Chimdi Asika, July 2020
Which Igbo person doesn’t know how to speak Igbo?”
Living in Onitsha, when UNESCO made the prediction that the Igbo Language may go extinct by 2050, I laughed and thought them drunk, “how? Which Igbo person doesn’t know how to speak Igbo?” Most of my life in this city, I have always known that Igbo is the commonest language spoken here and even the use of the pidgin English is very rare (used only when sure that the person you’re communicating with doesn’t understand Igbo). It was only later that I understood Onitsha as an “Igbopolitan” city being the melting point of almost only people from other parts of Igboland; localised rural-urban migration making up for the bulk of immigration pattern.
At the time of the prognosis by this international cultural organisation, the then Governor of Anambra State, Peter Obi, sprang into action mandating the compulsion of studying the Igbo Language for all levels of education — Primary to Tertiary — and setting out Wednesdays as “Igbo Day”. Truth is that I saw this move as unnecessary; “Really?” I asked myself, “Which language is going to replace the Igbo Language? Is it the English Language that most of the population find hard to speak?” Actually, the popular memes and tired skits of teaching the Basic School English Language with a local language was very obtainable in Onitsha.
Dying from Abroad
It wasn’t until my Igbo world — almost my entire life revolving around Igboland — extended from the bounds of Onitsha did I begin seeing the evidence of an imminent endangered language. First was still within Anambra State. It was until I got admitted to Nnamdi Azikiwe University at the State’s Capital did I understand that it was possible for an Igbo person to be benighted of their mother tongues. I learnt the term: “My mama say I be Ibo”.
“My name is Nneka.” Then I ask Nneka, “Kedu” and Nneka replies, “Sorry, I don’t understand Ibo.” At that moment (and never again after seeing it as “normal”), I was awed that my agape mouth wouldn’t hide my surprise. “Where are you from?” I’d ask her and she proudly replies, “I am an original Ibo girl from Imo State.” “And you don’t understand Igbo?” That would be how Nneka would engage me in a conversation as to how she grew up in Lagos and wasn’t her fault that her parents never spoke ‘Ibo’ to her while growing up. She would tell me how her parents demonised Igboland “…in the village, everyone is bad and they would kill you with witchcraft when ever you set foot in the East…” and how it was her decision to have her tertiary education in the East.
Throughout my years in Awka, I saw many more Nnekas and truly didn’t blame them but their parents — or maybe the society that deprived the parents confidence in their roots. However, I didn’t see the inability to understand the language by people living outside the region as strong evidence for endangerment. “Those born and bred in Lagos are Lagosians and are only Igbo people by origin.” The CEO of IrokoTV, Jason Njoku had, in the recent past, proudly acknowledged being ignorant of the Igbo Language and preferring for his children to learn Chinese instead. He later tweeted that despite being from Lagos, he acknowledges his Igbo origin. I believed that lambasting Njoku for those tweets would be as good as criticising Pastor T.D Jakes (a black American whose DNA traced him back to Igboland) for his inability to speak Igbo. The fact that the descendants of thousands of slaves shipped from the Bight of Biafra to the Americas can’t speak Igbo has nothing to do with Igbo extinction. So why should we be bothered that Chidinma, Mr Real, Patoranking and other Lagos-born musicians identify more as Yoruba-speaking Lagosians than Igbos?
The Peripheral Landfalls
These I thought and sought local evidence. Being a regular visitor of the Delta State Capital, Asaba (an Igbo town), I saw clearly a particular section of the Igbo Language panting in life-support — the dialects of the Anioma people (Enuani, Ukwuani and Ika). Separated from other parts of Igboland by the River Niger and joined in same state with Edoid and Ijoid people, the Western Niger Igbo risks being one of the first sections of the language that may go extinct. Just like the Igboid people of the multiethnic Rivers State, Pidgin English is gradually substituting for the local languages of the Niger Delta region being the commonest system of communication between the comprising ethnicities. Than for being joined into Multiethnic states, the Niger Delta Igbos, for political reasons, choose not to be associated with the hinterland Igbos. Boarding a keke in Asaba and hearing the driver speak in the mutually intelligible Enuani dialect over the phone, I chose to communicate with him in Igbo only for him to be replying in Pidgin English than the language I spoke to him in. When I related this to my Asaba host, she said, “you know that our own Igbo is quite different from your own.” I didn’t know how best to explain to her that the Igbo Language is strongly dialectical and if every section of the hinterland Igbo scare away from speaking Igbo because “…our own Igbo is quite different from your own…” then 2050 would be in a few weeks time. But then, if the Igbo Language was to start dying from Asaba, its decay would be in Port Harcourt (a city based on Igbo — Ikwerre — and Eleme towns) were inhabitants scare away from their dialects entirely just to prove not to be Igbos. I think these Igboid people at the skirts have a lot to learn from the Ebonyi and Nsukka people, if they choose to survive.
