Monday, December 3, 2012



Obododimma Oha

First time I saw the signs of a writing script,
Wondered why
Meanings are mean in-between the lines

First time I saw letter A of the Roman script,
Thought it was
A badly made drinking stool
Like the one at the bottle store

First time I saw a Chinese script,
Was certain
A crab missing its way
Crawled across an unfortunate page

First time I saw an Arabic script,
Was worried:
"Looks like someone's collecting 
Other people's signatures!"

First time I saw a Hebrew script,
Feared Father Abraham's
Probably arranging pieces of fuelwood, 
Another sacrifice!

First time I saw a text fade 
on a computer screen,
Believed someone's doing Amerika wonder:
The more you look, the less you see

First time I saw
I knew not
How blind I was.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Balance of Terror

No, tat-for-boom, 
No, boom-for-doom...

The measure you give,
The gbosa you invite
At the closing

Your teeth rattling like
The anger in your soul, 
Hell hath no fury like an enemy 
Not fed fully with disaster

No, tat-for-boom, 
No, boom-for-doom...

The exploding pods of death telling
The story, how long, how terrible
Hatred hath gathered in the militant skies

My tat for your tit only
The normal handshake
In a symbolic exchange of fears;
My doom for your tit a tough statement

Never give 
Never receive;
Never dare
A perfect gbosa!

-- Obododimma Oha

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Liking and "Unliking" in Facebook Navigational Language


Obododimma Oha

Facebook, as a recent form of social media, comes with its own language, its own sub-register, which particularly manifests in unique lexical forms. Every technology, as an experience in and of culture, occasions the emergence of a jargon through which it creates and consolidates the subjectivity of its users. To be fully part of that technoculture requires a proper understanding of the underlying meanings and discourses its communicative forms imply. What one could call a thriving Facebook navigational language, or the technical expression typical of Facebook regulation of behavior and interaction in its environment, is indeed very exciting but also does signify some important discourses that Facebook users ought to be mindful of. Ignoring the implications in the use of the language and other communicative media suggested by Facebook as options in interactions could have serious implications for personal image, security, and relationships. Those who interact in an online environment like Facebook without considering how their verbal and non-verbal expressions could affect them indeed show that they are still deficient in the type of communication skills that go along with cyber interactions or "cyberacy," as Web literacy is sometimes identified. 

Facebook navigational language does not just assist the user in selecting preferred behavioural postures, but also sorts and locates users in certain underlying discourses. Thus, as one navigates one's way on Facebook, one necessarily identifies oneself with the worlds of these discourses, even inadvertently. Indeed, this makes the Facebook environment a useful setting for research, for the investigation of groups and individuals. In this regard, Facebook ought to be taken seriously as both a context and tool for security monitoring. It is not necessarily a "free" playground where one could just do as one likes. But even the playground could be a place where one could watch the other very closely and learn something about the inclinations of the other, to learn how to live in the presence of the other.

For some casual observers of Facebook life, the navigational language is just funny. One is invited by this language to "like" and then "unlike." One can also "add as friend" (or just "friend," as a verb) and sometimes "unfriend' (some would even say "de-friend.") One's personal computer, as one's immediate language teacher, obviously does not understand these lexical items and queries them now and then. No dictionary also authorizes one to use them as correct forms. In spite of these, some people who have Facebook presence do not hesitate to use these words, or rather their "facebookese," outside the Facebook environment. You could encounter in a listserv post an expression like: "Someone unfriended me recently for arguing in support of the anti-gay legislation," or "If you don't like my like of argument, you can unfriend me." Surely, these usages are funny and do give a playful picture to Facebook interaction. Many people are looking for such fun,though, at least as a temporary escape from the very serious universe of discourse they have been subjected to in professional and public circles. This fun experienced in Facebook navigational language is further complemented by the friendly exchanges (the thanking, the messaging of goodwill (and the massaging of the ego!) and sharing of stories in various forms of media), all which give one an illusion or rather hallucination of belonging where discourse liberates.

Now let us examine our liking and "unliking" in our Facebook navigational language, to see where they take us as we take them as options that indicate our preferences in the reading of Facebook posts. The field of "Like" on Facebook is provided as a revelation of self, or of personal preferences. One reveals oneself or one's disposition to others to which one is connected when one chooses to "like" a post. By implication, a Facebook friend that has failed to "like" a post made by another indirectly reveals self to the other. But I suspect that not many would take notice of who has not indicated liking a post, given that many persons on Facebook have many Facebook friends. In this case, it is the indication of liking that is foregrounded, i.e. made prominent in the context of the Facebook discourse. Moreover, one who, after liking a post, "unlikes" it, obviously calls attention to self and to the act. Such an "unliking" is likely going to cause the person who made the status post reflect deeply on the act and on the relationship with the "unliker." It may harm the relationship in some ways and it is perhaps for this reason that the act of liking on Facebook occurs more frequently than that of "unliking." 

