Tower of Babel, sorry Ubang


•Clan where men and women speak different languages

By HENRY UMAHI ([email protected])

When the sons of men were building the tower of Babel in their attempt to get to heaven and see God, believed to live, somewhere up there, beyond the sky, the good Lord, the Bible records, frustrated the effort by throwing them in confusion and misunderstanding. He confused their language that they may not understand one another’s speech. Ubang, a clan in Cross River State in Southern Nigeria, was given two languages because when it was their turn to receive their own language, God had two left. So, in His wisdom, He gave the two remaining languages to Ubang.

The people of Ubang, in turn, shared them between the men and women, one apiece. This, according to one old man in the village, is the reason Ubang men and women speak different languages. Another resident jocularly added that God gave two different languages to Ubang because they were the most disobedient group who wanted to continue with the tower project.

But for Chief Joseph Ale Iyiang, head of Okweriseng village, Ubang is endowed with two languages, one exclusively for the men and the other for women, because God created them first. Hear him: “Ubang are the first creation of God by presumption because it is the only community in the world that has two languages. About 150 years ago, we were about 11 communities but today we are three communities because of inter-tribal squabbles. The others disappeared and submerged into other communities. The remaining ones are warriors. When our forefathers were alive, we started asking because we were surprised why we have two languages while others have one.

They left it as a fact of our history that Ubang are the senior creation of God; that is why we have two languages. The women have their own and the men have theirs. The communities that constitute Ubang clan are Okweriseng, Ofande and Okira. The language of the women is locally known as Iziebenyinye while the men’s is called Ziebenchie”. However Ubang came about two different languages, notwithstanding, the fact is that it is perhaps the only clan where men and women speak different languages and each sex is forbidden from speaking the other’s language. It is seen as disdainful for an Ubang man to speak the language of a woman or vice versa. In fact, any man who speaks women’s tongue is regarded as a renegade, a spent force or someone not worthy to be a man.

Put differently, the person is seen as a woman in trousers. Interestingly, inspite of the dissimilarities in languages, both sexes communicate or understand each other without inviting an interpreter. Children born in the area grow up to follow the path of their forebearers without any form of orientation. It just happens naturally; it is their way of life. “We understand ourselves as well as the languages of other sub-ethnic groups like Alege, Okpe, Bete, Boki, Ijagam and Utugwang.

Ubang man is very fast in learning languages, Anywhere he goes, it doesn’t take much time before he starts speaking the language. He has very wide ears and that is why I believe the historical theory of our forefathers that we were the first creation of God. But when we speak, most of these sub-ethnic groups will not understand us. Even our local government area headquarters at Obudu don’t understand Ubang, but we understand them very well. Our women folk understand us and we understand them, ”

Ale Iyiang explained. State of languages One of the features that define Cross River is the avalanche of languages spoken there. In fact, the 18 local government areas in the state are believed to have about 250 languages.

According to Hon Philip Ikpa, the situation is such that there are communities in the same ward that speak different languages. Obudu LGA seems to hold the flag in terms of language endowment. Investigations revealed that about 13 distinct languages are used in the wards that make up the council. Ubang, which is found in Obudu LGA, is the icing on the cake of languages.

Our reporter was in Ubang recently and saw the mystery playing out. The place, the people, the languages Ubang people are proud of their heritage. Friendly and accommodating, they make a meal of their inheritance.

They are mostly cocoa farmers. Heavy construction equipment and bulldozers were working on the Alege – Ubang road, a distance of about 19 kilometres from Ukpe branch, when the reporter arrived. Young and not-so-young men sat on stones at Rebuan Okweriseng watching the earth movers with unhidden excitement. (Rebuan is the place where information is disseminated in the community). It was gathered that the heavy duty vehicles (Caterpillars, as everyone called them) were passing the area for the first time hence the people were excited and watched with keen interest the work being done.

Hidden behind rocks and mountains, Ubang is regarded as the most remote hinterland of Obudu in northern Cross River. But the ongoing road construction has given a facelift, making it accessible. According to Chief Ale Iyiang, “there are certain things that we call the same. Both men and women call food ura.

