Giving It All Away In English

Yemisi Aribisala listens to a map of English spoken in its most vibrant and irreverent Nigerian form, which shows obvious and welcome signs of ditching the missionary position and the unpalatable arrogance of the coloniser’s tongue.

Every true Lagosian defines Lagos strictly as that hub called Eko: Campos Square, the Marina, Isale-Eko, Lafiaji, Epetedo, Ita-Faji, Ita-Agarawu, Ofin, Ereko, Obalende, Onala, Ijora, Oyingbo, Ebute-Metta, Yaba and perhaps Surulere, which was once called New Lagos. Ikoyi and later Victoria Island are where the Europeans and the arrivistes lived. Every other part, in the respected opinion of Lagosians, the owners of the land, is uncompromisingly peripheral.

One day, many years ago, I found myself in front of a wall in a market on Lagos Island positioned like an informal boundary between Epetedo and Lafiaji. The weathered landmark was covered with a mural of a peculiar-looking bird; suspended over a word that stood out from true Lagosian names,such as “Ita Obadina”, “Olowogbowo” and “Sangross.” Sandgrouse… Sandgrouse… Sandgrouse… I stood processing the information for a few minutes and then it hit me! I was standing in The Sandgrouse. This same market that my mother and my mother’s mother had visited before me, that every woman in three generations of my family calls ‘Sangross’, was that market that colonialists had named Sandgrouse after a bird that inhabited the Old World.

I walked the road that separates Sangross from Sura market, a long stretch running all the way down Simpson Street to the foot of the short bridge joining Osborne Road, and then past Dolphin Estate as far as Kingway Road in Ikoyi. To read the rest of this article, subscribe. [ppw id=”95843545″ description=”Read this story in full online, $1″ price=”$1″]On the Sura side, the pavement is a panorama of colourful umbrellas; a bustling butchers’ alcove with loud brutal cracking of machete against cow bones, battery chickens wrestling for space, kicking sawdust and lice into the air; virile yams reaching up with purple roots; pyramids of onions; disorderly piles of fat plantains and a yawning, stinking gutter.

“Sangross” on the other side is marked by concrete buildings, zinc roofing sheets and recessed shops selling dry goods and provisions. The wall with the Sandgrouse mural belongs to a building clearly labelled “Sandgrouse Public Toilet and Bathroom”. I had to laugh. My Yoruba ancestors, whose humiliation at the hands of colonisation had been underscored by having their land renamed Macaulay, Osborne, Fosberry and Boyle, had got their own back on colonial posterity. The market was not, is not The Sandgrouse. It is Sangross. The name is ours now, as legitimate and homegrown as Ajele, Ofin or Ita-Faji.

Another case in point is Palm Grove on the Lagos mainland. It’s impossible to board a bus in Lagos and say “I am going to ‘Palm Grove’” without being looked at askance by the conductor, or even being laughed at for being ridiculous under the hot sun. Such a location does not exist in Lagos. The proper and correct pronunciation of that location is “Pamgroove”, or in some instances, the P of “Pan” becomes the Yoruba “Kpa” sound as in “Onipanu”.

In primary school, every child in my generation was penalised for speaking Yoruba or Igbo or Hausa or Urhobo or Ofutop.  Doing so was termed speaking vernacular, and your name was written down on a sheet of paper by an officious classmate called the class prefect. Later that day you might be given a cutlass and a patch of grass to attend to for committing the misdemeanour of speaking in your mother tongue. In those formative years, the blisters were a natural indication that there was something deeply, significantly wrong with speaking your mother tongue or father tongue, or any tongue other than English.

My father’s brother and his wife returned from England in the 1980s to find a niece who was pretending she could not speak Yoruba, so as to appear civilised. My beautiful Guyanese aunt, whom behind her back we bitchily called “Ireke” (Sugarcane) because she was Black and American but also light-skinned with hot combed hair and from a country that was more or less Caribbean, hanging off a coast somewhere, wondered why we did not take pride in speaking Yoruba. We lived in the southern hemisphere where our blackness was the norm, where the lapis and the lapidary are black – why would we not proudly speak Yoruba? When my siblings and I spent our holidays at Oke-Ado in Ibadan, we would torment some of our cousins for being grammatically incorrect. So traumatic was the ridicule we put them through, that one cousin would not speak at all when we were around. When we were at home, my parents spoke Yoruba as well as English, but it would undoubtedly have embarrassed them if they took us to visit friends and we started to converse in fluent Yoruba. The damage was psychologically and many generations deep.