But what could make one "unlike" a post on Facebook? One could "unlike" a post if (1) the initial act of liking was an error, in which case one clicked on the "Like" button without meaning to do so; (2) the initial act of "liking" was done without a deep reflection on why one should make the choice; in other words, as a hasty decision; (3) one no longer wishes to associate with the post or its assumptions, given the kind of reactions it is receiving from other Facebook commentators; and (4) one wants to play a game with the idea of liking and "unliking" as acts on Facebook.

A liker is normally liked; an "unliker" is not, except maybe by another "unliker." A liker by liking indirectly performs an illocutionary act of praising the person who posts, and sometimes backs this up with a verbal praising and thanking. By liking, one presents a desirable image of self; in other words, one identifies and solidarizes with the other, which is why it is risky to go about liking just any Facebook status update or item shared! What one likes testifies for and against one! Same for what one "unlikes." 

While brainstorming on this topic this evening, I made the following status update (indeed, the second for today), as a way of testing the waters:

'Facebook should provide "Dislike" as an option to "Like" for readers of status updates. The field, "Unlike," which appears after someone has indicated liking a post, is not an alternative. It is merely a withdrawal from liking, I believe. One cannot even indicate this "unlike" from the beginning unless one first commits oneself to "Like." "Unliking" is not disliking; the former is a different discourse entirely.'

I was lucky to receive a favorable comment and support few minutes later from Ursula Ifeoma Akwara, a Facebook friend, which read: 'and what amazes me is that some people put a "like" to a very horrible story." She just hit the bull! Some people on Facebook appear to have become that careless as "likers" to the extent of not thinking before liking, or not keeping to mind what "like" involves.They just like everything on Facebook! Some kind of Facebook illiteracy? Is it out of the excitement of being on Facebook? 

The liking of some categories of status updates on Facebook could be very problematic. As Akwara suggests in her intervention cited above, the liking of a report of a tragic incident is disturbing. One wonders whether it is the incident that is being liked or its reporting, or both. The liking of the tragic incident, say a terrorist bombing, shocks us. How could anyone like such an experience unless the liker is either a collaborator in the bombing or one of the supporters of the terrorist organization? Or perhaps the liker of the incident is particularly diabolical and enjoys seeing destruction enacted. In this respect, the liking of the report of the tragic incident creates ethical problems for the liker: it does some damage to the image of the liker, for Facebook readers that process the liking from this angle would not come back later to find out if the liker has other acceptable reasons for the liking of the story.

It is also difficult to discern whether it is the reporting of the incident, i.e. the art of storytelling or presentation itself, that is being liked specifically. In that case, the act of liking is a way of thanking the person that tells (or that has brought) the story for doing so. But, again, not many people like being told shocking stories. So, such individuals would not like someone's liking of what they do not like. In Pragmatics, the orientation for human beings to prefer the presentation of the bright side of life to the ugly is referred to as "Pollyanna Principle" (Leech, 1983). It is also referred to as "Positive bias". Telling or presenting shocking stories to such individuals is a violation of this principle, and, by extension, a threat to what Tae-Seop Lim and John Waite Bowers (1991) have identified as "autonomy face want" -- the desire to be left undisturbed, in this regard, not to be bothered psychologically. When we are shown the dark side of life, worry and sadness are introduced in our mental lives. Indeed, one cannot escape the experience of this dark side of life entirely, given the complex nature of intersubjectivity in the world. The doctrine of "see-no-evil" is not entirely practicable, for one does not always go out to search for evil to see. Rather, evil comes looking for one to see, and environments like Facebook provide no guarantee that that one would not see "evil" in the sharing of "stories". 

Who are the persons expected to be "likers" on Facebook? The following, most likely: (1) those wishing to be liked by those whose posts they like; (2) those wishing to consolidate their relationship on Facebook (I realize relationships could move from the hyperreality of Facebook to the real world, if they get stronger, or an enmity could enter the real world if the hyperreal friendship collapses and gets bitter); (3) those wishing to identifying with the groups or entities with which the person who makes status post identifies ("your friends are also my friends!"); (4) those who have made it a lousy habit to keep liking things on Facebook, to be noticed on Facebook, or because they think they have becomes Facebook "people;" and, of course, (5) those who genuinely like the post, not because they wish that others like them. 

