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Chairman!

We know you are a government contractor but Chairman sounds better than Contractor. Oho, you agree.

You are happiest on the day the President gives assent to the annual budget. Such a day signifies the start of the hunting season. The Business Class seats on flights to Abuja hosts you more frequently than your toilet seat. The briefcase you pull along is bulging with business cards and letter headed papers for your many companies that exist only on paper.  Your pot belly precedes you, announcing your credentials as a big man.

This is your career, legitimate, yes, but only on the face of it.

What if you did not announce yourself wherever you went though? What if you were not so noisy on the phone in public places, in the departure lounge, in the hotel lobby, in the men’s room? Hysterical laughter, exaggerated courtesies and all.; you are always on to one Excellency, one Honourable, one Ranka Dede who can or who has access to somebody who can give you a handsome cut of the annual budget. corruption

You do not joke with your business. That is perhaps the only admirable thing about you. You can dance to Kwam 1 at the weekend owambe or allow yourself to be dragged to a night club by your undergraduate sugar girl, but when it comes to chasing those papers in Government offices, you are more serious than a brain surgeon. Even aggressive.  When a bid is opened, you are like a bulldozer on site, uprooting and over-turning everything.

What if you pursued the execution of the contract with the same enthusiasm, the same frenzy with which you pursued the award?

But your passion is fleeting. It lasts only until the commissioner or the minister or the DG has appended his signature on the award of contract letter. Depending on the number of zeros the value of the contract bears, you might dash it out to one of your protégés as something for di boys or your concubine as a birthday present or you sell it (sub-contract is the nice term for it) to the company with the real expertise to execute it after slicing off a handsome profit of course or worse still, you collect the mobilization fee, grease a few palms and vanish.

What if you did not add an extra zero to the contract value? What if you did not pad it so much that the cost is now almost twice what it ought to be?

The extra zero is the real value in the contract to you, not the accidents that will be reduced after the road is fixed, not the number of pupils whose lives will get a boost with new chairs in their classrooms, not the lives that would be saved from cholera when the village borehole finally begins to flow.

The extra zero is the gasoline which keeps our culture of patronage running. It is the steroid that keeps corrupt civil servants uncivil and anything but servants. They are almost choking from your bribes, from the gatemen who wish you happy weekend when you arrive the ministry to the oga-at-the-top whose cut you must guarantee before your file makes the triumphant journey out of his office to the Accounts unit and every one in between. This seemingly harmless extra zero is the reason why a dizzying number of people who share an equal citizenship of this country with you are unsure of their next meal. It is this extra zero that oils the wheels of disease and ignorance and ensures neonatal and maternal mortality remains abysmally high.

This extra zero which you and your cohorts add to the contract figure almost as if it was an innocent mistake is reason why you can afford to send your children to universities abroad and they get to acquire the effrontery to speak ill of their country, and make a career out of bad-mouthing her government on social media. How convenient. They get to pick their teeth with our collective patrimony and then turn around to fart in our faces with their self righteous indignation.

Your passport bulges with Visas to a dozen countries. The moment this house crashes, you are off to some safe clime. But not so for millions of us. So on their behalf and in the name of God if you believe in one, I ask you to leave already for we cannot survive your parasitism for much longer.

What if you had died?

The doctors say you took a cocktail of pills. The discovery was, thankfully, early. The prompt surgery took life out of the coloured pills that were hungrily gnawing at your being. Alas, they, not your heart, ground to a halt.

What if the discovery was not made?

What if it hadn’t been a whole week before I read the story in the Metro pages of the newspaper?

It has been over a year since we last had a proper conversation, one on one, like we used to, before life happened and put a blade to the thing that held us together, making our friendship fadeout into awkward hellos and how are you doings, delivered through chats that always returned a positive response; fine.

What if I always knew everything was not fine with you though? domestic_violence_543

Thankfully, this is not a funeral oration. But it is. Not for this bucket you missed kicking by inches but for the death you died some years ago when you took the decision to marry that man.

We were young and eager for marriage. It was the next cap, an icing on our freshly acquired degrees. He came along, like a smile from heaven; oozing affluence and trouble. You refused to see beyond the affluence. The Prada bags made up for his drinking. The designer outfits covered up his open womanizing. The love, you convinced yourself, would grow. When he said jump, you screamed how high?

What if I admit I was slightly envious, standing there as your maid of honour, watching as you exchanged diamond rings and swore to be with him in sickness and in health. Alas, you alone took that oath seriously. For him, the words paled into nothingness no sooner than they left his lips.