Today it reminds me of a story my paternal grandfather told me of being in a mission school. There the distinction between Nigerian students and children of the white missionaries was that the former were not allowed shoes or pockets in their pants. I assume the two signified an arrogance that was not appropriate for Nigerians. My grandfather was old by the time he told me this story. He told it without any emotion, but my mother explained to me later that he had forbidden his younger brother from marrying a white woman to whom he was engaged, whom he loved and with whom he would have made a happy life, and insisted that he marry a Nigerian woman. The marriage to the Nigerian was a disaster, but my grandfather’s psyche had wrought its revenge, to the detriment of his younger brother. The contradictions were part of the landscape. We hated the foreigner, especially the one with white skin, but that same foreigner still had a way of making us spiteful and thin-skinned, and envious and adoring of light skin and straight hair.

No doubt speaking one’s mother tongue must have smacked of the same arrogance to colonialists as hands in pockets and feet in shoes; an arrogance, I imagine, that was so innocuous it could break a bone. Of course we had to speak English, and even now many people in my generation use it, not just as a means of communication but as a sign of being progressive and civilised and better educated than the next man. Sometimes, it’s even spoken with an American accent. Ironically, the likes of Vladimir Putin won’t speak English for the same reason. Progress, it seems, will not permit them to do so. Ngugi wa Thiong’o will only speak his beloved Kikuyu for the sake of Progress. They can speak English after all. The latter is renowned for having mastered it and then turned his back on it.

I have never spoken English perfectly. With both Yoruba and English, I am the Igbo’s bat in limbo, hanging between heaven and earth. In secondary school, I was required to recite Shakespeare. My beautiful Guyanese aunt, Karen King Aribisala, the Head of the English Department at the University of Lagos, tutored me for the purpose of getting it right.

…And in this rage with some great kinsman’s bone,

As with a club, dash out my desperate brains. . . 

I was doing fine until I reached the words 

…O, look! Methinks I see my cousin’s ghost

Seeking out Romeo, that did split his body upon a rapier’s point.

More precisely, I was doing fine until I reached O, look!

Aunty Karen shook her head: “It’s Look not Looook,” she said, “widen your mouth, don’t pout, you are speaking English, not Yoruba.” I spent the better part of one week in front of the mirror in the bathroom undoing the 15-year Yoruba pout of looook. Many of my relatives said “looook”, while also pointing their lips in the direction of the object they were asking you to look at. It was appropriate to undo 15 years for the sake of Shakespeare, but I now wonder if “looook” isn’t the way to go, especially considering I can go around saying “waya say rude boooy!” and nobody bats an eyelid. If we are progressive enough to understand that those sugarcanes called Jamaicans have made the English language comfortably theirs in spite of colonisation, why haven’t we successfully done the same in Nigeria? I might have undone “looook” but I had greater obstacles ahead. My uncle set me a quiz to make me understand that I was actually speaking Yoruba and not English, or possibly a mixture of the two. It went something like this. 

Uncle: Yemisi, do you eat ice cream, drink ice cream or lick ice cream?

Yemisi: (Long thought process: if I say drink, he will say I am transliterating from Yoruba where you “drink” ice cream. If I say lick, he will say it is contextual and not general, but it is not possible to eat ice cream. It’s a trick question!) Lick ice cream or maybe suck on the ice cream? 

Uncle: Yemisi, do you throw a party, have a party or do a party?

Yemisi: (Longer thought process: never heard of throw a party. Have heard of doing a party but hold on. . . it’s “doing a party” in Yoruba so that’s probably the wrong answer, even though that’s what we all say) Have a party or do you hold one?

It was in university that the habit of defining people by the sort of English they spoke crystallised. The worst indictment against a “toaster” – that fellow who followed you around for half your first year and said things like “you smell like an orchard” – was that he couldn’t speak English properly or, as we said it at home, “Ko gbo’oyinbo. To one toaster’s peril, he came speaking relatively well, but left with the words “cassh you later”. My friends never forgave him, and consequently neither did I. If university is supposed to give you a broader, more complex view of life, it failed for us. We carried our pretentious definitions through all four years and on into real life.

It was heartbreak that finally intimated that people are not how they speak, that it is foolhardy to look beyond kindness, goodheartedness to speaking English and going to book readings as parameters for a good man. Some of my friends could not be moved, cannot be moved still. Decades later the question of whether a man who is intelligent, is erudite, yet makes mistakes in speaking English should be disqualified from love still crops up. The dissenters still answer that the embarrassment of being with a man who “fires bullets” (translated directly from “ta ibon”, firing a gun in Yoruba) when he is speaking English, is fatal enough to kill. Alright, but how about French-speakers of the English language? French people who speak English with an accent, putting Zs where there were none, dropping Rs where they were present? Oh, that is completely different, they answer. The French man speaking English badly is sexy. The Nigerian man speaking English badly is a bushman. The finality of it is telling. I’ve been wondering for a long time about this, if it is indeed final.