Status updates probe what is on our minds, and Facebook usually prompts us by asking the question, "What's on your mind?" Is anyone in doubt that this system-generated question is an indication of curiosity? It would be damn stupid for the addressee to feel that underlying this question is the assumption about the addressee's freedom to say whatever is one the mind, whatever one likes, and that Facebook, as one the social  media, is where freedom is boundlessly celebrated. Indeed, many Facebook subscribers ignorantly adopt this posture and go ahead to write or upload just anything they have in their closets! And, of course, some other wise users do not fail to raise objections or caution them about their recklessness (which is a reflection of NOT liking). It is helpful to others as readers to have an idea, indeed database, on what is on someone's mind and what someone likes or does not like. Facebook and its readers can, with time, build a reliable profile on users based on what they like, as well as those whose "likes" they like. Those whose "likes" or "unlikes"converge form a sub-Facebook behavioural community. They could be linked to particular types of related behaviours.

A "like" assigned to a Facebook implies a discourse on association, where "unlike" suggests a withdrawal from association. The withdrawal from association does not erase the initial association; it rather continues the "story" of liking in other ways, raising further curiosity as to why this withdrawal (and when this withdrawal). Similarly, it implicitly raises a question about associating with what had been posted and the person that posted it. Indeed, "dislike" is connected to Facebook's notion of "Unlike," but it presents a different kind of discourse about association. If Facebook had provided "Dislike" as a field alongside "Like" from the beginning when a user encounters a post, it would have been possible for the user to start by dissociating with a post right from the outset. An "unlike" is already committal, which makes one afraid that Facebook might be particularly interested in knowing involvement more than an interest in non-involvement. A discourse of involvement appears more interesting than that of non-involvement. A "dislike" is more exonerating, more protective for the Facebook reader than an "unlike" that stages a withdrawal from previous action.

I like what I like. Yes. I also like what I dislike, otherwise I do not know what I like and would not have chosen to like it. Know what you like and like that you like it. Do not "unlike" what you like, unless you are inclined to practising the art of deception. Do not choose to like and then "unlike," if you really "dislike." Remember this: your like is where you are, where you have been, where we can find you, where we can bury you on Facebook. 


Leech, G.N. 1983. Principles of Pragmatics. London & New York: Longman.

Lim, T.S., & Bowers, J.W. 1991. "Facework: Solidarity, Approbation, and Tact," Human Communication Research 17, 415-450.

Oha, O. 2012. Facebook Status Update, 31 May 2012,5.06 PM.

Friday, April 13, 2012

No Story


Obododimma Oha

The road is the shared space that stretches or leads to somewhere. As a metaphor too, it is access or means of getting a goal accomplished. A wife in a local African setting should know the meaning of the metaphor of "road" when she is told that "The road to a man's heart is his stomach." So the road is already an important signifier in public discourses. Apart from being a signifier, the road emerges as an important setting that presents a multiplicity of interacting systems of signification. Is it the traffic code which, in its peculiar semiology, invites road users to acquire and use a measure of competence in iconic and sometimes symbolic messaging? Is it the register of the road worker, for instance the road transport workers, which not only typifies their field of human activity just like other fields, sometimes contextually redefined as one finds in a rough and poorly organized transport system where impolite expressions are freely exchanged by road users? In addition to this, someone like me who is endlessly in pursuit of signs should not miss the verbal and visual texts that are placed on the bodies of vehicles that operate on roads in a place like Nigeria. These "traveling texts" join in telling the epic story of the road in Nigeria, combining in their own way to form a sub-system of road transport semiotics.

The traveling texts on the bodies of vehicles on Nigerian roads, which are sometimes in the form of stickers, could be any of the following:

(a) Identifications of the owners or operators of the vehicles (in terms of personal, organizational, or other other types of naming);
(b) a rhetorical system advertising groups (such as religious organizations, political associations, products, etc);
(c) a rhetorical text that suggests the values and personality of the owner or user of the vehicle;
(d) an address, for instance a warning, to other road users about the owner or operator of the vehicle;
(e) an aesthetic device intended to add beauty and appeal to the vehicle; and 
(f) a casual text meant to cover a blemish on the vehicle, for instance a dent, or some cracks on the windshield.

In all enumerated above, the traveling text speaks eloquently to road users, sometimes conveying ironic messages. For instance, a vehicle with a sticker that says "SPEED KILLS; DRIVE WITH CARE" or "MANY HAVE GONE; BEWARE!" might be speeding and careering dangerously. Does the operator of the vehicle still remember what is written on the vehicle? As a slogan, "SPEED KILLS" might as well be a deceptive advertisement of the carefulness of the operator of the vehicle, which would make people want to associate with or patronize the transporter. The user of the sticker benefits from the client's desire for safety, indeed an attempt at benefitting from what Abraham Maslow in his Hierarchy of Human Needs identifies as Safety or Security Needs that individuals naturally have. Sometimes this type of irony occurs in a most painful way, as in a situation where a vehicle the owner has labelled "God's Case No Appeal" gets involved in a ghastly accident. Does one take it that the label on the vehicle presents a self-fulfilling and fatalistic prophecy? 