He hit you and you stayed. You made excuses for him. You even claimed to have been at fault. The most ridiculous excuse I heard was that the sex was good, a worthy compensation of sorts for every time he turned you into a punching bag. You stayed.

What if death is a decision? Not a state. Not an end.

You decided to marry him even though you hardly knew him. You decided to stick with him even when he was a monster. You decided to close your eyes to the other women even when you saw glaring evidence. You decided to quit your job because he said his wife should not work. You decided to lock the world out, telling us to mind our business.

You died long before you chose to commit suicide!

What if you remembered your strength, your independent mindedness, how you infected me with your love for life and success. Back when we were teenagers in secondary school, you told me of your desire to be a successful career woman, a professional, someone high up in the corporate world, combining beauty and brains and making men catch cold when you sneezed?

How did one decision ruin it all?

What if you had said yes to someone who loved you back instead? Someone whose brain is not stuck between his legs? Someone who knew your worth and valued it. Like that guy you dumped for this man, who you said was a broke ass fellow. He certainly would not have told you few months into your marriage, that he married you so you could stay at home and be a wife. A cook and a hen hatching children.

What if…?

The man you married would have been only too glad if you had died. In a matter of weeks he would have announced your replacement, one of his many mistresses, with a face buried in layers of Mary Kay.

Would I have been able to forgive myself for not being there, for not going beyond those awkward phone chats, for not stepping in to support and not to judge?

The last time we saw was last December at the end of year party of our Old Girls Association. You looked spent, twice your age, like a sucked orange. Two rows of seats separated us and when our eyes met, we exchanged an inaudible Hi, your face, a signpost of regret and pain. I was going to pull you aside after the guest lecturer’s speech to ask what was wrong. But you did not stay long. By the time I looked in your direction again, you were gone.

Picture credit http://www.dawn.com/ 

Dear Stranded Emigrant,

It’s been ten years now.

I remember the day you announced with glee that you had finally gotten the Visa. “I am checking out for good”  were your words dripping with excitement.

I was happy for you, a cheerful climax to over a year’s hunt. In the period following our graduation, you had made looking for a Visa, any Visa, a full time job. You were obsessed by it, consumed by the promise of a better life on the other side, convinced that it was the only thing to do. So, from embassy to embassy you went, casting your net like a fisherman in shallow waters. For many moons you caught nothing, only tales of how on the balance of probabilities, some bored blue eyed consul did not find you worthy to visit their country.

Then, there was this miraculous catch and we celebrated.

What if that Visa was not for only six months?

‘I have it all worked out’ you had boasted. Your agent who you had paid huge sums had laid out a sure plan that sounded a little too grandiose. ‘That is how everybody does it’you reassured when I expressed some doubt. I did not push it. It was futile. No being born of a woman could have talked you out of it. You boarded the plane.

It’s been ten years now.

What if your going abroad dream has since become a nightmare? illegal

What if the sure plan was not so sure after all?

You became a cash cow for your agent. He fleeced you. For fake papers.For an arranged marriage.For cover from the cops. When you could not produce any more juice, he spat you out like chaff and left you to freeze in the cold. You became a shadow. Living in the backwaters. Fighting for survival.

You have done the rounds; from working as a nanny, keeping watch at night in the cold, to washing dishes in a fast food restaurant and driving a taxi. What you make is hardly enough to keep a cloth on your back. You have no savings. Your rent is late by many months. Your life has waned by many more.

But you refuse to beat a retreat still.

You keep putting up appearances, making like all is well. You post pictures of yourself in oversized jackets and basketball boots on social media. When we speak on phone, you speak like you were born there. Better comes out as berra. When I ask when you plan to visit home, you make excuses about being busy at work. When I visited on vacation and asked for your address so we could hook up, your phone became unavailable until my vacation period was over.

What if you’ve just been deceiving yourself?

What if it’s an open secret that all has not been well with you over there?

It’s been ten years now.

All of us your friends back home are not doing badly. We might not be millionaires but we can all afford annual vacations to the country where you are holed up and the government welcome us warmly because of the figures they see in our bank statements. There have been marriages and children. Higher degrees and Promotions; Appointments and awards; Savings and Investments.

What if the grass is greener on this side?

What if home is really sweeter than the deception you are currently living abroad?