Women call water bamu but men call it pamwie. Men refer to dog as kabu while women call it okwakwue. Men call fowl ikwie but to women it is ukwuo. Itu is what men call yam but women refer to it as kigbi. Men call palm wine gbatu, women call it batu. Pig is called okagbu by women but to men it is akwungbe”.

What happens if an indigene of Ubang marries a woman from another place? The head of Okweriseng village answered: “The woman will be taught by her mates. For example, outside there (pointing his finger in one direction), there is a woman from Bete but if she speaks Ubang today you won’t know that she is from Bete. She speaks the women’s version. She didn’t learn from her husband. She learnt from her mates”.

When at a public function like church service, how would the minister deliver his or her sermon? How do men communicate with their young daughters and women with their young sons? Mr John Ogboaka, SA Special Duties, Obudu LGA, says: “If a man is the one preaching or addressing the congregation, he will use men’s language and if it is a woman, she will use her language. We quite understand ourselves. “Communicating with kids is not really a problem. A girl will naturally pick her mother tongue.

A boy also will start learning from his mother tongue and gradually as he grows up, he will now pick the father’s language. You know, children are very close to their mothers, so they speak their mother language because the father is always not at home.

But because he will look inferior to his peers when he uses the women language, a boy will quickly pick the language of men as early as possible. If a woman gives birth to a set of twins – male and female, they will naturally fall into line as they grow”. Maintaining that they do not have a third language that both men and women can communicate with, Ogboaka posited that both the men and women are proud of their languages? “As a man, you have the command of the language but women are subordinates to men. They respect their languages and are proud of them.

If a man speaks women language, he will look inferior to both sexes”. Any penance for a man speaking the women language? Ogboaka said: “In those days, if a man spoke the language of women and he was heard, he won’t be respected and he won’t be allowed to sit among elders or drink and eat with them because he will be seen as a subordinate to the menfolk. What the younger people did is that if they caught their age-mate in the act, they will take him to a very deep stream and push his head under water. He will not be drowned but will be made to drink some water because he did not live up to expectation”.

What happens if a woman was caught speaking men’s language? “Well, we will regard it that the woman was caught halfway, that is why she did men’s stuff. In Ubang tradition, it is big surprise for a woman to speak the language of a man. It means that she was coming as a man before her genital organ was changed and she became a woman. That is the belief of our people,” Ogboaka said. In what way has the development benefited Ubang? Hon Amos Iyiang Ochui, a community leader: “It is a blessing because it makes us feel superior to other races.

We are on the world map; people are coming to do researches on our endowment. But we’ve not had material benefit from it”. Another mystery The people of Ubang also claim that God visited the clan and left his footprint for all to see. According to Chief Justin Ayang Orim, Head, Bikwang village, there is a huge supernatural footprint on a rock there, which could only be God’s. His words: “Apart from our unique characteristic-language-wise, we have what we call ofuerum, that is the footprint of God on a rock in the community. That was when God gave us two languages. It is still on the mountain. ”

Asked how they know it is the footprint of God, he said: “Yes, we know because you cannot compare the footprint and that of a human being because it is so large and no man can leave his foot print on a rock. Only God can.”

Since certainly the ‘footprint of God’ on the rock is revered, do they worship at the mountain or seek a sort of spiritual help there? Orim said: “We don’t worship there but our forefathers were worshiping there. But because of Christianity, we do not worship there but we maintain it”.

Indeed, Ubang is still culturally buoyant. Like most African societies, their cultural heritage is being gradually eroded by modernization or civilization. One of the vestiges of tradition is the Iquo society. What is Iquo about? Chief Peter Okang Afong, Head Kukia – Ikwuoeng village, explained: “It is a cultural heritage from our ancestors. It is a society that always brings peace to the community.

For example, as the dry season is setting in now, the people in-charge will make sacrifices so that there will be peace in the community. We have started clearing the bushes in preparation of the next planting season, so they will make sacrifices and call for bumper harvest next year. They will all pray for the women to conceive this season and be delivered of healthy children.