Perhaps it is for this that the popular Igbo saying, "Hapu ihe e dere na mmoto banye mmoto" (Ignore what is written on a vehicle and go ahead to board it) literally sounds instructive. The sign tells us clearly not to be deceived by advertised messages on the bodies of commercial vehicles, in other words, drawing our attention to the misleading rhetoric in the names and other signifiers on the bodies of the vehicles. But is that not frightening? How can one believe that one is traveling safely in a society where signs on the bodies of vehicles being used do not actually mean what they say? 

Of course, it is not in all cases that signs on the bodies of vehicles in Nigeria do not mean what they say. Signs announcing some vehicles as belonging to the university where I teach in Nigeria mean what they say, namely that they belong to that higher institution, even though I know that criminals can get a vehicle, inscribe the identity of the university or other organization on it and use it to commit a crime. Even vehicles signified as belonging to government might be special operational vehicles of criminal gangs like drug dealers, armed robbery squads, 419ers, etc, which is why the so-called official vehicles constitute a big challenge for security agents on the stop-and-search assignments in Nigeria. Those who use official government vehicles in Nigeria often do not have the humility and patience of subjecting themselves to checks on the Nigerian road. They believe they are above the law, or that the law of stop-and-search does not apply to those in government or their agents/relatives, even when it is known that government appointees have been deeply involved in criminal activities and use their vehicles to facilitate the commission of crimes. 

Some of those who operate commercial transport vehicles in Nigeria, however, could be speaking the language that means what it says especially when it comes to warning other road users not to dent their vehicles in the very frightening impatient driving one notices on Nigerian roads these days. One ubiquitous sticker one finds on some cabs in the Lagos-Ibadan area says it clearly: "NO STORY." This text, which is sometimes written directly on the body of the vehicle, is one interesting way of "doing things with words with people" (as the discourse analyst, Willis Edmondson would beautifully redesign the Austinian idea) on the rough Nigerian road. In the "NO STORY" text, the addresser is actually doing the following:

(a) performing the speech act of warning the other road users that story-telling tactics of seeking forgiveness would not be entertained if, in the process of driving recklessly, such drivers dent the addresser's vehicle;
(b) Alerting the addressee about the no-nonsense posture of the owner or operator of the vehicle carrying the sign;
(c) asserting the posture of revenge or insistence on appropriate punishment for the offender and compensation for the owner or operator of the damaged vehicle.

"NO STORY," in its textual brevity, just like many texts on vehicles which engage the fact that their readers have limited time to read them on the road, is memorable and final as a note of warning. Anyone that eventually dents the vehicle in question would not start telling the very story that is not wanted, or another story about not having seen or read the text, or another about not being literate enough to comprehend the meaning of "NO STORY." To tell more stories is to add fuel to the flame. Stories would not fix the damaged vehicle, or the hurt on the mind of the owner of the damaged vehicle. In an organized system, such story-telling is not even for the owner of the damaged vehicle to listen to; it should be for the police or the road transport officers appointed by government to listen to and probably consider while writing their reports about the accident. Perhaps if the case gets to court, the jury would be there to do some listening, which is why they are there to "hear" cases!

Telling someone whose vehicle one has dented a story is a narrative rhetoric designed to:

(a) clear one of blame, or at least do something to the perception of one as being blameworthy;
(b) appeal to pathos;
(c) (indirectly) support a plea for forgiveness;
(d) suggest someone else, for instance the person whose vehicle is dented, as sharing in the blame.

Generally, it is a strategy intended to disarm the offended party, which may however fail, or provoke a violent reaction. "NO STORY" is proactive, not curative. It invites us to adopt the posture of avoidance as the best way to manage conflict on the road. 

As a matter of fact, in some real incidents of vehicle collision on Nigerian roads in which fatalities are not recorded, one sometimes hears a bystander humorously appropriating the call-response story-telling formula that is familiar to many Nigerian: "Story! Story! Story!" A way of making light an unfortunate road mishap, this invocation of traditional story lore reveals how almost familiar and seemingly entertaining having a road accident has become in an African country struggling to develop. In such "entertaining" road frictions, one could easily hear someone shouting at the other and threateningly saying: "Do you know me? Do you know who I am? I will show you! I will deal with you! Wait, you will see! I will call the IG now" And he reaches for his cellphone, maybe some old Ericcson, and starts shouting his call: "Hallo, hallo! Is that the IG? Is that Sunny? Am I speaking to Sunday Ehindero the IG? Yes, yes, it's me your younger brother Monday. Yes, Egbo mi, bawo ni? There is this idiot here, this useless, stupid, alakori who bashed my car! I am ...." And on and on he goes, and the other fellow, if he is sufficiently scared now, begins to prostrate and wash his hands without water, like a housefly.And a third party would be making efforts to calm down the raging "relative" of the IG, saying: "Bros takeam easy now. Make we settle for una."

