Nigeria: Neglecting the language we speak

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Thu Jun 28 13:17:23 UTC 2007


*Opinion Development in a Cultural Void*

*Daily Champion* (Lagos)
26 June 2007
Posted to the web 27 June 2007

By Akinwumi Isola

ISN'T it frighteningly amazing that most otherwise intelligent well trained
and patriotic Africans do not in the least feel disturbed that virtually
every aspect of our life is in crisis? We seem to be now used to living in
crisis as a normal natural way of life. Is this the result of a skilful
process of cultural brain washing and an over-dose of the chloroform of
faith? But it may well also be due to the confounding power of phenomena to
become, overtime, so completely familiar that we really do not hear see or
notice them any more. People who live near Pentecostal churches in Nigeria
or whose neighbours use howling generators grow so accustomed to the noise
that they stop hearing it! The man, after many years of marriage, stops
seeing his wife's thin lips and the woman her husband's huge nose. Our
perception of the world can wither away so completely, leaving us with only
hazy recognition.

A random selection from aspects of our life today may force us to perceive
them anew, and make us wonder what is happening to us.

Take for example our women's hairstyles. Wearing atrociously bogus, heavy
wigs in multicolor reaching beyond the shoulder is standard wear! No
eyebrows are raised. Ladies do not care at all if we know that they wear
borrowed hair in direct imitation of white women's hair in length and
colour, and in stout rejection of the length, texture and colour of their
natural hair. We do not feel disturbed.

Another example is the language we speak. We have so carelessly neglected
the learning and teaching of our mother tongues that we are now virtually a
nation without a language! The lack of competence in the mother tongue and a
solid base has adversely affected the child's ability to acquire other
languages properly. Children inherit their parent's atrocious English
pronunciation while badly trained teachers smother any remaining hope of
progress in grammar and syntax. Our brightest conversations are pitiful
examples of code-switching and code-mixing. Do we feel disturbed?

And what do we do about foreign religions? In terms of confessional faith,
there is nothing wrong with Islam and Christianity. But do we feel disturbed
that every religion in the world is culture bound, and that religion has
always been used as a weapon for cultural and political domination?
Islamization is used as a prelude to the real project of Arabisation and
white missionaries brought the colonialist-tainted version of Christianity
to Africa. Arabs are physically and culturally taking over Africa and
Europeans. Americans and Asians are taking it over economically. About 20
per cent of Nigeria's best-educated professionals now live and work outside
the country.

Our government is made to accept harsh IMF and World Bank conditions -
priviatisation, trade liberalization, misconceived policy measures that harm
the poor and benefit international traders. And to monitor compliance our
comprador politicians are now joined by the establishment of a formal
'technocratic corps' within the ministry of finance, the central bank and
other agencies with oversight mandate for privatization and

Our life is in crisis! I am sure the intellectuals know this. What I don't
know is whether we all feel disturbed each to the same extent necessary for

For those who feel the need for urgent action, the theme of this conference
is of crucial importance because, the way to deal with a situation when
phenomena become so familiar that we really do not recognize or care about
them again is to transfer what is being depicted to a 'sphere of new
perception"! We should in other words, defamiliarise the issue to force
attention back to it. In literary criticism this is called foregrounding or
simply defamiliarisation. We have to force the attention of our people back
to the crisis in our life through the resources of culture which gathers
language and literary studies under its wrings. To reap the rewards of our
cultural heritage, which itself continues to suffer neglect and corruption
to such an extent that it is in danger of disappearing , the educated elite
must take its responsibilities very seriously. Reviving our culture will
involve, among other things, talking about culture, repeating to ourselves
what we already know, trying to see old facts in new light and hopefully by
hard work and sagacity or by serendipidity, we will find acceptable
solutions to our problems.

There have been many definitions of culture. Here are four of them, from the
elevated to the comprehensive:

i. "the highest intellectual and artistic achievements of a group"

ii. "the transmission of behaviour as well as a dynamic source for change,
creativity, freedom and awakening of innovative opportunities"

iii. "Share skills, beliefs and traditions" and

iv. "the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional
features of a society or social group, encompassing, in addition to art and
literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions
and beliefs"

For groups and societies all over the world, cultural, is simply each
group's ways of living together. The most important fact about culture,
however, is its diversity as expressed in Article 1 of UNESCO Universal
Declaration of Cultural Diversity

Cultural Diversity: the common heritage of humanity. Culture takes diverse
forms across time and space. This diversity is embodied in the uniqueness
and plurality of the identities of the groups and societies making up
humankind. As a source of exchange, innovation and creativity, cultural
diversity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature. In
this sense, it is the common heritage of humanity and should be recognized
and affirmed for the benefit or present and future generations.

