…Local language preservation leads to development
Being excerpts of Chimamanda Adichie’s speech at the just held Face of Okija thought leadership and beauty pageant in Anambra, where she talked on different issues like the need to be proud of our mother tongue in communication, preserving our languages for growth, the benefits of getting further education by the Igbos and other salient topics.
I am very happy to be here.
My father is from Aba in Nchikoka Local Government Area and my mother from Munachi in Dunukofia Local Government Area, both in Anambra and I grew up in Nsukka in Enugu state. All of those towns are important in my sense of Identity and so I am thrilled to be here speaking in Igbo land.
I am proud to be a product of Igbo land; Igbo land produced that great political and cultural colossus, Nnamdi Azikwe.
Igboland produced that mathematics genius, Professor James Esielo, Nkem Dora Akuyili (RIP), Igbo land produced Nigeria’s first professor of statistics, a man I also happen to call daddy, Professor James Adichie. Igbo land produced the first woman to be the registrar of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, a woman I also happened to call mummy.
Igboland produced great writers, if Chinua Achebe, Flora Nwapa and Chi Emecheta and Chukwuemeka Nkem had not written the books they did, when and how they did, I would not have had the emotional courage to write my own books and so today I honor them and I stand respectfully in their shadow.
I also stand in great pride in the shadow of so many other daughters and sons of Igbo land. We have much to be proud of in Igbo Land, we have many from whom we can take inspiration so I want to start today with a message for all the young people here.
MESSAGE TO THE YOUNG PEOPLE
‘Consider yourself a life-long student never stop learning’ I have a post graduate degree but I consider myself a student, a person who will always be eager to learn. I want to ask you to get much formal education you can and also I want to say to you; stay in school.
Even if you want to start a business you will be a better businessman or woman if you are literate, if you can think critically and these are all things one gets from education and I say this, particularly because there are many of us in Igbo land that thinks that what matters is business.
And then education is not just what somebody teaches you in school, education is also about the effort you make. Reading is essential and not just reading for school exams, I mean reading outside what you are asked to.
When I was growing up I read everything I could find, and of course, I grew up at a time when the internet was not at its ubiquitous presence as it is now. I know that the internet is here to stay, and I think the internet can be good or bad depending on how we use it.
So, you can use the internet to waste your time, read stupid gossips online and you can get into meaningless arguments on Facebook or you can use your data to educate yourself. You can read quality newspapers online, watch a video that teaches you something. The internet is full of free classes that you can access easily. Learn; think of each new day as an opportunity to learn something new.
One of my interests is Pre-Colonial Africa, I am very curious about whom and what we were before colonialism came. Now, most of recorded history about Igbo people and about many other ethnic groups in Africa came from foreigners.
Men and women who did not speak the language and do not understand the nuances of the culture which means we have to read everything they write with a certain level of skepticism but what is consistent about all of the books I have read about Pre-Colonial Igbo land is that the Igbo people valued integrity, they were known to be frank, known to be people who do not pretend and people who valued open communication between the old and the young, parents and their children and to be people who believed in individual achievements but also felt that consensus is the best way to govern a community.
VALUE OF THE IGBO PEOPLE
Thinking about communication as a value of the Igbo people, I thought about a young woman I know in Lagos. She is twenty-five years old and she’s from Anambra state and she said to me that she did not want to come back to her home town for Christmas. When I asked why? She said she is under so much pressure from her parents to get married and she said they don’t just want me to marry; they want me to marry a rich man.
Recently as two years ago, she said, if she mentioned a boy’s name to her parents they will shout at her because she wasn’t supposed to have a boyfriend. And of course one wonders how she’s supposed to meet the man that will be her husband today. Most of all, what touched me while talking to her was when she said; I cannot talk to my parents.
MESSAGE TO PARENTS
So I want to ask parents here today, particularly parents of teenagers. Please keep communication open between you and your children. Many parents today teach their children how to fear them but not to respect them. Fear is not respect, you can beat fear into a child but respect is what a parent earns.
Don’t shut your children up, listen to them. Give them advice without shouting. Actually, if you don’t shout they are likely to hear you better and as you give advice, remember the fallings of your own youth, nobody is perfect.
I want to suggest today that we all take up the name, ‘ekweme’. Let us not only talk but let’s also act and let us do as we say. Some years ago, I ran into a woman in Enugu, a woman who is an old family friend. She was with her little son, I said Kedu to the boy and the woman said very quickly no he doesn’t speak Igbo, he speaks only English. What struck me was not just that this child does not speak Igbo but the mother said it with so much pride. She was proud that her child did not speak Igbo, why I asked her and her reply was that speaking Igbo will confuse him and I want him to learn to speak English well.
So later when we mentioned her son’s school, she mentioned that he was taking piano lessons and French lesson. And so I asked her if learning Igbo will confuse him would learning French also confuse him? The woman’s reason that two languages will confuse her child sounds reasonable on the surface but is it true? It is simply not true.