In the news, we hear of austerity measures. Of your host country defaulting in loans.Of jobs being cut.Of taxes being raised. Of Immigration laws being tightened. Here, there are talks of a middle class re-emerging. People are starting new business, building Africa’s Silicon Valley. The cloud over our land is heavy with venture capitalist fund. There is plenty money chasing after talents and creativity. Even those who unlike you did not get in through the back door, who have enjoyed appreciable career success in that land are moving back home, taking over the juicy jobs.

What if you took the next flight home?

Admitting that your sojourn over there has been a mistake is not shame but bravery. Burying your head deep in the sand in that cold, cold land however is not just foolhardy but also pure cowardice. It’s not late yet, rush back home, son.

First published HERE

female-radio-presenterDear Radio Presenter, sorry OAP; these days it’s hard to see you as a journalist. ‘Celebrity’ is perhaps, more apt a description.

You give actors a run for their money on the red carpet. You compete with musicians for space in society magazines. You rack up more scandals than the two in gossip blogs.

But that is not what this is about.

I am often worried about your health because you seem to have a permanent cold. What with the way you speak from your nose, trying by fire by force to give off an accent that is neither American nor British nor anything that is identifiable to the literate mind even though we both know the longest you have been abroad is a week holiday in the UK.

What if your accent is confused?

What if nobody is impressed?

What if these hybrid nasal sounds you make in lieu of speaking jar the ears and do not add an ounce to your credibility?

But again, that is not what this is about.

When we were younger, our parents encouraged us to listen to the radio. Next to books, it was the warehouse of new words, of correct pronunciations, of enviable diction. Not so today. You and your colleagues have fouled it all up with your street lingos and social media age desecrations of language. Parents now switch off the car radio when the children are in the car for fear of your strong language, your lewd discussions, your daily contribution to the chiselling away of whatever is left of our moral values.

But that is not still what this is about.

There is a worrying emptiness about our society that is so loud. Even the deaf can hear it. We complain on end about how our people are always seeking for short cuts , how there is now  a dearth of creativity and originality, how our lives now seem to be heavy on fluff and very little on substance. You speak of it often on air. But you are as guilty. Your programme is ten per cent sensible talk, fifty per cent music, then you open up the phone lines to allow in a myriad of opinions ranging from the hilarious to the downright ridiculous, to make up the remaining percentage.

What if you were not so lazy? What if your programmes were not so empty, so weak on researched and professionally packaged material that you have now rechristened them shows, not programmes?

But you make like you are a jack of all trade. Your opinions are as tall as the Burj Khalifa. You have something to say about everything, from politics to economics, to relationships. You know it all, an expert in every fields. The solution to all of humanities problems has been vested in you and it’s your prerogative to dispense it. You mount the podium in your studio, a faceless god, and sermonize. Your tongue is sharp to criticize. Your ego is so fragile to admit mistakes.

What if you sound like a broken record?

What if you sound so ridiculous when you pontificate on subjects you know nothing about that one feels pity for you?

The other day you assumed the persona of a health professional and decided in-between bouts of back to back music, to teach your listeners a thing or two about their health. Google and Wikipedia have graciously democratized knowledge and everybody can now offer an opinion on all things. You chose Anthrax as a topic. It is one that provides enough facts to sufficiently alarm your listeners and produce the desired effect especially in this time of Ebola. But then you spoilt it all. You called Anthrax a virus. At first I thought it was a mistake which you would promptly correct. But you repeated it over and over, spewing so much ignorance with so much confidence one would think you had an inkling of what you were on about.

This finally, is what this piece is about.

Disinformation, my dear friend, is a lot more dangerous than misinformation or no information.

When what you say has become an extension of beer parlour gossip, or a variant of the kind of exchange that occurs in the comments section of blogs – a giant heap of garbage – you shape your listeners reality tunnel in ways not conducive for proper reasoning and in the process you contribute in making the society a lot more unsafe.

First Published HERE

Photo Credit: http://www.dannygibson.net/ 

You have made begging an art, a trade, an excuse.

You walk up to me at the bus park all dressed up. I listen to you because you look serious. Even sound important. Your English is clean. Your cologne, inviting. Few seconds in and it is clear you are a story teller. Your themes are like the stars above at night. A wallet got lost in the bus. You took the wrong bus and ended up in this strange place. You have not had anything to eat all day and will appreciate a little token.

What if you are stranded at the same place and at the same time, every day?

