How the Enyimba spirit is galvanizing Igbo, across the country, into action over their endangered language
By CHIKA ABANOBI and CHRISTINE ONWUACHUMBA
Chief Donatus Anochie, former Vice President and Chief Operating Officer (C.O.O) (now retired as an Executive Director), of Neimeth International Pharmaceuticals Plc (the well-known manufacturers and marketers of pharmaceuticals, animal as well as general healthcare products), was at a loss at the beginning of the interview with Education Review as whether to speak in Igbo or English.
The widely travelled man who is at home with English as he is with Igbo, was asked to speak in English for the benefit of non-Igbo readers as well as Igbos who do not understand a word in their language. Hearing that, he smiled and obliged . .
You need to know why he found himself in this dilemma: he belonged to a group, Nzuko Asusu Igbo (Association of Igbo Speakers), that has taken it upon themselves to give every member who, while speaking Igbo, mixes it with words of any other language, namely, English, a surcharge of N100 per word. In this era of per second billing, you can call it per word billing and nobody will quarrel with that.
To know how much Chief Anochie, a traditional titleholder from Nwangele Local Government area, in Orlu, Imo State, would have paid as a surcharge or fine if he were to speak, at a gathering of Nzuko Asusu Igbo, the words he said here, all you would have needed to do was to count the number and multiple them by one hundred. You are right: he would have paid N91,200 because he spoke 912 English words!
“We were spurred on this venture by this general alarm of Igbo language possibly going extinct by the year 2025, according to the United Nations,” he told Education Review. “So, about three of us here in Anthony Village, (Lagos), gathered to do something about it. We were at a little reception for a newborn baby and when the crowd thinned out and it so happened the people there were almost only Igbos, we began raising some traditional issues.
“There was this general consensus that we should all come together and begin to have a little periodic get-together as Igbos. You know Igbos always like to meet, to aggregate and all that. But then the focus on Igbo language came a bit later. When we started aggregating, some people asked that if we identify ourselves as Igbos, what exactly would be the focus, what would be the objective and all that?
“That was when the language thing came up and we said, let us come together and see how we can help to promote the speaking of Igbo language, especially among the younger people. But it was also clear that some of the adults, have problem speaking the Igbo language. They couldn’t make one or two sentences in straight Igbo without anglicizing it. So, it happened that in December 2011, we held the first inaugural meeting and we christened the aggregation, Nzuko Asusu Igbo and the objective is very clear: to promote the speaking of Igbo language, starting with ourselves.
“So, because we want to start with ourselves, that meeting is held in Igbo language. And there are fines or sanctions. You are fined N100 each time you introduce a non-Igbo word. So, that kept people on the line. We don’t mix what we speak with English words like “and”, “but” “or”. All those words will attract a fine of N100 per word. So, we needed to keep conversation straight in Igbo when we speak. We’ve held that up to three times.”
Anochie and his Nzuko Asusu Igbo are not the only ones in whose hearts the Enyimba spirit has woken up the desire to learn, speak and teach the Igbo language. Across the country and even around the world, pockets of Igbo groups stung by the UN prediction have risen to challenge the status quo by engaging themselves in language learning and other activities that are geared towards reviving the language among its natives living in the Diaspora.
There is also the Lagos-based Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), Society for Revival of Igbo Language (formerly, Eastern Voice Initiatives), which once organized an Igbo quiz competition on the Nigerian Television Authority (NTA), Lagos, and which has just released into the market (see box story) an exciting Igbo language VCD, Muta Asusu Igbo, (Learn Igbo Language) Vol. 1 & 11, a must-watch for all Igbo sons and daughters.
Headed by Onochie Nwodo from Nsukka, Enugu State and Somadina Otuonye, from Ezinihitte-Mbaise, Imo State, the group is, at the moment, planning to start weekend classes in Igbo for interested people as well as a reality TV show, Ibukwa Onye Igbo, in which you will be tested to see if you can speak Igbo language for 10 minutes without mixing it with English words and also dress like an Igbo. “Our major problem is sponsorship,” it says.
