East suffers today from a rather terrifying situation of balkanisation, which rather than offer grounds for effective political and economic action, only further dissipates the energy and resource necessary for rebuilding the political and economic base of South-Eastern Nigeria. Any close observer of affairs in the South-East of Nigeria will immediately and honestly note that state creation has not been of any particular benefit to the Igbo people.It may have benefitted just a handful of people – the so-called “stake holders” – but not the wider citizenry. If a true referendum is carried out today in South-Eastern Nigeria, as it ought indeed to be conducted, on the question of creating new states, it will fail with wide margins. The reason will be very clear.The creation of states has been more of a burden rather than a blessing to the East. It has separated and alienated once close neighbors; it has made the East far too politically, economically, and socially fragmented, and it has not solved the problems of the East. Indeed, the east had far better going for it when it was Eastern Nigeria or even East Central state than now with its five states, where nothing works. Resources that could have been used in solving the material and social concerns of the people are used in “administering” governors lodges and maintaining advisers to governors. Not much has accrued from the federation from the East from state creation.

For instance, the Federal government did not build new infrastructures for the Federal Medical Centres in Owerri or Umuahia, they used the existing facilities of the Queen Elizabeth Specialist Hospital and the Owerri General hospital; they appropriated the College of Agriculture in Umudike; the Alvan Ikoku College of education in Owerri and the State polytechnic at Nekede, Owerri and turned them into Federal institutions.
The so-called “federal presence” in the east from state creation is pure madoffy. So indeed, there is no great benefit from these matters. The greatest and most immediate need of the Igbo of the South east is not the creation of a new state: it is the creation and expansion of Research and Production infrastructure to re-engage and redirect Igbo productive ingenuity and energy.

It is the rehabilitation of Aba and Onitsha; two cities that have basically collapsed because even the current state structure is unable to maintain and expand them as epicenters of commerce and the nerves of regional economic activity; it is the rebuilding of schools and reforms in education: no new schools have been built in the east by any government since the 1980s; no new investments on existing schools or educational infrastructure. Anybody who doubts should visit the Government College Umuahia, once the most beautifully laid government school in Nigeria.

Today it is a sorry ghetto not fit for prisoners of war. The Abia state government is unable to maintain that vast estate. Notably, the same goes for the Government Colleges at Afikpo and Owerri. Yet these were properly maintained under the single Eastern regional government. Anybody who sees the state of government owned schools or hospitals or even the local community markets will understand that what the South east needs is not more states. It needs effective, visionary governance.