Your stories like the weather keep changing. The next day, you will narrowly miss the person you came all the way to see on the Island and you will need just some little change to get back home. The day after, your car will develop a slight fault down the road and you had left your ATM card at home….

What if the stories are not so convincing, so capable of milking out mercy from even the meanest of minds?  What if they were not fiction, pure fiction, steeped in undiluted hilarity?

What if you found yourself a real job, like erm erm selling these stories to Nollywood ?

What if you wrote them into short stories and published them as vignettes and hawked them in the Lagos traffic? What if you tried out stand-up comedy instead or became a sales man convincing people to buy insurance policies they cannot understand?

How much longer would you stay exploiting the goodwill of good Samaritans? Corporate-Beggar-in-lagos-Picture

What if not every Samaritan is good?

What if I told you I am looking at how to grab the much you have sef? That beneath the façade of this dry-cleaned shirt I have on is a mountain of needs. Bills unpaid. Rent that is late. Loans overdue. Dreams now so deferred they look like nightmares.

What if…?

I met your kind, your clones at the airport the other day.

One of them whispered as he frisked me on the tarmac. An onlooker would have thought that he was wishing me a safe flight. Oga you know sey na weekend, anything for di boys? That was what he whispered in my ear. The meaning was not lost on me. The nauseating feeling made me sigh as my mind did a double back flip to the other fellow in uniform who just seconds ago at the security check-in, asked me the very same question.

He had said with a note of finality that I am not allowed to fly with frozen tomato stew on a local flight, (even when it is all wrapped up and I was checking-in the bag.) But he was going to allow my luggage pass anyway. He smiled a knowing smile, like he had just absolved me of all my sins. Still reeling from shock, I smiled back in gratitude. His next statement sent me back into shock. It was more of a demand than a question, Oga anything for di boys?

What if there is nothing for di boys?

What if they just did their job the way they ought to and not expect anything in return?

Another one is flipping through my passport but his eyes are not reading the pages. It is his lips that work instead, complimenting my shirt, asking what I came back with, reminding me what day of the week it was. He was begging, cajoling me to part with some dollars, subtly threatening me with unjustified delays if I did not play ball.

What if my papers were forged? What if I was entering the country illegally? What if my cargo was arms or hard drugs, or fake medicines?

What if…?

I am looking at you as you tell your dog-eared story about being stranded, your hand running through your well kept hair and scratching at nothing. Your help me in the name of God makes me wonder if God has a sense of humor, if He was  amused as I was by your trickery, by your subsidized cleverness in His name. I make like I did not hear you nor see the look of entitlement on your face as I walk along. Yes I know it is weekend but No, I made no plans whatsoever for di boys.

This piece was first published HERE

Picture Credit, VibeNaija blog

bush_suicide_bomberWhat if you hadn’t died?

What if you had flicked the switch or pulled the string or did whatever it is you do to detonate your parcel of death and it exploded only partially leaving you alive, a mangled heap of bloody flesh with a heart still beating. Would you have been able to face the world? Would you have been able to live with yourself, your twisted conscience, your tainted soul?

What if you’d never met that man who claimed to be a Mallam.

What if you had not – despite your education – fallen under his spell and allowed him feed you a different kind of truth. A kind that turned a man into what he is not. A killer. A coward.

What if you had not allowed the demons – that is what Father calls whatever it was that entered you and made you go far away from all of us, your family, your friends, we who would have tried to pull you back and uproot the hate the man had planted in your soul.

What if I made a greater effort to go after you, to reclaim you?

What if I could never forgive myself for allowing you, this brother I loved, to derail like a rudderless ship and end with such ignominy.

But I was only obeying you. Nobody should look for me, you had warned in the short note you left on the door post the morning you disappeared. You said you had found the light and had made your choice. I did not take you seriously at first. We all did not. I expected that you would come home after a few weeks, like you did some years earlier when Father disagreed with your staying out late and coming home drunk and you had walked out on us only to return a month later when you got broke, like a prodigal.

What if I paid closer attention to what you said each time we spoke on the phone in the months that followed. Initially, it was all simple.  Even heart-warming. You had become a changed man. A holier man. You now said all your prayers and had quit alcohol. Then it got weird. You began to say the rest of us were sinners, no different from infidels. That education is a sin. That science is haram.

What if your mallam taught you instead that civilization itself came from the Arab world. That the numbers everyone uses are actually Arabic numerals .That thousands of years ago Muslims led the quest for knowledge. That Arab caliphates from Baghdad to Cairo used to be centers of learning and innovation.