Well, The Heartland too…
Again, the linguistical landfalls at the periphery of Igboland doesn’t mean that the central Igbo would be washed off; It would only be true when evidence gets clear at the heartland. And the state nicknamed “the Eastern Heartland” gave me reasons to agree with UNESCO. Like I stated earlier, my world has been revolving around Igboland and when it was time to fill in for NYSC, I sought to serve outside Eastern Nigeria, putting Imo State as my very last choice. But it seemed the Universe wasn’t done showing me around Igboland as I got posted to my last choice: Imo State!
On getting to Imo State, I thought I should still feel at home as I was just a boundary away from my home state. Just like I’d communicate everyday with the Igbo Language in Onitsha, Anambra State, I thought it would be the same in Owerri, Imo State but to my surprise, even the petty market women communicated to me in English even when I was clearly speaking in Igbo. My colleague at work gave reasons, “it is because you speak the Anambra dialect.” I then decided to substitute my “l” for “r”, “f” for “h”, “r” for “h” and using “-ghi” than “-ro” as a negating suffix. That was when I could communicate better with the older folks (most of whom would rather speak a simpler form of their unique dialects). The younger folks still stuck to replying me in English when I speak. I found a good number of young adults who could not even understand nor speak Igbo. As at 2020, many residents of Owerri below the age of 18 couldn’t understand Igbo. I was surprised to see that Block Rosary Centres prayed in English (While growing up in Onitsha, Block Rosary Centres and Children’s Masses were said in Igbo). The diminishing of Igbo in Owerri is evident with the birth of younger generations.
…And the Capital cities
Running a rough study on the demographics of Owerri, I found out that the migration pattern was chiefly an Urban-Urban migration, unlike Onitsha. Many of the residents moved from Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt. Most of the residents are well-educated civil servants whom had been attune with other cultures and made English their language of communication. They get so used to English that even their homes communicate in it. This is true not just for Owerri but for all capital cities in Igboland.
The aristocratic families in urban areas of the region seem to despise the Igbo language as a local lect and frown at their children if they speak it.
In fast growing cosmopolitan cities like Enugu, even as the Igbo language holds its ground, it is threatened into having a flexible urban culture centred on both English (as a cosmopolitan city) and Igbo (as the regional capital of South Eastern Nigeria).
What do we do?
If I should be honest, the government of the South-East have been doing good enough (those in the South-South are unfortunate to be part of a multiethnic region; maybe clamouring for individual states — Anioma and Ikwerre States — may help) since this prediction was done in 2011 by making Igbo language and culture compulsory in schools. Numerous NGOs have also risen in different parts of region to ensure the vitality of the lect. Most commendably are conservative religious bodies who not only dedicate preaching in Igbo but also preaching for Igbo.
But then, the government and people of Igboland still have a great lot to do. I may have excused for the death of the Igbo language from abroad but why would Igbos go abroad and choose to dissociate with their roots if all was in order? It is time the government makes the region conducive enough for Igbos to thrive. Preaching “Aku luo uno” to Igbos in the diaspora isn’t enough, give them reasons why their aku (wealth) must luo uno (reach home). Talking about the government, this includes local traditional authorities in the most timid of villages. They have the biggest job to do starting from fighting against local callous vices.
Truth is that the agent of socialisation deeply untouched, and which is the most important in preserving the culture, is the family and no one can dictate what individual families choose as a way of life. The ball is now in the court of this basic unit of the society to choose if the Igbo Language lives or leaves. If all individual families choose to think, as Jason Njoku stated in his tweet “My Children…they can’t speak Igbo (neither can I). It’s okay. The world won’t shake from its foundation…” then we shall all weep in loving memory of the Igbo Language.