I kept wondering until, sometime in the late 1990s, I heard that Governor Rasaki of Ibadan had answered drolly to accusations of unremorseful, unrepentant “firing of bullets”: “Won ni mo ta’bon, gege bi mo se je bi ologun, ki lo ye ki’nmo ta.” His answer, that as a soldier nothing less should be expected of him, was not only brilliant but also showed the kind of mettle you wanted in a man. I’m told spies, no matter how well trained, will under the harshest torture return to counting in their mother tongue. But if a spy has taken two weeks to reach this breaking point then he has earned the right to die a hero. This man was considered crude by many, and was the butt of many jokes. In fact, the anecdote is told more as proof of his crassness than in admiration of his standing up and saying you define me by my spoken English to your folly. Here was a man who was not afraid to say that speaking English had nothing to do with anything. It was only a means of communicating. I got his triumphant meaning.

By the time I was 30 years old, reading Nigerian newspapers was no longer good for anybody. Apart from the fact that they were always editorialising, instead of reporting whatever news they managed to conjure up every 24 hours, and that they were often inaccurate, the English they were writing was simply atrocious. Clichés abounded: It was always a field day!; there was always a present hue and cry!; somebody’s elbows were always being greased; baby boys were always bouncing, and as Karen King Aribisala observantly said, never the baby girls; car accidents were always either ghastly or fatal and it did not matter if no lives were lost; public discourses were always being held; the polity was always being addressed; and everything large was always a Tsunami!  In the nonchalant way that bad things accepted by many become good, the clichés abound in the English that Nigerians speak as well: Slaps in Nigeria are always hot or dirty, never without an adjective; there is always a Mr So-and-So in conversations; there is always a vague and ambiguous but validated They, We, Us, One (Won in Yoruba), keeping the boundaries of proper culture: Won ki se be’yen, They don’t do that, We don’t do that, One doesn’t do that. All these apart from the fact that no one really knows whether we are supposed to be speaking Queen’s English, American English or any other kind of English.

Yet, there is a Nigerian English that is vibrant and growing in spite of being trampled on and called all manner of names and being kept like the toilet brush for the conversation in the room with the dangling blue bulb. It’s an English quite distinct from pidgin English. In Nigerian English the eloquent word “chassis” does not refer to the engine of a car, it refers to the engine of a woman, expressing the curves, the newness of handles, the desire to put the foot on the accelerator of the engine and drive it at breakneck speed, pronounced with all the force of a catcall. The word isn’t French. All the letters are pronounced including the last “s”. The “ch” is brought down like the legs of a “chair”.

Vendors in Nigeria are newspaper vendors, full stop. They are not allowed to vend anything else. An office worker not at his table is said to be “not on seat”. If you are making a telephone call to a friend, you can very confidently ask “if you can be on to her”. The exasperated now at the end of an exasperated sentence is not indicative of time but of exasperation. A highfalutin government official at the airport demanding whether the official at the counter “knows who he is” is not asking a literal question. He is asking if the official understands that he is a very important man indeed. A person said to be “gyrating and vibrating” is completely beside himself with anger, in other words, demonstratively furious. The word “cooperate” used between a government official and another person means there is some money that is being coyly withheld. A recalcitrant wife refusing to sleep with her husband or exhibiting rebelliousness against the authority of her husband can also be said to be uncooperative. If a shop assistant asks “what do you want?” he is not being rude. He is indifferently asking if he can be of assistance. When a person asks another “if he is in his gang, or if they are mates”, it is a rhetorical question. He is in fact stating that they are not on the same level, and the other person needs to defer to him. And furthermore he is not required to answer the question in any way or fashion or bodily acknowledgment. In Nigerian English, one doesn’t bother to go to the trouble of asking someone to turn on or turn off a light when one can simply say “on it” or “off it”!