“Thank you very much for your views on this important and sensitive matter,” one Victor Williamson, wrote Education Review, all the way from United States. “I am African American born in the United States and raised in Wisconsin. I am very interested to learn my wife’s native tongue as it seems of great benefit to culture, heritage and morale for myself and my family (he is to married a Lagos-based girl, he says, whose parents are Ika-Ibo from Delta State). “Access to Igbo resources used in Nigerian schools including literature, novels, play-writes (sic), proverbs and dictionaries is very scanty in the States. Most books are child’s play and I prefer to be fully immersed into the full richness of the language. Outside of travel to Igboland, how may an American access Igbo language resources on par with natives teaching in the Igbo speaking states like Anamabra, Imo, Enugu, Abia and Ebonyi? I am interested to speak and write in the Igbo language, and share such resources with African Americans.”
One of the groups interested in teaching others the Igbo language is the Oluigbo Group (The Voice of Igbo). Based in Ilaro, Ogun State, It is headed, at the moment by Elder Uchenna Okoro, a native of Ohaozara, Ebonyi State, as the Coordinator and Mr. Joseph-Maurice Ogu, from Aguluzigbo in Anaocha Local Government, Anambra State, as Secretary.
“Our vision is to bring back the glory of Igbo language, especially among the children and youth,” Okoro and Ogu told Education Review. “Since our children are our future, we are very optimistic that if we inculcate the love and interest of asusu na omenala Igbo (Igbo language and culture) early enough in them, contrary to the UN’s prediction, the language will never die. Hence we are making every effort to encourage the parents to bring their children to us every Saturday for intensive coaching on “asusu na omenala Igbo”. Necessary awareness has been created in our locality through questionnaires sent out. We are buying necessary notebooks and textbooks to distribute to the children, absolutely free of charge. We will also be sourcing fund to enable us appreciate the teachers monthly. With this, the prediction of the UN concerning the language will be negated.”
Like the Oluigbo, Anochie’s Nzuko Asusu Igbo is also interested in teaching Igbo to the young ones. “Our bigger objective is to target children,” he said, but we felt we should first start with ourselves and after we’ve done that, we will now figure out how best to get children involved. One of the areas through which we could get children easily is through their mothers.
“Children have a problem with speaking Igbo or any language, for that matter, if that language is not spoken at home, not spoken to them. So, one clear task we have now is to meet with mothers of these children, in a friendly atmosphere and that has been scheduled for this month of November (Sunday, November 25, to be precise). When we meet we are going to explain to them why it is important that they speak this language in their homes. And thereafter we will now zero in on the children themselves. We are thinking of a number of programmes because we’ve met in an ad hoc manner with some groups of children and they showed interest. It’s just that their parents don’t speak the language to them.
“And, you know children learn best when there are little incentives here and there and you make the thing interesting to them. So, we are going to incorporate all that into our inter-face with the children. Our experience is that most of them hear, but they don’t often speak it. We also want to make sure those children attend schools where Igbo is taught. And then, we will organise things like very interesting events for them and bring in models who will be speaking Igbo because when children see models speak the language it makes it interesting to them. And, of course, the much longer time objective is to collaborate with others who are interested in having Igbo films or movies, spoken in Igbo but sub-titled in English, so that you hear Igbo but you can now relate it to English.
“We are concerned especially with the UN position. But be that as it may, we know that Igbo people are also a resilient people. But one is concerned but not alarmed because I know that once you get Igbo people hooked unto something, excited about something, they can go to any length to sustain it. Right now, it is happening. There is hardly a day that passes that you won’t see one group or the other talking about how it intends to help in sustaining the speaking of Igbo language. So, we believe that the spirit of Igbo enterprise will overcome that problem the UN position holds.
“We are recommending that similar associations should be set up in other places where there are Igbos. They should come together because operationally, that’s simpler. You don’t have to go to faraway places with difficult logistics and all that. Just within your neighbourhood, you can always come together once in a month or once in three months and have a little programme with the objective of getting parents to speak the Igbo language to their children.
“I have never talked to any Igbo on this issue who did not want to participate. Two or three people can take the initiative in each locality or community because everybody seems to have this problem and wants a solution and can’t find one. So, I believe that if this kind of model is propagated by a newspaper like The Sun, you will see a lot of groups springing up.”