by Pius Adesanmi
This one will be a long read. I see it as a contribution to the enhancement of the self-worth and dignity of the Nigerian citizen. So, abeg bear with me, grab a cup of water, tea, beer, ogogoro, burukutu, or anything you drink, settle down, and read along.
Yesterday, I put up an update about my reunion in Abuja with a childhood BFF (best friends forever) I last saw in 1987. As I am increasingly wont to do these days on my Facebook wall, I spiced up the update with a sentence in Yagba language, a subdivision of the Okun language of Okun people in Kogi State.
Do not be fooled by the things I do with and to English and French. Yagba is my language of primary expression and imagination. It is my creative crucible. There is nothing I put out in English or French that was not first imagined in Yagba.
My recourse to Yagba in that update has led to some interesting commentary about dialects and tribes. Some tried to identify the “dialect” in question. Some mentioned their own “dialects”. And some mused generally about which tribes speak which dialect in Nigeria.
“I am of the Igbo tribe.” “I am Yoruba by tribe.” “My tribe is Hausa.” “My dialect is Igbo.” “I speak the Yoruba dialect.” “My dialect is Hausa”. These are standard Nigerian usages. Very widespread. Whatever your ethnicity or language may be in Nigeria, chances are you often unselfconsciously refer to your tribe and dialect when talking about your identity. It is not your fault. It is the fault of a leadership that has spent decades denying you the ability to make connections between things by spitting on your history and abolishing it in the curriculum.
That is why you may not know the story of how distinct African peoples and ethnic nationalities with their own languages became “tribes” speaking “dialects” somewhere in the border between the 18th and the 19th centuries. However, if the school system is broken and your moribund leadership still does not understand the value of history, you still have no excuse for not investing in free knowledge in order to understand when and where the rain of tribe and dialect began to beat you.
Our white European traducers had a problem at the end of the slave trade. Throughout the duration of slavery, they did not really know what they called “the interior” or “the hinterland” of a continent whose human capital they spent more than 300 years stealing and cargo-ing to the Americas. They operated mostly from the Atlantic coast of Africa – where they built castles, forts, and doors of no return. It is from these coastal locations that they operated and organised the architecture of slavery, ensuring delivery from the interior to the coast.
Yet, as soon as slavery crumbled under its own contradictions (don’t believe those stories of benevolent and activist European abolitionists they told you) they were already competing for the next phase of their predatory relationship with Africa. For the next phase, they gathered in Berlin in 1884. Each participating European country went to Berlin with a butcher’s knife which they put to work on a map of Africa.
Now they all owned a piece of the pie they didn’t really know. You must credit Europeans with that unquenchable spirit of curiosity. The European must know. They must know their new territories and the peoples and the flora and the fauna and everything therein. Explorers, travel writers, missionaries, colonisation societies, poets, novelists, adventurers – everybody needed to play their part in contributing to knowledges that the European needed to dominate you and exercise authority over your African world and environment.
This is the dark side of the emergence of the modern version (as opposed to its classical version) of a University field known as Anthropology – especially in Britain and France. They needed to study, classify, and perorate on the languages, cultures, customs, and mores of the people they were colonising.
This new knowledge industry about Africa that the European constructed in the service of imperialism, this need to know you in order to better colonise you, was underwritten by 18th and 19th century European superiorist racist and racialist philosophy whose overall thesis is the inferiority of the African and his world.
How shall it be said that the peoples they were encountering in Africa were people in the sense in which Europeans were people? How shall it be said that the ethnic nations they were encountering and colonising in Africa were ethnic nations in the sense in which they had ethnic nations in Europe? And, above all, how shall it be said that the languages they were encountering all over the continent were languages in the same sense as English, French, and Portuguese?
Tufiakwa! Ka ma ri! God forbid bad thing! That is how the European created and inscribed “tribes” all over Africa in order not to elevate those they were so describing to the status of peoplehood reserved only for the white race. That is how the European decided that African languages were inferior, infantile, and incapable of expressing abstract concepts, beauty, philosophy, and poesy. They therefore classified your languages as “dialects” in opposition to “languages” in Europe.
