‘Uncle Good Evening’, And So Goes My Native Language
Learning the language and learning about the language makes it possible to learn through it
It had been several years since I last visited my hometown, Odobo, for an extended holiday. I was uncharacteristically expectant: new community projects, residential homes, businesses, and even faces. Eager to share some delicacies, visit the stream (and possibly swim), and go to the farm once again (going to the farm was, of course, certain in my family). While on the motorcycle from the bus stop to my village, I was contemplating the communal demand of having to visit most of my relatives to ‘greet’ them.
‘Uncle good evening’, a boy greeted me with much excitement, breathing heavily for he had to run to meet me as I was being driven into the compound. I could sense the feeling of achievement that he exuded, if not also satisfaction -the type that could only have emanated from a congealed conviction of knowing.
His eyes lit suggestively as if to tell me something other than just the greeting. Similar episodes were recorded with the other children that had congregated to welcome me -whosoever told them I would be returning that day -I would never accuse my mom of such.
I anticipated significant changes, like the children I could hardly recognize; but I neither had any expectation whatsoever nor was I willing to accept that much change: the children all greeted me in English. The most frequent words had become ‘Uncle’, ‘Brother’, ‘Yes’, ‘No’, ‘Mummy’, ‘Grandma’, and many such one-word sentences. So apparent was their determination to impress. And how else could such a goal be achieved except with what I am familiarly known for: the uncle that reads big books?
In my village, as I would believe is also applicable in most villages in my local government, parents take pride in their children’s ability to communicate in English. It does not have to be Queen’s English (normally called ‘Phoné’ -yeah, it’s a di-syllabic word). When with age mates, some parents would boast of their children’s competence and how their children ‘eat’ the white-man language. English is considered evidence of learning and a reason parents should continue paying the little they are paying as school fees, which is much to them.
Students are punished in schools if they speak ‘vernacular’ (that is, any other language but English). Even during church functions, which are expectedly frequent (my people are profoundly religious -although I would not speak to their spirituality), the preachers will ensure to drill the fear of God in the worshippers; and which language can this be done most faithfully if not English. To my people, English seemingly makes the message more mystical, arcane, and akin to the transcendental. Even when a vernacular is to be adopted, Efik or Ibibio (both regionally dominant languages) would be the choice. The Choir are anglicized: they are commended when they introduce a new English song or translate a known song from the ‘vernacular’ to English. A youth is assigned to pray, and the first statement is likely to be ‘In Jesus’ name’ -which leaves me to wonder if maybe the hosts of heaven only understand such apparently cultured and literate languages as English, and perhaps also Efik.
Again, why would I blame those young souls if they had desired recognition and commendation? Why should I be bothered whether someone greets me in English, Efik, Ibibio, Oro, or Akobuo? Is it not commendable that the elderly are educated enough to pray in non-native languages like English and Efik? Is comprehension not the cornerstone of communication? That children read (and understand) and communicate fluently in a global language like English must certainly be encouraged. Fortunately (yes, fortunately), these children -some aged between five and twelve – were neither as enthusiastic nor competent when asked to communicate in Akobuo, their native language. ‘Assuredly, I say unto you’, there was a problem, but one that probably required a different solution.
I was ready to ‘forgive’ the children (of course I considered it a sin not to know one’s mother tongue), for they knew not what they were doing, only to attend a peer group (or youth) meeting and be shocked. Shocked? Was I expecting too much from them? Except I would have been considered a stranger, I was certain everyone in the meeting was a native and a resident of the village. ‘The President, I thought the house had agreed…’. With erupted discomfort, I never knew when I uttered to myself ‘Keep thoughting’. Maybe since those who had acquired higher education would return home only to ‘victimize’ others with ‘grammar’, the ‘victimized’ also have become the ‘victimizers’ -and English became the weapon.
Who would equally blame the youths for speaking almost only in English? Who would blame them for making efforts to be ‘civilised’? Attending university was not easy at all; the evidence must be made apparent. They must justify all the foodstuff and money sent to them while in the city ‘reading’.
I was still not inclined to blame my peers. I understood them; after all, most of them have travelled out of the village and have had dealings with people from other language groups. In a multilingual state like Akwa Ibom, English or Pidgin (and even Ibibio) is an asset. But even if a 10-year-old selling assorted food for breakfast were to have asked them as adults ‘What do you want?’, must their response be ‘Beans cake’? Beans cake? Really? What happens to ‘akara’?
After almost a week, I finally mustered the courage to visit my paternal extended family’s house. Calculating from my experience, it would have been easy to conclude exactly what would happen. Maybe I had expected too much of my people. Maybe I no longer understood them as I had claimed, owing to my years of being away. I walked into the compound and was ready to behave myself and not disappoint them. I was one of my village’s youngest, most educated people; I knew the expectations would be high. ‘Good evening, uncles’. That was what I said, just that, while in obeisance. The statement had not even left my lips when one of my uncles as if stung by a bee or anticipating my action, bellowed, ‘What type of insult is that?’. In no particular order, similar reactions rained without turn-taking: ‘Since when did you start greeting us in English? Is that what you’ve learnt in school? Did we send you to school to come back and insult us?’. You are probably wondering if the village sponsored my education.