On the day Iquo will come out, women and visitors will not come out. It is usually done once in a year during the dry season”. Ogboaka added that members of Iquo, which he described as a social group, engage in calisthenics.

He volunteered that every young man who is initiated looks forward to the calisthenics so that he can display his skill as a member of Ogbezi. Afong further said that new yam festival is usually celebrated with panache in Ubang.

“On the day of new yam festival, our children living abroad will come home. On the day, the natives will prepare a special delicacy – melon cake and when you taste it you will enjoy it. In fact, there will be a lot of merriment all over, dancing and all sorts of things.

It is an occasion all indigenes of Ubang look forward to”. Afong also said that marriage ceremonies are remarkable event, in Ubang. According to him, the day that the bride will join her husband, the people will showcase their rich culture and tradition in terms of dressing, food and dance. Unique but neglected Ubang is a special place but it remains a backwater. Before the ongoing construction of the Ukpe – Ubang road, there was hardly sign of government presence. Then getting to Ubang could be likened to a journey through the valley of the shadow of death.

The people trekked long distances because the road leading to the clan was not motorable, especially when it rained. Ironically, Ubang is not far from Obudu cattle ranch, which is the flagship of the state’s tourist destinations. Orim said: “We are happy that the road is under construction but that is not all we should have. For example, we lack water.

We do not have electricity and there is no sign that we will enjoy such any time soon. There is no GSM network. Before you can make or receive calls you have to go to hilly places. So, we are appealing to telecommunication companies to come and build masts in our area so that we will stop communicating with tears.

We ought to have a standard General Hospital; our people trek for kilometers to go to hospital in Obudu. If possible, the authorities should cite a tertiary institution around here.” In the same vein, His Royal Highness, Friday Ayeni Ade, the crown head of Ubang, said: “Over the decades, we have been waiting for government patiently and praying.

We’ve been very unlucky, we’ve been so backward in education, none of our sons is in any office anywhere to speak for us. We’ve been suffering in silence for many years. We want to appreciate the effort of government now because they are building our road after many years of neglect, which means that government is interested in this area. We are attached to another ethnic group – Alege, so this is Alege – Ubang ward, we want a ward for Ubang.

We are large enough, the population is enough to constitute a council ward. A ward will make us feel a sense of belonging in this country”. On efforts to preserve the two distinct languages of Ubang, His Royal Highness, Friday Ayeni Ade, the crown head of Ubang, said: “We are beginning to make efforts to ensure that they do not go extinct.

We will soon set up a special committee made up of elites, those who are advanced in linguistics to see what they can do to document these languages so that they will not wear away as time passes by because as the young ones grow, they seem to divert from the original language. So, we are trying to see if we can do something to save or maintain the original language of Ubang, which has been spoken for many years. That is what we are trying to do.” Are these languages taught in school?

The royal father answered: “Not exactly, but I know a time will come when they will be taught in school not only in Ubang but in most parts of Africa and even beyond. When it is well documented, the whole world will understand the essence of the language. We always thank God for this special gift to the people of this tribe and we will preserve it. Right from the existence of man, the language was given and it has been spoken till now and it will be spoken until the end of time.

I think it makes us special in the face of the world because I don’t think there is any other community where they speak two dialects or languages but we do and we enjoy it. We understand each other without difficulties, I think it is a blessing”. Of course, Ubang women are proud to belong there. This is the verdict of Mrs Elizabeth Ogbo, who however lamented the overbearing influence or dominance of their men.

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  1. What an epitome of confusion! I bet this area is still as primitive as ever. Anyway, for sanity sake, you all need to drop other mushroom languages and stick to the most popular one. It will surely helps to bring advancements to your LG or community. Good-luck!!!

  2. I love this. It has been discovered that it is easier to understand a language than to speak it, it takes much more effort to speak another language, if a the Ubang man and woman communicate in 2 languages bcs they understand both but speak one easily, it is possible for me to communicate with a french person who understands english but can’t speak english well if I can also understand french but can’t speak it well. This calls for research for the linguists. This will help promote inter-language communication

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