Now, those Europeans who reduced your languages to inferior dialects at the time were even the most generous and liberal ones. The common thing was to reduce those languages to the level of Orangutan grunts and cackling. And they wrote plenty of books in every genre imaginable to describe your “dialects” as animal grunts.
It was ideologically important for colonialism not to administer people, ethnic nations, and languages. It was important for her to administer only “natives”, “tribes”, and “dialects”. It was important for her not to confer the status of language on whatever she encountered in Africa.
African languages are mere dialects incapable of philosophy, complexity, abstraction, beauty, poesy? This is the damage to African humanity that Chinua Achebe mercilessly demolished in Things Fall Apart and, also, Arrow of God.
Forget Okonkwo and Ezeulu and take a second look at the Igbo language pretending to be English in these two novels. What will immediately strike you is that despite Chinua Achebe’s unmatchable genius, the English language simply just doesn’t have what it takes to carry the weight of the beauty, philosophy, abstraction, complexity and poesy of the Igbo language and world.
What Achebe has also done for you is to make it possible for you to replace the Igbo language and world in Things Fall Apart with your own language and world anywhere in Africa and the result is always the same: you are a people, an ethnic nation speaking languages that are even more complex than the tongue of your European traducers. You are not “tribes” speaking “dialects”. Things Fall Apart in this sense is more than a transcendent art work, it is your certificate of human dignity as an African.
This struggle is an unending one. The task is by no means over. For one, we have amplified our own indignity by not teaching these things in our curriculum, creating the situation in which generations of Nigerians refer to themselves as tribes with dialects, instead of ethnic nations with languages because they are simply unaware of the terrible history behind such usages.
Second, your Western traducers have not stopped. Just take a look at the horribly ignorant documentary, Clinton Cash, produced by Stephen Bannon, Donald Trump’s new hire. That documentary is available for free on YouTube. Watch it and see how these ignorant American alt-right morons narrate Africa. Africa is all lions and snakes and tribes and dialects and corruption. The lunatic makers of the documentary never saw a single city in Africa. Imagine what millions of ignorant Americans watching that documentary are seeing when they see such a terribly cherry-picked version of Africa. All their stereotypes, prejudices, and ignorance are reinforced.
Don’t blame your American friend when next he or she remarks that African dialects are just “awesome and amazing.” It is an innocent compliment enabled by what they see about us in their culture and what we reinforce about ourselves by not teaching our own narratives in our schools.
When you have come out of watching Clinton Cash, go straight and watch Biyi Bandele’s brilliant movie, Fifty. When you have watched that movie, thank Biyi Bandele for his work for your dignity and humanity, shake his hand, and buy him a beer. Pay attention to how this brilliant writer and filmmaker narrates Lagos, our Lagos, in this movie that makes me salivate just thinking about it. After watching that movie, I decided that nobody has any business teaching Africa here in North America without making it a compulsory text for students. I also decided that every African needs to buy a copy of that movie and place it beside Things Fall Apart.
Like Things Fall Apart, what Biyi Bandele’s movie does for you is to enable you perspectivise yourself as a complex people making meaning through language in a complex built environment – Lagos. That movie is a great response to the Africa you see in Clinton Cash.
The argument can be made that in certain branches of linguistics, dialects are just a harmless way of describing variants -especially regional variants – of a language. That is true. There are dialects of English in Britain. There are dialects of French in France. There are dialects of English in the United States.
However, the way that variants of European languages came to be described as dialects is not the way that the entirety of African languages came to be described as dialects. In Africa, dialects are a terrible legacy of European racism and colonialism. That is why I cannot subscribe to the notion that Ijebu, Egba, Ijesha, etc, are dialects of Yoruba. They are subdivisions of Yoruba.
Think about these things next time you call your language a dialect.
Op–ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija
Pius Adesanmi, a professor of English, is Director of the Institute of African Studies, Carleton University, Canada.