In my village, most people might not have given you a Kobo, but you are certainly representing the entire village. The default response at that moment was immediate verbal apologies that were later followed by a few bottles of gin. I had to appease the ‘gods’.
Surprisingly, some of these elders were still those that would prefer Efik to Akobuo when praying. Perhaps the saying is true: the elders are generally the guardians of the entrance to our (linguistic) homestead. But I wonder if the elders know what the younger ones have brought back to the homestead from their sojourns. I wonder if the elders are vigilant enough.
Tired of my incessant complaints, my illiterate but visionary mother encouraged me to act and was even the first to make a financial commitment to the yet-to-be-designed project. My cousin immediately suggested and reached out to Rt Hon. (Chief) Barr. Peter L. Umoh (known for his enthusiasm towards anything Okobo), who immediately invited us to his residence, since he was coincidentally in his hometown. It was this meeting that inaugurated what was to come and what hopefully will. With the assistance of my family and friends, I visited most of the churches and secondary schools in the local government where the language is spoken to preach the gospel of revitalization. I also took my message to some of the well-meaning Okobo sons and daughters on why Akobuo should be developed and codified.
My message was (and still is) simple: while it is important that our children learn English, it does not imply discarding Akobuo, their native language. Both languages can vibrantly co-exist while serving their unique functions. I desire natives of Akobuo extraction to take pride in telling others the translation/transliteration of their names while using the opportunity to educate them about a sub-stratum of their culture. I would love people to know that Akobuo, even with its seeming limitations, is as rich as English, as illustrated in the synonyms for the English verb “break” (i.e., burst::bo; crack::asé; crumble::suana, bë; collapse::luohó; cut::pêghé; fracture::nuágá; shatter::tue, nuágá; smash:: tua bo; snap::büŋ; split::bagá, siak; tear::wak, wá) – if only people would understand that God (or god) hears, listens, and answers any prayer rendered in Akobuo same as those in any other language. One of the fascinating occurrences after most of the sensitization sessions was when people would ask whose son I was in Odobo rather than which village I was in Okobo. This is because knowledge of my village could easily be ascertained from my ‘Odobo accent’, especially in Odobo’s preference for ‘dôkɔ’ (i.e., ‘tell/speak’) instead of ‘tâmá’ as used by other villages. This brought me a sense of abiding faith in the quest.
Of the Niger-Congo language family, Akobuo is an unwritten understudied endangered minority language. With about 50,000 speakers in a local government of fewer than 70,000 people (i.e., about 71 per cent) as of 1991, even the more than 51 per cent projected population growth by 2022 is unable to reverse the drastic trend of endangerment Okobo currently undergoes.
The Local Government has a (non-diglossic) multilingual setup: Akobuo, Oro, and Efik. Oro is spoken predominantly by the groups of villages commonly called Atak Oro, which could be taken to have constituted a greater part of the 29 per cent Akobuo non-speakers in 1991.
Contrary to reports by scholars including Essesien Ntekim and Okon Essien which presume Akobuo to have originated from Efik or being a subgroup (or variant) of Ibibio respectively, oral history insists that Akobuo has diametrically dissimilar migratory roots as Efik and Ibibio -both of whom have similar migratory root. That there exists seemingly extensive shared cultural ethos between Akobuo and Efik today could be traced, with significant accuracy, to Atlantic-based trade which served as the primary initial contact between these two language blocks, leading to the much uniform migration from the Efik-speaking creeks of Calabar to the part now known as Atabong. By 1786, the Efiks of Old Calabar had sustained trade relations with Odobo (then known as ‘Big Town’ in ‘Little Cameroon’), and with other parts of Okobo even as early as 1462.
In the case of Oro, the same oral history maintains that the people of Okobo extraction would have initially settled tentatively at a place now known as Okobo Ebughu, a village in Mbo Local Government Area, on their way from ‘Usahadit’ (taken to be the ancestral home of Akobuo-speaking people of Okobo) before finally resettling at where is now known as Okobo. From this purview, it is plausible to argue that the relative similarities between Efik, Ibibio, and Oro to Akobuo are the outcome of sustained language contact (which is currently resulting in language attrition) and seemingly genetic homogeneity. Even more, the imbalanced socio-political and economic power structure between these dominant contiguous languages has equally resulted in Akobuo speakers being compelled to understand Efik, Ibibio and Oro while speakers of these dominant languages hardly understand Akobuo (i.e., absence of mutual intelligibility).
Considering this, it is safe to conclude that the people of (the political entity now known as) Okobo were historically bilinguals: Akobuo and Oro speakers. How relevant, then, would such mapping be to today’s socio-linguistic realities? In addition to Atabong, who were the last settlers in Okobo(that is, as different from Atak Oro), almost all the villages contiguous to the relatively dominant indigenous languages, at various stages of attrition, speak the language of their neighbours. Similarly, while Akobuo could be said to have lexical and grammatical similarities with the neighbouring languages, it would be misleading to affirm with certainty that such linguistic similarities are not directly a result of decades of language contact.