"NO STORY" as a sign should work well with some stickers I have seen lately, which say: "WHAT ARE LAWYERS FOR?" and "MY SON IS A LAWYER." The presuppositions in these texts evoke the sense of fear in a society where the mention of "court case" and "lawyer," especially among the low income population means endlessly spending, frustration, and sometimes jail term. "WHAT ARE LAWYERS FOR?" is a rhetorical question that hides a preceding statement that denting the other car and telling stories are not a problem for the person who owns the damaged vehicle, but rather for the story-teller. The owner of the vehicle carrying the sticker may also be a lawyer (sometimes the same vehicle carries the sticker of the Nigerian Bar Association). Anyone who sees the complementary NBA sign can therefore easily make a decision to give the vehicle and its owner or user a comfortable distance. Similarly, "MY SON IS A LAWYER" indirectly warns about a legal battle instead of being just a piece of information, and we know that when children (sons) defend their parents in a court case, they do so with every zeal, at least to demonstrate to their parents both the love they have for them, as well as their excellence as trained ambassadors of the family. Many in Nigeria still have great interest in having a member of the family become a lawyer or a doctor. A lawyer is essential because it is imagined that this legal practitioner would serve as a deterrence to those in the community that would want to mess with the family. Thus "Papa Lawyer" or "Mama Lawyer" is a kind of big masquerade which other members of the community must either make an ally or forever keep their distance. 

The traveling texts on the Nigerian road tell stories, even when they alert us about lack of interest in any story-telling. As one makes one's journey even in an online environment, where once in a while one gets brushed, one remembers "NO STORY" and wishes that one had a son or daughter who is a lawyer! Surely, there are many reckless drivers even on online highways, as one finds on many listservs populated densely by fellow noisy compatriots from Nigeria. Is it on USAAfricaDialogue where many drive dangerously, hurling insults at other "road" users now and then? Is it Krazitivity in which some members seem to make sure that the sound of "crazy" in the unique nomenclature of that Yahoo Group is semiotically actualized through unnecessary verbal duels? 

One keeps studying the signs and signifying practices on Nigerian roads online and offline. One may be getting used to the violent language in these environments. What if one eventually gets lost in the Nigerian semiosphere of offensive posturing and arrogance, accepting what is not normal as being normal?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Hello, Can You Read Me? Personal Security and Loud Talking on the Phone in the Troubled Public Space


Obododimma Oha

Telephone conversations are generally characterized by the hallucination that someone's listening ears are connected to another person's talking mouth, the roles of speaker and listener being switched now and then, with turns sometimes grabbed and sometimes respected. That hallucination is located in the mutual desire to suspend the awareness of unreal presence and to cling to an illusion of diminished distance. That hallucination, even though acted out to make us enjoy telephoning as a mediated social drama, may eventually lead to the practice of losing oneself entirely in the interaction, or forgetfulness of the context of the exchange. Indeed, being aware of and "awake" in the context of the talk is one of the basic principles in the etiquette of telephoning, or what one may playfully call a "phonetiquette." Simply defined, phonetiquette is the sound of talking working in accordance with the acceptable rules of conduct in a given cultural setting. 

Joanna L. Krotz, writing on "Cell phone etiquette: 10 dos and don'ts," an essay featured on Microsoft Business for Small and Midsize Companies, offers the following rules for a civilized mobile phoning:

1. Never take a personal mobile call during a business meeting. This includes interviews and meetings with co-workers or subordinates.

2. Maintain at least a 10-foot zone from anyone while talking.

3. Never talk in elevators, libraries, museums, restaurants, cemeteries, theaters, dentist or doctor waiting rooms, places of worship, auditoriums or other enclosed public spaces, such as hospital emergency rooms or buses. And don't have any emotional conversations in public — ever.

4. Don't use loud and annoying ring tones that destroy concentration and eardrums. Grow up!

5. Never "multi-task" by making calls while shopping, banking, waiting in line or conducting other personal business.

6. Keep all cellular congress brief and to the point.

7. Use an earpiece in high-traffic or noisy locations. That lets you hear the amplification, or how loud you sound at the other end, so you can modulate your voice.

8. Tell callers when you're talking on a mobile, so they can anticipate distractions or disconnections.

9. Demand "quiet zones" and "phone-free areas" at work and in public venues, like the quiet cars on the Amtrak Metroliner.

