Opinion: Who stole my tongue? Who told us green apples are better than mangoes?

by Chijioke Victor Uche


It is hard, almost impossible for an Igbo person to make a complete sentence without at least an English word in it.

“The white man came to our land,
With the Bible in his hand,
Asked us to close our eyes and pray.
We closed our eyes,
Did as he said.
When he was done, we opened our eyes.
Behold, we had his Bible,
While he had our land.”
–         Anonymous.


“I ge ole ibe?” he asked me.

He was a commercial motorcyclist, popularly known as okada. I was confused. I was Igbo. He was Igbo too. Yet, I wasn’t sure of what he said to me. What he said sounded like French. His dialect was different. Ohafia. Mine is Owerri. Nevertheless, I couldn’t even speak mine well. My Igbo Izugbe (central Igbo) was as bad as it could get.

“M na-aga federal,” I replied in central Igbo, telling him I wanted to go to my school. At least, every average Igbo could understand that.

You see, I attended Federal Government College, Ohafia. On previous occasions, I and my fellow students were always dropped at the school gate. But on this particular occasion, the driver dropped us at the township park and told us to find our way. So there we were, negotiating our transport to school.

“Wosa eighty naira,” he replied. Bring eighty naira. That was big money to a student back then. I wanted to protest, but decided instead to end the ordeal as soon as possible. So I grudgingly agreed and mounted his bike, while he whistled a song to himself.

As I did so, I heard the same question been asked by another motorcyclist. Immediately the student replied in Ohafia dialect, the motorcyclist asked him to pay thirty naira. The student bargained twenty. Finally, they settled for twenty-five naira. I was awestruck. That day, I vowed to master the Igbo language, and the Igbo dialect. I did so before I graduated from there.

I have a strong reason to think that among the major ethnic groups in Nigeria, the Igbo tribe has fared badly, or worse as we are made to believe. I am not ethnocentric or tribalistic in anyway. Other tribes have had western influence on their culture. I know they’ve suffered too, in one way or the other. But I will be using Igbo as a point of reference.

Back when I was in Ohafia, it was anathema to speak your indigenous language in class. You dared not. Do so and pay a fine. So you see a collection of mostly Igbo folks from different dialects, speaking English – or trying so hard to – to each other, like strangers from distant lands lost on an unknown island.

For the first three years, I and my pals endured it. It was for our own good after all. Or was it? Then other students began to report similar experiences as mine at the motor park. Many of them, like me, had come from primary schools where you don’t speak your native language in school. We couldn’t imagine leaving secondary school unable to speak Igbo. It was crazy. To remedy the situation, we started conversing in Igbo after class hours. Since we couldn’t speak Igbo in class, we also refused to speak English in our hostels. Little by little, we learnt it and mastered it. So whenever the local okada men asked us in their dialect where we were going to, we would shock them by replying in their dialect. The game was over. Now, I – alongside most of my peers – can read, write and think in Igbo. I do not think it is an achievement to speak one’s native tongue. It is a right. But haven’t many of us lost that right?

It is hard, almost impossible for an Igbo person to make a complete sentence without at least an English word in it. I am also guilty of this offence. And the annoying part is that many of us can’t also speak English well. It is hard to find someone who can speak Igbo and English differently and fluently. Adding insult to injury are the Igbo folks that cannot speak Igbo at all but can speak another tribal language well. How well their pride is with them. I can’t really say it is their fault.

We need to redeem our culture. It is true that parts of our culture and tradition are (or were) evil, but as it is said, should we throw away the baby too, just because the bath-water is dirty?

The white man has left our shores, colonial-wise. He is no longer our problem. We are our problem. What is eating us is within us. We are yet to recover from the side effects of colonialism after more than fifty-years of independence. The mental software planted by them in our subconscious hasn’t yet been fully uninstalled. Most times, we still see ourselves as inferior. Colonialism breeds irresponsibility, low self esteem and dependency. Everyone depends on the government for good jobs, good roads, good healthcare system, etc. Only few are developing entrepreneurship skills.