We know children have the ability to learn different languages, and in fact, we know being bi-lingual or multi-lingual help children in areas outside languages. I don’t really need to read studies about this, I am proof. I grew up speaking Igbo and English at the same time and considered them both as my first languages and I can assure you in my forty-one years on earth I am yet to be confused by that.
I’m actually learning to improve my French and learn Swahili and Hausa maybe then I would be confused. My sister, my parent’s first child was born in the US when my father was a doctoral student. My parents made the decision to speak only Igbo to her because they knew she would learn English, they were determined that she would speak Igbo and they did and I can assure you that my sister is also not confused.
When I had my daughter three years ago, my husband and I decided we would only speak Igbo to her. She now speaks Igbo and people are always shocked particularly the Igbo people when they hear her speak.
I deeply love both Igbo and English; English for me is the language of literature and philosophy. But Igbo is the language of emotions, humor, and laughter. Igbo is the enduring link to my past, it is the language in which my great-grandmothers sang.
Sometimes when I hear the old people speak Igbo in my hometown, Aba I found myself wishing that my own Igbo were not so Anglo-sized. I am full of admiration of the complexity of their language and the proverbs that they used and I am in awe of the culture that produced this poetry because that is what the Igbo language is when it is spoken well – it is poetry.
And so to deprive our children of the gift of this language at a time in their lives when they can easily absorb it is an unnecessary loss. We now have all over Igbo land grandparents who cannot talk to their grandchildren because they have an imperial barrier between them.
Even when the grandparent speaks English there is often an awkwardness in the conversation and the losses made worst by imagining what it could have been, the stories that could have been told, wisdom and history that might have been passed down to their grandchildren and most of all the sense of identity that comes with knowing one’s language.
Language is not just about communication it’s about word feel. Some people argued that language is the only thing that makes a culture but I disagree. I think identity is much more complex, I think that culture is really a way of looking at the world and so there are Igbo people who do not speak the language but that does not necessarily make them any less Igbo.
In fact, I think for the young people today who do not speak Igbo we cannot hold them responsible. It is their parents that we must hold responsible.
The great Ghanaian writer, Ammah Attetuh ask a question in her novel Changes; “Why have we insisted on speaking about ourselves in the same condescending tone that others have used to speak of us?” There are other Igbo and Igbo parents who don’t necessarily think Igbo would confuse their children, they just think that Igbo is not just that important after all its small language spoken only in South-Eastern Nigeria and it is not important to the newly globalized world.
So as one parent said to me, it is indeed true that the world is increasingly global but to succeed in this global world does not mean giving up on who we are. It means keeping what we are and adding to it.
I remember being very impressed when I went to Iceland by the effort the people of Iceland put towards preserving their language. Iceland is a tiny country with a population less than that of Igbo land. Many people there speak English but speaking Icelandic is very important to them and it is not because Iceland is the next China.
Nobody is learning Icelandic as people are learning Mandarin. It is instead because the people of Iceland value their language. They know it is a small language that does not generate any economic power but they do not say ‘kede be di e che’ because they understand there are other values that language has beyond the material and economic.
Language is the constructs of culture, the end of language marks the beginning of the end of culture. And this I think is giving value to who we are and to our culture
To value something is to believe that that thing matters and also to act that you believe that it matters. The knowledge of Igbo can lead to an innate self-confidence that will, in fact, be essential for success in any job interview and confidence comes from knowing who you are.
I am today considered a global citizen which I think means I am comfortable anywhere in the world, but I know this is primarily because of the pride that I received being raised by parents who were academics and very much rooted in the Igbo culture.
Having confidence in your culture does not mean you have to be ethnocentric or you feel your culture is better than others, what it means is that you are satisfied with what is yours. And so there will be no need to dehumanize others.
I am very proudly Igbo, Nigerian, and African and I am very curious about other African Culture.
I am not trying to romanticize Igbo culture, Igbo culture is not perfect. I quarrel strongly with a number of things in Igbo Culture, quarrel with the patriarchy and quarrel with the argument that uses culture to silent descent.
I quarrel with the people who say whenever a woman tries to assert her full autonomy that it is not our culture. Well, driving cars is not also our culture but we all drive cars because car driving benefits as a community. So if indeed it is not our culture that women are considered full and equal members of the society then we must make it our culture. We must make inequality our culture because it benefits all of us. Unless we can tap into the potential of every single human being whether male or female we would not fully succeed as a society.
We can begin today by saying yes to integrity and no to mediocrity. I will like to end with another message for young people. I will like to ask to; please do not judge leadership by the amount of money a leader has or can share or the amount of noise he or she can make. Judge leadership with the amount of testimony by ordinary people and how that leadership has changed their lives.
I want to ask you always to be courageous; courage is not the absence of fear. Courage means you have fear but despite your fear, you still try. Always try
Finally, to the young people don’t be entitled. Do not feel anybody owes you anything and work hard. Say yes to integrity and say no to mediocrity.