Okobo people are divided into three clans: Eta, Odu, and Atabong. Eta Clan consists of Nung Atai Eta, Odobo, Ebighi Eta, Amamong, Okopedi, and Obufi groups of villages; Odu Clan is made up of Ekeya, Ebighi Odu, Ube, Nda, Akibabo, and Ebighi Okobo groups of villages; Atabong Clan is made up of Ikot Iquo, Ikot Odiong, Ikot Okokon, and Ikot Osukpong groups of villages. The present-day linguistic profiles of these clans as opposed to perhaps the beginning of the 20th Century clearly indicate the drastic endangerment Akobuo faces: Obufi (Efik); Ekeya (Akobuo, Efik, & Ibibio), Ebighi Odu (Efik), Ebighi Okobo (predominantly Akobuo but with Efik), Nda (predominantly Oro), Akibabo (predominantly Oro); and Atabong (Efik). To put it differently, Atabong clan is completely Efik, and Odu clan is predominantly Efik but with a strong influence of Oro; only Eta Clan is predominantly Akobuo. Excluding Atak Oro, after more than two decades from 1991 when Akobuo was at 71 per cent, it would hardly be erroneous to state that Akobuo is now the First Language of roughly 40 per cent of speakers. When the globalizing influence of English language is considered in this matrix, the situation becomes even worse.
To put it into perspective, my Mother Tongue, Akobuo (and its varieties), was historically native to sixteen groups of villages in Okobo Local Government Area of the state. About ten of these villages have been gradually ‘invaded’ (to varying degrees) by the relatively dominant regional languages like Efik, Ibibio, and Oro.
The obvious consequence is oriented towards three perspectives: Akobuo is not being spoken, hardly spoken, or hardly understood. While in some villages, only the elderly can speak or understand the language, in others, bilingualism is deeply entrenched as the default linguistic situation. According to the elders I shared my concern with, it has only taken a few decades for these dramatic changes currently witnessed. In the words of Chief Atah Okon Ewa, the International President of Okobo Development Union(ODU), which is the mother socio-cultural and political body of the originally Akobuo-speaking villages in the local government, ‘unlike about two decades ago, only few elders in my village, Ebighi Edu, understand and can speak the language; almost everyone here speaks Efik’.
Only a couple of decades ago, the encroaching cultural assimilation of these neighbouring dominant languages resulted in the language shift in the emerging bilingual diglossic speech community where Akobuo ‘grudgingly co-existed, especially with Efik, each serving specific purposes: Efik seemingly served ‘high’ functions as the language of the court, religion and even education while Akobuo was reserved for ‘low’ functions like everyday conversations and village councils.
As of then, the situation was not as deplorable as it is now, although the handwriting was on the wall. With the overarchingly sweeping global threat of English language and Pidgin, I could not help but be terribly apprehensive about the future of my beloved native language.
It would not require expert knowledge to accurately predict what could happen in the next half a century if children are taught to regard “Uncle Good evening” as the most acceptable greeting in the evening.
But why should anyone pay attention to a language with such few native speakers? Are there not too many languages in Nigeria already? In what significant way is such a (minor) language contributing to the people’s standard of living? Are the outcomes of revitalization necessarily commensurate with the effort and resources to be expended? These are certainly serious issues, and such sentiments are definitely valid. But as Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann has insisted,
if any (endangered) language is allowed (yes, “allowed”) to go extinct, the people would lose “their cultural autonomy, intellectual sovereignty, spirituality and (metaphorically) soul”.
Learning the language and learning about the language makes it possible to learn through it.
As I journeyed back to Lagos, the thoughts of the endangerment and the potential imminent extinction of my mother tongue took centre stage in my mind. I was happy that I could take a step. And even more so, I was happy that my family members have adopted Akobuo as the only (spoken) language in my family, except in the presence of a visitor who does not understand the language.
I am certain most children in the neighbourhood would have had enough from my family as they would not be answered unless they spoke Akobuo without code-switching and(or) code-changing. But I was (and still am) disturbed if my generation will not be the last to speak and understand Akobuo. Perhaps, no one would remember that it all started with “Uncle good morning”.
- Essesien Ntekim, Okobo, Story of a Nigerian People (United States: Xlibris, 2003), p. 210
2. Essien, O. (1993:ixx), “The Tense System in Ibibio”. Current Approaches to African Languages. Holland, Foris Publication.
3. Chief (Barr.) Hon. Peter L. Umoh, and Chief Atta Okon Ewa
4. Behrendt et al (2010:18), The Diary of Antera Duke, an Eighteen-Century African Slave Trader.
5. Behrendt et al (2010:237), The Diary of Antera Duke, an Eighteen-Century African Slave Trader.
6. Essesien Ntekim, Okobo, Story of a Nigerian People, p. 529
7. Essesien Ntekim, Okobo, Story of a Nigerian People, p. 411.
Peter Antigha specializes in Learning & Development, Educational Innovation, Strategic/Corporate Communication. He is passionate about how narratives can be controlled for sustainable impact and growth. Peter Antigha is a proud Nigerian.