The point being made here is that the world is a world of diversity:
biodiversity and cultural diversity. "The earth is one but the world is not.
We all depend on one biosphere for sustaining our lives " but each group or
society of humankind creates its own elaborate, culturally rooted ways of
living together. In other words God has demonstrated His preference for
diversity both in humankind and the culture and in the ecology. He has also
created a unique language for each culture to ensure effective and
independent operation. In this regard, language is the heart of a culture.
When a language dies, the culture atrophies and dies. Language is the hub of
the wheel of culture while other aspects are the spokes operating a robustly
effective feedback system. The great mystery of the origin of language can
never be solved. The constant belief is that language is God's gift to man.
The magical properties associated with languages and the spoken word has
strengthen this belief. Only God can confer such powers! With language the
people in a community possess the tool for creating and recording knowledge
in memorable fashions to lay the groundwork for acceptable standards in all
aspects of life to ensure sustainable development and authentic continuity.
Every culture therefore has rules laying down what is allowable in
particular circumstances. The greatest emphasis is always placed on the
careful education of the child.

It is important to note that every culture has its own myths of the origins
of man and or language. There are almost 7000 languages in the world. No one
myth can attain the status of historical fact. And in this regard, no one
myth is superior to another. However, some cultures have been able to
popularize their own myths of origin mainly through their aggressive
religious evangelism, thereby virtually transforming a mere myths to godly
facts of history in the minds of deluded adherents who now close their minds
to edifying lessons from other cultures. A good man of God should have an
open mind but should protect his own God-given culture. Mahatma Ghandhi

I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be
stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as
freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.

Cultural diversity is indeed the common heritage of humanity. But still more
important are the developmental dimensions of culture. It is this humanistic
potential of culture that has engaged the active attention of UNESCO for
over three decades now. " . Development in UNESCO's view, is a means of
enhancing the relationship between material and spiritual well being" of
men, and only culture can negotiate that.

A tradition is a custom or belief that the people in a particular group or
society have practiced or held for a long time, and a custom is something
that the people of a community or society always do in particular
circumstances because it is regarded as the right thing to do. Language is
the medium of operation and control for all the other aspects of culture
like the administrative, the judicial, the religious, the educational and
other systems. When a language dies the culture dies.

However, there is tangible cultural heritage which may be seen and touched,
like great carvings and statues, paintings and monuments, sites and
landscapes, and there is intangible cultural heritage that has no physical
form. Examples include languages, oral traditions, literature, customs,
dance, rituals, festivals and the various skills which constitute what gives
cultural identity to a people.

It is the intangible aspect of cultural heritage that sustains the tangible
aspect because it is the intangible through the stories, folktales,
proverbs, idioms, taboos, the poetry, that teaches those valuable ideas as
dignity, hope, sense of duty justice, hard-work, faithfulness,
accountability, transparency, honour and other humane qualities.

Culture is God's own way of organizing His peoples all over the world in
cohesive groups, each with its own peculiar skills and knowledge. God knows
the minutest aspect of every culture. Religion is just an aspect of the
culture. Religion is intended to ensure that the Foundations of culture, the
humane qualities of man remain stable.

Culture it is that makes the man. As a matter of fact, if your culture has
not socialized you into the acceptable standards of right and wrong, if you
have not internalized those humane qualities of integrity honesty, love,
accountability and so on, through your own culture, there will be no
foundation on which any religion can build. In this regard being born again
really means going back to your God-given culture to lean how to be a good

The important point to emphasise here is that culture has crucial
implications for development. The fruits of intangible culture, the humane
qualities of honour, integrity and so on, ensure intangible development,
which is the development of the mind. This is different from material
development. Without intangible development there can be no sustainable
development. There is the tendency to define and measure development through
methods and measures that are primarily material: building roads, factories
and dams, buying cars, ships and aircrafts. But the truth is that these
material acquisitions cannot be sustained by material means alone. To make
these material wealth socially sustainable, the people require not just
money and skill but also those humane qualities - honesty, dignity and so
on. Other wise omo ti a ko ko ni yoo gbe ile ti a kota.

We should realize that the material aspect of development imported or dumped
on us from abroad are not accompanied by the humane-quality aspects Many
African leaders erroneously believe that they can import globalised ideas of
legal monitoring of behaviour, forgetting that ideas about dignity, honesty
and so on, do not appear in generic and universal terms. Different peoples
articulate them in terms of highly specific idioms of value, meaning and
belief as contained in terms of highly specific idioms of value, meaning and
belief as contained in their own God-given culture. This is what the young
generation of every culture must learn and imbibe from childhood through the
intangible aspects of their culture.

But, seriously speaking, given the social and political confusion in which
we are today - the cultural void and the moral crisis - how do we go back to
our culture? To answer this question, we shall need to do a quick review of
what really happened to us and our culture. Fortunately, the whole story is
so well known.

Our history shows that the great African Empires were culturally developed.
The social-cultural communities thrived and survived by meeting their daily
needs and most especially by guaranteeing continuity through an effective
process of socialization which ensured that the ideas, norms, values and
symbols of society were internalized by the younger generations. The
intangible cultural heritage in its various aspects, invigorated the whole
system. Language and its literature took centre stage acting like a standard
setting and enforcing agent for the whole cultural society

*-To be continued*

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