What if I reminded you of how, as kids, you always said you wanted to be a pilot each time we saw a plane in the sky as we played football in the front yard. In Secondary school, the ambition graduated into becoming an Astronaut. You would stay up late studying, getting your math right because you dreamt of being the first African in space. Finally your degree was in Mechanical Engineering, but your dreams of space were still alive.

What if you did not burn your certificate?

Alas you still found use for your education. Bomb making.

What if you did not travel to Somalia? And then to Yemen and then to Northern Mali to get trained to become a warrior for Allah.

You called me with a strange number the day a suicide bomber drove a car into the United Nations Building. You sounded happy. Accomplished. Then, I did not know you were one of them . You said it was victory for God. I told you innocent people had died but you said they were not innocent. That they were working for enemies of Islam, the United Nations. I told you some of those that died were Muslims. You hesitated. Clearly you had not thought of that. Then you said it was the will of Allah for them and a privilege to die as martyrs.

What if Allah is not obliged?

What if all the blood you shed in God’s name has left Him without a name?

What if you knew that Mother was inside the shopping mall that afternoon buying groceries for the approaching Ramadan. I hear you arrived in a motor bike, walked into the mall, screamed the greatness of our maker and then…then, there was the loud bang.

What if she hadn’t loved you so much.  A little too much in my opinion. You were her last child, just a year my junior. But you were her favourite. She spoilt you. In return, you drilled holes into the left of her chest with your stubbornness, letting all her happiness leak out like rain drops from a leaking. And as if to ice the cake, you tore what was left of her into shreds when the blast ripped through the mall.

She died.

What if I could never forgive you for this.  And the others.

But there isn’t much of you left to forgive or not forgive. All there is, is a picture of you in the cover of the evening paper with the tag; suicide bomber. Not “Warrior” not “Crusader,” just a criminal not worthy of even a grave.

The man, your mallam however continues to enjoy his breath. His women. His infamy.

Some days earlier you called me. I knew it was you because you alone called me with a satellite phone. It had been many months since we last spoke and I was surprised because our last call had ended in an argument and I had told you never to call me again. I ignored the call but you rang on persistently like you really had something important to say. It did not occur to me, until the Police identified you as the suicide bomber, that you were perhaps calling that day, to say goodbye.

First published Here

Picture Credit : http://www.ascertainthetruth.com/

 

AdichieA Speech delivered by Chimamanda Adichie  at the ceremony to mark Anambra’s Governor Willie Obiano’s 100 days in office.

 

Ndi Anambra na ndi obia, ekenekwa m unu.

Good afternoon.

I feel greatly honored to be here today. I want to thank our governor, Chief Willie Obiano, for inviting me. As we mark the first one hundred days of his term, I would like to commend him for his vision and ambition in the areas of education, health and agriculture. And particularly security.

Most of us know how, for a long time, Onitsha has been a security nightmare. If you are travelling, you do NOT want to be in Upper Iweka after 6 PM because of the fear of armed robbers. But today, because of our new governor’s initiative, people in Onitsha no longer live in fear. True freedom is to be able to live without fear. A relative told me that you can drop your mobile phone on the ground in Upper Iweka and come back hours later and still see it there, which was NOT the case in the past. And which is one of the best ways to measure leadership – by the testimony of the ordinary people. My sincere hope is that, under the leadership of Governor Obiano, Anambra state will continue its journey of progress with strides that are wide and firm and sure.

I am from Abba, in Njikoka LGA. My mother is from Umunnachi in Dunukofia LGA. I grew up in Nsukka, in Enugu State, a town that remains deeply important to me, but Abba and Umunnachi were equally important to me. My childhood was filled with visits. To see my grandmother, to spend Christmas and Easter, to visit relatives. I know the stories of my great grandfather and of his father, I know where my great grandmother’s house was built, I know where our ancestral lands are.

Abum nwa afo Umunnachi, nwa afo Abba, nwa afo Anambra.

I am proud of Anambra State. And if our sisters and brothers who are not from Anambra will excuse my unreasonable chauvinism, I have always found Igbo as spoken by ndi Anambra to be the most elegant form of Igbo.