Our languages are dying. We are not developing our languages. How many of us Nigerians can speak our native languages very well? We are losing out. African literature is dying. How many Yorubas know of Isaac B. Thomas’s Segilola eleyinju ege (Segilola of the Seductive Eyes) or Daniel Olorufemi Fagunwa’s Ogboju ode ninu igbo irunmale (Forest of a Thousand Daemons: A Hunter’s Saga, as translated by Wole Soyinka)? How many Igbos have read Omenuko? Or Nwanta bulie nna ya elu? Or Agbisi gba otule? These are interesting classics.

Recently I went with a cousin of mine to Ariaria international market in Aba. In the course of our transactions, I encountered an interesting tailor. We struck up an enlightening conversation. We argued back and forth over the fate of our language. While he insisted that Igbo language will never die, I persisted that its death had already begun. He asked me the English translation of some Igbo words and the truth be told, there were none for them. Words like Ogbunigwe.  Then, he asked me to give the translation of some English words in Igbo. I couldn’t find any. He laughed and said to me in his crisp Onitsha dialect, “That you don’t know it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.” I believe he is right. But if many of us – like me – don’t know it, what difference does it make if it exists?

One thing that really amazes me is when someone writes WAEC examination, passes other subjects and is said to have failed English. And so needs to re-sit the exam. It makes me wonder: In what language was the other subjects set? In what language did he pass the other subjects? French? It’s English, of course. So we are not saying the student doesn’t know the use of English. We are rather saying that he doesn’t understand the technicality involved in English. Therefore, he must be sentenced to another gruesome ordeal with that subject if he must forge ahead in today’s world. Excuse me, the average Chinese professor doesn’t speak better English than the average tomato seller in Oshodi market. Yet despite his likely deficiency in English, his proficiency in his own language has enabled him produce his own gadgets that makes life easier for him. If and when he attends an international conference, even if he can speak English fluently, he would rather converse in Mandarin. It is now left for the organizers of the gathering to find an interpreter. It is all about giving value to what we have. If we do not value our language and culture, the outside world won’t.

I have a relative I love so much. She has got two lovely boys with cherubic faces. But I have a little problem with her. No one is expected to speak any other language save Queen’s English before her kids. Not even Igbo or the melodic Pidgin English. It just makes me sad. These kids are most likely to grow up like foreigners to their own language and culture in their own motherland. So sad. And we say our languages aren’t dying.

But there are people that give me solace. Solace that there exist hope for our language. Among them is my neighbor. She has got three kids. A boy and two girls. They attend one of the best schools in town. But there is something spectacular about them. They dare not speak English at home. Their mum would have none of it. They can speak all the Queen’s English they want in school where they are not permitted to speak their indigenous language. Despite their summer and winter holidays outside the country, once they are back home, nothing outside their native Awka dialect is permitted to be spoken. The result is evident. These kids are fluent in English, Igbo and Pidgin English.

I am a Christian. I love God and I believe and pray and work hard to go to heaven one day, but what about the everyday by-and-by? Many of us will argue about not been earthly-minded. But what about been so heavenly-minded that we are of no earthly use?

I concur that some aspects of our cultures and traditions are ungodly, but is there no way we can remove the fetish elements to make it pure enough for us? As a friend of mine once said, “Shall we fold our hands and allow everything that binds us as a people die?”

I believe that when a man is transformed by God, he is sent back to his people to be an agent of transformation. Let’s salvage the elements in our culture that isn’t evil. That the sacrifice of twins has ceased shouldn’t make us sell them instead to the white man and his culture. What happened to our folktales? Did we really let them die a bloodless death? Let’s bring back the tales of the tortoise and his cunning. Let’s bring back the tales of the ant and its diligence; of the lion and its strength; of the snake and its craftiness; of the hare and its pride, and its stupidity.

Who said our native dresses aren’t attractive? Who declared the suit and tie more impressive than the Ankara? Who said a skirt and blouse is trendier than the buba and iro? Who told us that green apples are better than mangoes just because they are imported? We now act like the little boy who denounced his own mother after eating his friend’s mother’s food.

Let’s redeem our culture, our tradition, our natural identity. Let the Yoruba speak Yoruba to his brother, while the other tribes do the same with their kinsmen. Then when the different tribes meet, we can now speak all the English we like. If not, one day, we’ll wake up and realize our languages have been stolen from us while we slept.



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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