The examples are endless. For me they indicate an existing Nigerian English. And if not so, they indicate progress. There are many brilliant sparks in Nigerian English like “shine your eyes”, “carry go”  and the apt “galloping” movement of cars in a country with less than perfect roads – more precisely, when a car enters a pothole in the road, it is said to have “entered a gallop” just as a horse would. Bus linguiform is particularly colourful and shrewdly self-righteous. A bus with “Father Forgive Them” on its backside can almost be guaranteed to belong to a particularly cantankerous owner and driver. “See your mouth” is an insult and a provocation only marginally less painful than “See your head”. What about my mouth? One does not need to break this down for a Nigerian. The three words mean there is something annoying about the mouth, either in the way that it is moving in speech or in its mastication of food, or in the God-given shape of the whole thing. Even if it is a perfect enough mouth, the insult is effective because one’s lips are not in view like one’s hands or feet. Its posture cannot be vigilantly monitored to ensure it is always perfectly aligned. The insult is really about bestowing a dose of acute self-consciousness on the person to whom one is referring so that his mind is involuntarily divided in two. One half thinking up a face-saving response and the other half frantically cogitating: “What about my mouth, well what about it?!” It doesn’t end there, in that region of self-doubt. The person who has been insulted must hold up his proudest expression and answer with disdain, “E dey pain you?”

In the late 1990s I sat on a London tube reading the musings on the curved ceiling of the moving underground train, on how European animals in literature always seem to be emphatic when they are speaking. Instead of saying woof once, they say woof woof, or neigh neigh. It made me wonder, and conclude that Nigerian animals have long broken the chains of imported English and made progress where we haven’t realised it. No self-respecting Nigerian dog, for example, would say woof woof. It is gbo gbo, and for the cock it is ku ku ru ku and not cock-a-doodle-doo. It would even seem that some Nigerian animals were better than emphatic, they had a sense of humour. They had been speaking to humans and being comprehended for many years in Nigerian lingua franca before this European writer’s musings about animal reiterations; indeed, from the time when Emmanuel Iwuanyanwu, the Igbo businessman, owned a football club and his team, the Iwuanyanwu Nationale, were received in western Nigerian stadia with cheeky resonating chants of “Won ma nke bi ologbo, nwan nwan nwanyanwun. They were wailing like cats; nwan nwan Iwuanyanwun.” This discovery of animal language in all its Nigerianness was prognostic also, indicating a time when the Kelloggs cornflakes generation would pass and give way to the embracing of a true Nigerian language. 

“The evil ones have done their deeds.” Obituaries of the 1980s tended to read thus. This statement described a prevalent belief that people didn’t just die, someone had to have killed them with some form of… that unfashionable word…  juju. It has occurred to me that a language that has trends is one that is alive and well. Nigerian English is refreshingly tangential. That is why it was hard for me to make my European colleagues understand that “Don’t be silly” is not a small insult. In Nigerian English, it is a tsunami insult that can break relationships. But where there is progress there is also the threat of regression. The slurring nasal American English of Dan Foster, the Inspiration FM DJ, is a very nasty virus caught by some other Nigerian radio presenters. Besides the triumph of Pamgroove and Sangross, there is the catastrophe of “Yo Yo Yo” and “it’s yo birthday”. Perhaps another colonisation is in full progress, this time by the USA.

It may be argued that there are too many idiosyncrasies and regions and industries and factions to allow for a successfully Nigerian English. There are hundreds of true languages and four times the number of dialects of these languages. There are the Yorubas who drop their Hs in front of house and humble and handsome, and add them to (h)ignorant, (h)emphasise and (h)apt. There is the Hausa man, whose meat pie is a “meat fie”, and whose fish is a “pish”. There is the Ekpoma man whose book is a “boke”, the Ibibio whose attempt at humour is “no yoke” and the Igbo man whose English sentences must accommodate at least 5-10 Igbo words. There is an Efik acquaintance of ours who would not be deterred from referring to someone who does not eat meat as a “Presbytarian”. There is my mother’s particular affliction of calling a croissant a “cruesont”.  There is the apparent possibility that words like croissant won’t ever make it into Nigerian English because “cruesonts” are truly so elitist. There is Pentecostal Nigerian English with conceptually loaded words like “needing deliverance”. There are those who use opposing sides of words representing sensory perceptions. Some Nigerians smell smells, while others hear the smells.  There are creative differences centring on allowing people to say “hear the smell” because Nigerian smells are resoundingly audible, or restricting creative interpretations for the sake of uniformity.

There is the religious language that can tear a country in two: Jesus who is the saviour of the world, and the spit-drenched colloquial Jesus. “Okada Alqaeda” referring to the terrorism of Okada drivers on Nigerian roads; the day someone decides the two words have no business together, and they are an insult to the prophet, there can be spontaneous incommensurate bloodshed. There are the particular strongholds of 400 Nigerian languages and more than 600 Nigerian dialects, each either on the side of “you wearing a dress” or the “dress wearing you”.