Anambra State has much to be proud of. This is a state that produced that political and cultural colossus Nnamdi Azikiwe. This is a state that produced the mathematics genius Professor James Ezeilo. This is a state that produced Dora Nkem Akunyili, a woman who saved the lives of so many Nigerians by demonstrating dedicated leadership as the Director General of NAFDAC. (May her soul continue to rest in peace)

This is a state that produced Nigeria’s first professor of Statistics, Professor James Adichie, a man I also happen to call daddy. This is a state that produced the first woman to be registrar of Nigeria’s premiere university, UNN, Mrs Grace Adichie, a woman I also happen to call Mummy.

This is a state that has produced great writers. If Chinua Achebe and Flora Nwapa and Chukwuemeka Ike had not written the books they did, when they did, and how they did, I would perhaps not have had the emotional courage to write my own books. Today I honour them and all the other writers who came before me. I stand respectfully in their shadow. I also stand with great pride in the shadow of so many other daughters and sons of Anambra State.

But the truth is that I have not always been proud of Anambra. I was ashamed when Anambra became a metaphor for poor governance, when our political culture was about malevolent shrines and kidnappings and burnt buildings, when our teachers were forced to become petty traders and our school children stayed at home, when Anambra was in such disarray that one of the world’s greatest storytellers, Chinua Achebe, raised the proverbial alarm by rejecting a national award.

But Anambra rallied. And, for me, that redemption, which is still an ongoing process, is personified in our former governor Peter Obi. I remember the first time I met him years ago, how struck I was, how impressed, that in a country noted for empty ostentation, our former governor travelled so simply and so noiselessly. And perhaps he is proof that you can in fact perform public service in Nigeria without destroying the eardrums of your fellow citizens and without scratching their cars with the whips of your escorts.

I was struck by other things – how he once arrived early to church, because according to him, he tried not to be late – in a society that excuses late coming by public officials – because he wanted young people to see that governors came to church on time. How he visited one of the schools handed over to the missions and gave the school prefect his direct phone number. How Government house here in Awka was often empty of hangers-on, because he had a reputation for what our people call ‘being stingy,’ which in other parts of the world would be called ‘prudently refusing to waste the people’s resources.’

Former governor, Peter Obi, ekenekwa m gi. May the foundation you built stand firm and may our governor Chief Willie Obiano build even more.

Anambra was and is certainly one of the better-governed states in Nigeria. We measure good governance in terms of accountability, security, health, education, jobs, businesses. All of these, of course, are important. But there are other values that are important for a successful society. Two of those in particular are relevant to ndi Anambra and ndi Igbo in general: the values of community and consensus

Most of the recorded history we have about the Igbo – and indeed about many other ethnic groups in Africa – came from foreigners, men and women who did not speak the language, missionaries and anthropologists and colonial government representatives who travelled through Igboland and recorded what they saw and who often had their own particular agendas. Which is to say that while they did useful and fascinating work, we still have to read their writing with a certain degree of scepticism.

However, all the history books written about Igbo people are consistent on certain things. They all noted that Igbo culture had at its heart two ostensibly conflicting qualities: a fierce individualism AND a deeply rooted sense of community.

They all also noted that Igbo people did not have a pan-Igbo authority, that they existed in small republican communities, to which that popular saying Igbo enwe eze – the Igbo have no kings – attests.

Many of these missionaries and anthropologists did not approve of the Igbo political system. Because THEY themselves had come from highly hierarchical societies, they conflated civilization with centralization. Some of them wrote that the Igbo people were not civilized. This was of course wrong. The fact that the Igbo did not have an imperial system of governance did not mean that they were not civilized.

One of the writers summarized the Igbo system as being based on two things: consultation and consensus.

In fact one can argue that it was a much more complex form of organization, this system that I like to call the democracy of free-born males, because it is much easier to issue an order from the top than it is to try and reach a consensus. Professor Adiele Afigbo beautifully describes the political culture of precolonial Igboland when he writes that “AUTHORITY was dispersed between individuals and groups, lineages and non-lineages, women and men, ancestors and gods”

Perhaps it was this diffuse nature of authority that made it difficult for those early travellers to understand the Igbo. Professor Elizabeth Isichei has argued that if we are looking for unifying institutions among the Igbo, then we cannot look to political organization since there was no centralized system. Instead we must look at other areas – social institutions and customs, philosophical and religious values. And language.

And on the subject of language, I would like to tell you a little story.