10. Inform everyone in your mobile address book that you've just adopted the new rules for mobile manners. Ask them to do likewise. Please. 

Being aware of the etiquette that is tied to telephoning is a basic requirement which, since the invention of telephone itself, has formed part of the training of receptionists, secretaries, and administrative officers. One can find specific entries relating to the etiquette of telephoning in books on etiquette, not just for job positions that require the use of the telephone, but for everyday communication with acquaintances, relatives, friends, etc. Phone etiquette could therefore be seen as part of the communication skills that a human being existing in this Information Age is required to possess.

A "hello" (sometimes realized as "hallo" and "Hullo") is a signal, not just to the act of interacting with another person (which sets the tenor of the talk), but also a signal for the talker to get ready to practice as well as present self for trial on phonetiquette. The hello sets expectations for compliance on the rules of talking on the phone, with sensitivity to context, purpose, interactant, etc. Every phone user therefore is invited by this product of civilized communication to acquire and exhibit the skills of telephoning. It is not just a matter of one being able to afford a phone (these days cellphones sell cheaply in Nigeria, thanks to China and Nigeria's booming tokunbo market) and so one can start helloing and hulloing anyhow. Isn't it absurd that one would make a call and start asking the person who picks the call to disclose his or her identity, instead of the caller being the person to introduce self first? But that absurdity has almost become common in a country like Nigeria with the availability of cheap mobile phone network services, proliferation of cellphones and people using them without learning phone talking rules. Apart from the embarrassment and sometimes conflicts that emerge from offensive talking to unknown persons at the other end, very serious security problems arise with regard to loud talking on the phone in public spaces, especially given the endemic nature of violent crimes like armed banditry and ransom kidnapping in a country like Nigeria. 

Consider the following fabricated phone calls made by some Nigerians in a Nigerian environment:

(a) Hello, this is Iduu Thousand speaking. Yes, I am now back from Taiwan. The containers have been cleared. 12 of them. I am now on my way to the bank to pay the remaining three million dollars. No, don't worry; I am going to pay in one million cash, the other in certified cheque. Nothing to worry about. I don't play with my business. I won't disappoint you. Bye bye. 

(b) Hallo, hallo! It's me Otunba Okunsanya. Bawo ni? Yes, I have sold the 10 cars you sent home. In fact, I have just collected the money for Lincoln Navigator. Yes, l'agbara Olorun. Aamin! O daabo. 

(c) Hi. Yeah. This is Don B. Sure, I'm on a brief visit. Mmm, yeah, the building project is still on. I am going there this afternoon to see the contractor and make some payments. Well, those fellas are milking me. There's nothing I can do to prevent it. I just have to complete this project soon. I need a comfortable accommodation in this fucking place you know. 

(d) Hullo, Brother Mark. Ah ah, thank God o. So it is true that you are visiting home? Levels go change! Thank God. When? Friday this week. Wonderful. I will come and pick you at the airport. Which flight? Ok, Virgin Atlantic. Yeah, I will come with the van; it has more space. I can wait to see you again. Bye bye.

In each case above, the speaker is loud, very loud, and makes sure that other people nearby get some impressions about the speaker's international links, wealth, being in possession of some cash, etc. The speaker sacrifices personal security to the advertisement of personal importance and design to win the respect of those within earshot, basically because both speaker and eavesdropper are located in a society where respect for an individual is measured by that person's (unique) material possessions and, by extension, an international connection from which further wealth and social importance are guaranteed. 

So, telephoning in a world of vulgar materialism is a performance of the self and imagined significance of the self. A performance in egoism, its rhetoric attempts to construct a bigger image of the self, assuming that when bodies meet in the public sphere, they have to compete for importance. A larger image of a speaker indirectly asks those around to bow and tremble. 

But, such advertisement of the self is just what the intelligence of the armed robber and kidnapper needs to be "successful." One person's performance of vanity in telephone communication becomes another person's luck in committing a "perfect" crime. Criminals of the brave new world need communication and the vulnerability of the communicating target to do their jobs well. The research units of armed robbery and kidnap gangs in Nigeria need the Nigerian loud telephone talker and boaster to be able to come up with better strike strategies. Do they really need to carry out any rigorous research or to spend so much in trailing targets? No at all? The loud talker is just a sitting duck. 