And dare I complete this piece without referring to the tragedy of mixed-wires? Anecdotes abound to warn of the tree-of-good-and-evil characteristic of the English language, our anxious relationship with it. Yes, it brought us Nigerians together and gave us a marginal mode of communication. Yes, it has been useful for the institutionalisation of Nigeria. Banks, educational institutions, churches, shopping malls, and our acrimonious politics all function or dysfunction in Nigeria because of the English language. It is our economic language and it connects us to the rest of the world. It is the language of CNN, DSTV, Cool FM and Arik Air, but it still eludes us. It still eludes me. It is an antibiotic, sterile, necessary, but aloof. It is not the blood flowing through our veins. It does not fire up like language on the lips of those pouting neurotic nymphets in French films with English subtitles. It will never make Fidel Castro’s fists pump up and down, or rouse revolutions. If we were prisoners of war, and were made to count for hours on end in the hope that our mother tongue would break through, we would die counting in proper English, Queen Primer English. We will never be discovered. We, Us, They. Because English is the language of our formal education. Most likely, the language in which we have been taught to count, and read, and address authority, but it is not the language of our deepest fears and loves and passions. It is not as integral, as genuine as “Yeeee”, the indigenous cry of pain, or as warm and connected as “How body now?”. It lacks the natural ingenuity and humour of phrases like “Lepa Sprite or Shandy”, or the analogical potency of “Shine shine baby”, the humorous camaraderie in the rebuke “Leave language”. There is no resonance . . . no correct English could have drawn Nigerians’ attention to the booming counterfeit industry like NAFDAC’s call to “Shine your eyes, Shine them well well”. Queen’s English has no technical explanation for our emphatical “at all, at all” or the necessity of the “aaaa” and the “oooo” and the “jare” that ends and grounds our English sentences.

Sometimes the English we speak is dead rhetoric in a flat production of Things Fall Apart, where the narrator eulogises out of rhythm. It is “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears…”, a call that makes us look about ourselves. “Of course he cannot be referring to us!” It makes our theatrical monologues exaggerated. Sometimes in church it is pretentious, beckoning parishioners to aspire to Americana heaven. In Nollywood, it is a pathetic clown stumbling all over the place, embarrassing itself with ambitious stunts. It often translates our deep-rooted beliefs into superstition, turns our lovemaking into plastic flowers and makes fools of respected elders. The purest tragedy of all is watching a fullgrown man standing in one of those institutions trying to explain himself in English, holding the agbada of his dignity around himself with carefully chosen words. He is father, grandfather, husband, lord and master of a household, grand patriarch, chief something-or-other, a church elder, Honourable so-and-so, “CEO Owolabi and Sons”. He is standing opposite someone half his age, a white man or woman who is impatient, who won’t even look at him. Instead he is looking at his watch. The English is coming too slowly. It is too disjointed.

“What I mean to say isssssss. . .”

He is dismissed with a wave of the hand. Of course if he cannot speak English, then he is a nobody. He cannot possibly be that important. “Next!” And his agbada is in shreds.

There is also the marginality of pidgin English and its failure to transcend its illiterate status. We condescendingly speak it to the “vulcaniser” on the side of the road, the house-help, the woman selling roasted corn. It can be the language of humorous banter, but it will never be the “bottom-box” dress that we bring out for special occasions. It will always be the child with a watery head whom we de-emphasise. He is standing in the corner,  “…nevertheless one’s child”.

Speaking of children, I am reminded of the story of the Ibibio man whose wife wants nothing more to do with him, so she indifferently suggests to him that he did not “actually” (Nigerians love their “actuallies”) father their children. They end up in a customary court of law where proceedings are held in English. Neither he nor his wife can speak English, so they are offered interpreters. His wife accepts. He declines, or more specifically, he wants the questions interpreted, but he wants to answer for himself, in English. In the course of the proceedings, he is asked, “Are the children in question your children?”

He answers, “These children are not my children.” And then for emphasis translates into Ibibio, “Ndito emi edo ndito mmi” and in his translation to Ibibio, he is saying, “These children are my children.”

He is asked again “Are these children your children?” He replies even more confidently: “These children are not my children. Ndito emi edo ndito mmi.

I am told this story with an Ibibio accent, and I laugh until I can’t help myself. I laugh, all the time saying to myself, cautioning myself, “This man is fighting for his children, and giving them away in English.”



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