Ojay Aito: Our modern tongue (30 Days, 30 Voices)

by Ojay Aito


Couple of years ago while I was a trainee in a media house, I strolled into the mad house in one of the unofficial weekends. You’d agree that there is always a part of you you always left behind in the building, and sometimes at odd hours, you want to go grab that stuff you weren’t suppose to have left behind at the first place. Now that stuff in this case was my external hard-drive which I cherished more than my first degree certificate.

So I strolled into the studio area on this cool Saturday afternoon, my leftover work on my mind, to find some of my colleagues were ‘unofficially’ around too. After the pleasantries, I discovered that there was an immediate task that the select few grappled with. It was a voice-over work, and well, I had the passion for such things but you had to leave such for the ‘Big’ guys. I was somewhat of an otondo in the business, coupled with the fact that my colleagues were professionals, and my Nigerian accent didn’t really suit the high profile job. Not that I really cared. Tony and Gina, based on their nationalities had been told to translate the English script for the French and Spanish speaking audience respectively.

After brief ideas had been shared and I saw my chance to leave (hoping I wouldn’t be called upon to be part of the production team for the promo), my boss shuffled into the studio, sleeves up as always, and poked my ribs with a thick file – “See who’s got work to do here,” he spoke through his nose, and dumped the file on my laps. I was learning to speak through my nose too, and trust me I echoed his words at him (but in my mind o).

He was back at the door when an idea struck him. He paused, and against my wish turned to me and spoke. But before he let out the words, his finger pointed stoically at me, like that helped him focus his mind.

“You are from Nigeria?” His nose flared at me.

What did a Nigerian do this time around? I thought to myself, and nodded with a mild flare of my own.

“Give me the file,” he grabbed the file from me. “You have a better work to do.”

I had begun to subconsciously pull at the few strings of hair down my chin.  Oh boy, who send me come work today, I for jus leave that stupid thing till Monday. (I hissed, but once again, in my mind).

“Yes, give him the original script, and make sure you are ready with the Pidgin English version before the next hour,” he said, and tapped me hard on the shoulder.

“I kinda like the way you guys do your thing. Gimme that stuff, that original pidgin stuff. At least justify your pay,” Mr. Faulkner, the head of programmes said, then stepped out of the soundproof room.

I had learnt he’d travelled a few times to Africa, but I never gathered that he visited Nigeria, let alone attend some of the comedy shows in Lagos. And so came my very first chance to prove myself. To speak my stuff. My original stuff.

I went through the original script, devouring every word and its literary meaning, thinking how I would translate it into the Pidgin English. That was when I realized how tough (and interesting) it was. I was so glad that at last the childhood years of growing up in the barracks was paying off. I racked my head, spoke to myself, and tried to remember the vocabularies that tailored the register of the Warri man’s English. I dove straight for the internet, to listen to our online local radio. Just one vocab would sure go a long way. I found a few: Information was ‘informate’ in Pidgin English, ‘wounjor’  was the word that combined ‘wound’ with ‘injury’ and was used when the case was serious than either or both, etcetera. Of course, I didn’t forget that some words had to be repeated to get their content meaning, e.g. Plenty plenty, small small, etc; and also the right amount of energy and stress pattern that each word needed.

At last, I was done, and trust me, that was one of the happiest days of my life outside the shores of my dear country, Nigeria. The Pidgin English version of the promo wasn’t just the most listened to, but also the most requested in spite of the fact that non-Nigerians, or non-Africans related to it the way they related to music: A universal language. The demand got high that for a long time I was referred to by my colleagues as the Pidgin Guy.

Although it was sort of a breakthrough for me in a no man’s land where my boss immediately gave me a slot to anchor a Pidgin English Programme, but more, it was an eye-opener for me. A revelation of my originality. Of who I am, rough without form.

It was a pointer to a heritage, to a culture and a life style that its people struggled to relegate, but in vain. And that was because it has a mind of its own. It has a will. It goes through metamorphosis, but it gets more beautiful with each change. It’s a living language.

And yet I cry for it because I realize that the people who own it are not necessarily doing anything to brand it. From my point of view, it’s like the lame child a father isn’t proud of, or an ugly wife a hunter doesn’t dance with.

And yet this is one of the things that make us unique. It our own niche. Or put it more succinctly, it’s our own grace that we don’t want to embrace. And God help us that a lesser than we pick up what we dumped, and profit at our detriment. It won’t be the first time, though.

At this moment where Nigeria has over four hundred distinct languages, and adding to the fact that more that ninety percent of her people still grapple with the speaking of the English language correctly, should be clear enough sign that we started earnestly and consciously to package and brand our own prima lingua franca that everyone can speak without feeling inferior or superior. Or judged, or prejudiced. Can’t we just see this as a chance to take up our own thing in which we can never be wrong? At which we will not be perceived smart or foolish, as successful or as failures by the basis of whether or not we passed a foreign language exam to the detriment of how much we can communicate with, and influence other people?

Some have said that the Pidgin English is not a language in the first place; some say it has no structure, and it’s an aberration from the original. Whatever. But I insist that it is a people’s identity, a people’s ingenuity, and a people’s heritage

Fela Anikulapo Kuti in the seventies thrived in his message to the world through it. And countries around the world which have been termed ‘successful’ don’t have multiple languages. Embedded in a language is unity, peace and prosperity. Have we become so dull of hearing? Can’t we read the handwriting on the wall? Can’t we take a look at history to understand our future? Even the tower of Babel couldn’t be completed because the people had a divided tongue.

We talk about diamonds in the rough, but why does it matter that the most influential language in Nigeria over the past two decades fell off the slimy walls of the barrack blocks and gushed from the crude ground of the Niger-Delta? That this language has waxed stronger through the barrage of molestation and its past affiliation with tenants in brothels shows that it’s not going to give up. What might happen (we forbid) is that a people that were never intended to have it will flourish by it, and we for which it was first intended would only have the bragging right of ‘Once Upon A Time’.

Kudos to everyone who has played and are still playing their part in furthering this course to rediscovery, and rebranding. But there is still so much work to be done. No platform is too big or too small. Seize it.

No doubt we need to protect our mother tongue, but maybe to progress we all need one modern tongue.

As I dey so, I ready defend the unity of we country. I go stand gidigba, no shaking. If we all fit come together with one voice, one mind, one language, we go overcome all we kasala and wahala dem. To all my Naija people: I give una twale. I cut cap.


Ojay Aito is a writer, editor and a blogger

30 Days 30 Voices series is an opportunity for young Nigerians from across the world to share their stories and experiences – creating a meeting point where our common humanity is explored.

Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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