Of course, it might well be that in some cases of loud telephone conversations, the following are involved:
(1) The person talking loud on the phone is emotionally involved in the conversation and therefore forgetful about the presence of over-hearers;
(2) The person talking loud on the phone is a con artist or some cheat trying to use the details of the conversation, especially the possession of cash or some important overseas connection, to ensnare some gullible targets around;
(3) The person talking loud on the phone is not making any phone call at all but pretending to be doing so as a strategy of deception, the kind of "garagara" that some Nigerians perform when they are in difficulty with law enforcement officers and want to show that they are well connected with some big shot that no one should supposedly not mess with. 
(4) The person may be from a culture where loud talking is normal; in other words, the person has acquired this form of communicative behavior from the indigenous culture and has not been able to adjust to the etiquette of telephoning in public.
(5) The person receiving or making the call is in a noisy environment and is therefore compelled to raise his or her voice beyond a level that would guarantee privacy of talk.

Whatever may be the case, the loudness of call is consciously performed in many cases in the Nigerian context to signify some "loud" social identity imagined to be desirable in a society where such an image appears to have become an ultimate quest. The silence of the lamb appears to be some disadvantage in a society where images of self are in stiff competition. 

Nigerian mobile telephony is some drama to watch. Is it the cellphone loud speaker that is tuned high or the setting to hands-free mode, which makes what the person at the other end is saying very audible to other unconcerned party around? Is it the gesticulations of the gesticulations of the person making or receiving the call: the pointing of hands and other forms of body talk that the person at the other end can never see or read? Don't these forms of body talk in Nigerian mobile phoning culture reveal the fact that the person on the phone is a performer that has forgotten the nature of the context of the interaction, the fact that the addressee is not there physically?

Sissela Bok, in an essay titled "Secrecy and Moral Choice," argues that: "Some capacity for keeping secrets and for choosing when to reveal them, and some access to the underlying experience of secrecy and depth, are indispensable for an enduring sense of identity, for the ability to plan and to act, and for essential belongings. With no control over secrecy and openness, human beings could not remain either sane or free" (2003:10). Linked the tendency to spill one's secrets in a phone call made in public, it does appear that a loud talker is working against the interest of self and of the other person engaged in the exchange. Even if the loud talker does not have any qualms publicizing personal plans and possessions, does the receiver or speaker at the other end of the call have the same disposition? Does the person at the other end know and approve of the fact that other individuals around hear the details of the conversation? 

In the case of (d) above, every individual within earshot-- maybe on a bus or even the marketplace -- now knows that Brother Mark is visiting Nigeria from overseas and is coming with a lot of luggage. Every person listening now knows that Brother Mark has big plans; maybe he intends to buy a house at Lekki or buy a Hummer -- for "levels" to "change." Of course, he would have hard currencies on him. A criminal listening already has so much information to mark this Brother Mark down as an important target. When Brother Mark arrives home in Nigeria and is waylaid or abducted where he has gone to inspect his building project, would that surprise us? One painful thing, though, is that Brother Mark is unaware of the fact that the person he is speaking with on the phone has already advertised his coming home at the marketplace and that he might likely be up for purchase.

Loud talking on the phone at a public place simply suggests the talker as one who lacks the requisite skills on private communication in the presence of others. As countries like Nigeria move on to becoming large markets for modern information technology, there should be some attention to the proper uses of these products of technology. It is definitely not out of place for such education on rational use of technology to be included in  school curricula, public enlightenment  of the ministries of culture and information, etc. Put a product of technology in the hands of someone who lacks knowledge of its proper use, and that person becomes a great risk onto self and others. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Cutting the Native Tongue According to the Imagined Limits of Its Powers: Resistance to the Use of Igbo in Written Formal Communications


Obododimma Oha

I was once invited to teach a course in Igbo Stylistics on a temporary basis in a Nigerian university. All the students offering the course, I realized, were all Igbo-speaking and had Igbo as their first language. This was supposed to be an advantage and I felt that using Igbo as a language of instruction or as a language in which students would write their notes, assignments, and examination was not something that would meet any resistance. But I was wrong. My students complained bitterly when I insisted that they write their notes in Igbo, just I was teaching them in Igbo. I pointed out to them the absurdity of using a different language to teach another, as well as the fact that it would not assist them in developing their writing skills in the language they were studying. Their excuse was that they had all along been receiving instructions in their Igbo courses in English, same for the assignments and examinations and had also been permitted to write assignments and examinations in English. I was puzzled but really sad that it was so. Ah well, they just had to make a change, for my own ideology of language teaching spoke against their own orientation.

One of the excuses offered for not using Igbo to teach Igbo was that a metalanguage for such communication was lacking, or was still in infancy. That was false, terribly false, for a metalanguage for Igbo linguistics teaching had been made available very long ago and was already in use in the teaching of Igbo in primary schools since the early seventies. So why this resistance to its use? Is it the desire or tendency to treat English as being more prestigious than local Nigerian languages, or sheer laziness and lack of readiness to consolidate the gains already made by the fathers of Igbo linguistics? 