Some years ago, I met an academic in the US. An Igbo man. He wrote articles about Igbo culture, organized conferences about Igbo history. We had an interesting conversation during which he bemoaned the behavior of Igbo people in America.
“Do you see the Chinese children?” He asked me. “They speak Chinese and English. See the Indian kids? They speak English and Bengali. But our children speak only English!”
He was very passionate. Then his phone rang and he excused himself and said it was his daughter. He spoke English throughout the call. At the end, I tried to be funny and asked him if his children spoke Igbo with an American accent? He said no.
Something in his manner, a certain discomfort, made me ask—do your children speak Igbo?
No, he said.
But they understand? I asked.
He paused.
Well, a little, he said. Which I knew meant that they probably did not understand at all.

I was suprised. Not because it was unusual to see an Igbo whose children did not speak Igbo, but because I had imagined that THIS particular man would be an exception, since he wrote and spoke so passionately about Igbo culture. I imagined that he would not be infected with that particular condition of the Igbo – a disregard of their language.

It is not enough to bemoan this phenomenon or to condemn it, we must ask why it is happening, what it means, what it says about us, why it matters and most of all what we must do about it.

This condition is sadly not limited to the diaspora. I once ran into a woman here in Nigeria, an old friend of my family’s, and her little son. I said kedu to the boy.
His mother quickly said no, no, no, he doesn’t speak Igbo. He speaks only English.

What struck me was not that the child spoke only English, but that his mother’s voice was filled with pride when she said ‘hei mbakwa, o da-asukwa Igbo.’

She was proud that her child did not speak Igbo.

Why? I asked

Her reply was: Igbo will confuse him. I want him to speak English well.

Later as we talked about her work and her son’s school, she mentioned that he was taking piano and French lessons. And so I asked her, “Won’t French confuse him?” (okwu ka m na-achozikwa!)

The woman’s reason — that two languages would confuse her child — sounds reasonable on the surface. But is it true? It is simply not true. Studies have consistently shown that children have the ability to learn multiple languages and most of all, that knowledge of one language can AID rather than HARM the knowledge of another. But I don’t really need studies. I am my own proof.

I grew up speaking Igbo and English at the same. I consider both of them my first languages and I can assure you that in my almost 37 years on earth, I am yet to be confused by my knowledge of two languages.

My sister, my parents first child, was born in the US, when my father was a doctoral student. My parents made a decision to speak only Igbo to her. They knew she would learn English in school. They were determined that she speak Igbo, since she would not hear Igbo spoken around her in California. And I can assure you that she was NOT confused!

My parents are here/I could not have asked for better parents/Grateful to them for much/for giving me the gift of Igbo

I am richer for it. Sometimes I wish I could speak beautiful Igbo full of proverbs, like my father does, and I wish my Igbo were not as anglicized as it is, but that is the reality of my generation and languages have to evolve by their very nature.

I deeply love both English and Igbo. English is the language of literature for me. But Igbo has a greater emotional weight. It is the enduring link to my past. It is the language in which my great grandmothers sang. Sometimes, when I listen to old people speaking in my hometown Abba, I am full of admiration for the complexity and the effortlessness of their speech. And I am in awe of the culture that produced this poetry, for that is what the Igbo language is when spoken well – it is poetry.

To deprive children of the gift of their language when they are still young enough to learn it easily is an unnecessary loss. We now have grandparents who cannot talk to their grandchildren because there is a hulking, impermeable obstacle between them called language. Even when the grandparents speak English, there is often an awkwardness in their conversations with their grandchildren, because they do not have the luxury of slipping back to Igbo when they need to, because they are navigating unfamiliar spaces, because their grandchildren become virtual strangers with whom they speak in stilted prose. The loss is made worse by imagining what could have been, the stories that could have been told, the wisdom that might have been passed down, and most of all, the subtle and grounding sense of identity that could have been imparted on the grandchildren.

Some things can’t be translated. My wonderful British-born niece Kamsiyonna once heard me say, in response to something: O di egwu.
She asked me: What does it mean Aunty?
And I was not sure how to translate it. To translate it literally would be to lose something.

One of the wonderful things about language, any language, is that it gives you a new set of lenses with which to look at he world. Which is why languages sometimes borrow from one another – we use the French au fait and savoir faire in English — because communication is not about mere words but about worldviews, and worldviews are impossible to translate.

Some people argue that language is what makes culture. I disagree. I believe identity is much more complex, that identity is a sensibility, a way of being, a way of looking at the world. And so there are Igbo people who don’t necessarily speak the language but are no less Igbo than others who do.

But I focus on language because while it is not the only way of transmitting identity, it is the easiest and the most wholesome.

I’d like to go back to the story of the woman whose son did not spoke Igbo and the pride with which she related this.

The corollary of her pride is shame. Where is this shame from? Why have we, as Ama Ata Aidoo wrote in her novel CHANGES, insisted on speaking about ourselves in the same condescending tone as others have used to speak of us?

There are many Igbo people who say the same thing as the woman with the son. Others may not think that Igbo will confused their children, but they merely think it is not important in our newly globalized world. It is after all a small language spoken only in southeastern Nigeria. Kedu ebe e ji ya eje?

It is indeed true that the world is shrinking. But to live meaningfully in a globalized world does not mean giving up what we are, it means adding to what we are.

And speaking of a globalized world, I remember being very impressed by the effort that the people of Iceland put in preserving their language, Icelandic. Iceland is a tiny country with a population less than that of Igboland. Many people speak English but speaking Icelandic is also very important to them. It is NOT because Icelandic has economic power. Iceland is certainly not the next China.

It is because the people value the language. They know it is a small language that does not have much economic power but they do not say: kedu ebe e ji ya eje?

Because they understand that there are other values that language has beyond the material and the economic. And this I think is key: Value.

To value something is to believe that it matters and to ACT as though it matters.

We don’t seem to have this value. It is one thing to say speaking igbo is important, but it’s another to make a conscious, concerted choice to speak Igbo to our children.

In many respects, to argue for the preservation of a language should be a conservative position, but oddly, in our case, it has become a progressive position.

I should pause here and say that I am not trying to romanticize Igbo culture. I quarrel strongly with a number of things in Igbo culture. I quarrel with the patriarchy that diminishes women. I quarrel with the reactionary arguments that try to silence dissent by invoking culture, by saying that so and so is not our culture as if culture were a static thing that never changes.

Igbo is not perfect, no people have a perfect culture, but there are Igbo values that we can retrieve and renew. The values of community. Of consensus.

In his book about President Yar’Adua’s administration, Segun Adeniyi tells a story about the dark weeks when Nigerians did now know where their president was, and whether he was alive or dead. He writes that Dora Akunyili came to him and said, “Segun, my conscience will not allow me to continue keeping quiet.”

Her conscience. It seems to me that conscience is rare in Nigerian public life. It should not be, but it is.

Conscience and integrity are central to Igbo culture, and to any culture that has strong communitarian principles. Conscience means that we cannot think only of ourselves, that we think of a greater good, that we remain aware of ourselves as part of a larger whole.

Some years ago, my cousin from Eziowelle told me a story that his grandfather had told him, about ISA ILE, where people in a dispute would go to a god and swear that they had not lied, with the understanding that whoever had lied would die. My cousin said, ‘thank God we no longer do that.’

Have we become, I wondered, a people now overly familiar with falsehood? Are we now allergic to truth? Should we not continue to have a metaphorical isa ile as a guiding principle? Should we not have a society where willfully telling lies that cause harm to others will have real consequences?

The Igbo are famed for their entrepreneurial spirit. But at what point did we decide that we will no longer sell goods and services, but instead sell the safety of our sisters and brothers? How did we come to a place where people no longer sleep in their ancestral homes because they are afraid they will be kidnapped for ransom by their own relatives?

Igboland was once a place where people were concerned about WHERE your money came from. Now that is no longer the case. Now, it matters only that one has money. As for where the money came from, we look away.

In Chinua Achebe’s classic, Things Fall Apart; Unoka consults Agbala about his poor yam harvests.

Every year, he said sadly (to the priestess), ‘before I put any crop in the earth, I sacrifice a cock to Anị, the owner of all land. It is the law of our fathers. I also kill a cock at the shrine of the god of yams. I clear the bush and set fire to it when it is dry. I sow the yams when the first rain has fallen, and stake them when the young tendrils appear. I weed…’

‘Hold your peace!’ screamed the priestess, her voice terrible as it echoed through the dark void. ‘You have offended neither the gods nor your fathers. And when a man is at peace with his gods and his ancestors, his harvest will be good or bad according to the strength of his arm.’

So while we, ndi Anambra, till our fertile soil with strength, let us also be sure that we have not offended our fathers or our mothers. Let us retrieve and renew the values that once were ours. The values of conscience and integrity. Of community and consensus.

Let us disagree and agree to disagree but let us do so NOT as separate fractious groups fighting against each other constantly, but as people who ultimately have the same goal: a better community for everyone, a better Anambra State.

 

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