As a pupil in French language class, I was told that I would make greater progress in the language if I was taught the language in French and not English or any other language. It was also forbidden for any student in the French class to speak English while the lecture was in progress. The same regulation was sometimes maintained in the English language classes. This direct immersion approach helps learners to adjust faster  and begin to imagine themselves located as speakers in the very context of the use of the target language. Mediations of language learning through other languages that are competitors could slow down progress in the learning of the target language. 

How else could the target language and its learning be better promoted than in committing it to use in various written communications? It is in this regard that one is worried about the reluctance on the part of some native speakers to use their indigenous  Nigerian languages in official written business communications such as minutes of meetings, reports, memos, and notices. One is not ignorant of the fact that Nigeria is a multilingual country, or that many organizations and workplaces in the country are plural in their membership/staffing and therefore need a language of convenience like English in their interactions. But I am specifically concerned with those organizations in which all the members have a Nigerian language  as their native language, for instance town unions and village meetings. Why would such organizations prefer to have their internal written communications in English and not their native language? In addressing this question, I focus on my personal experience with resistance to the use of Igbo in such written communications in organizations and groups that have Igbo-speaking individuals entirely in their membership (but, for ethical reasons, I will not mention the specific names of these organizations in this essay).

I have served as secretary in several Igbo cultural organizations such as age-group, town unions, etc. My experiences in these cases show that English is either specified as the language in which the organization's written communications have to be made, or it is treated as a given that English would be used. Perhaps this attitude has resulted from the inherited colonial assumption that English and not the local language is the only suitable language for serious social or organizational written communication. This colonial mentality invests English with prestige and authority. Anyone seeking to write an ordinary letter in Igbo is viewed as being out to make people laugh. Since English is considered the norm in written communication, Igbo written communication, especially in an official context, is treated as some deviation that could have no other purpose than merely to entertain people. 

I once tried to change this attitude to written Igbo communication in one Igbo cultural group I belonged by daring to write minutes of meetings in Igbo. I must confess that the courage to attempt this use of Igbo in writing minutes of meetings derived mainly from the realization that:
(a) All the members were Igbo speakers;
(b) The members supposedly shared a strong feeling about promoting Igbo language and culture as a way of protecting their cultural identity;
(c) All the members had higher education;
(d) Igbo language being in danger of dying had often been discussed at the meetings of the group, and members were encouraged to teach their children Igbo at home;
(e) As secretary, I was in a good position to demonstrate that using Igbo in official writing was possible. 
Perhaps it was the last point above, which probably revealed what might appear to some as overzealousness, that pushed me on to dare to write, circulate, and read the minutes in Igbo.
But, to my surprise and regret, my experiment with Igbo in writing the minutes and notice of meetings received a stiff resistance. A member complained about the writing minutes of meetings in Igbo and so it became an item on the agenda at one of the meetings. The debate on the issue clearly showed that many members were against the use of Igbo writing minutes of meetings and notices. The following were the excuses given (or indirectly suggested) in the submissions during the debate:
(1) (Some) members cannot read written Igbo
(2) (Some) members cannot write Igbo
(3) There are still (dialectal) controversies in the writing of Igbo
(4) The use of Igbo for such written communication is more tasking/slows down proceedings
(5) Igbo language does not represent learnedness and modernity
(6) Igbo language is too local and does not confer integrity on its users.
And so the group, an Igbo cultural organization with highly educated members and which had been talking about the promotion of Igbo language and culture, as well as the protection of their ethnic identity, shelved the use of their language in their internal official written communication. It also enshrined it in its constitution, only allowing the use of Igbo in spoken interactions among members. That was the end of my being secretary, and, of course, my overzealousness in the group. 

Isn't it an irony that a group that is seeking to promote Igbo language and identity cannot allow the use of Igbo in its internal written communications, even for experimental purposes? Isn't it an irony that the very task of using the language in serious communication is assigned to others and not "us"? And isn't this how some "learned" Igbo people destroy their language, and one way they hope to erase their Igbo identity finally? I leave these questions to my readers, especially the Igbo (and other Nigerian groups that similarly resist the use of their own native languages in official communication) to think about.

Some common scenarios one finds in Igbo cultural organizations with regard to minutes writing are as follows:
(1) Having proceedings in Igbo and writing the minutes in English (ie as translations) -- listening to Igbo, writing notes in English
(2) Having the proceedings in a combination of English and Igbo and writing the minutes in English
(3) Having the proceedings in English and writing the minutes in same.
(4) Having the proceedings in a combination of English, Igbo, and other languages, and writing the minutes in English.

The first scenario mentioned above, of course, reveals the cultural hybridity of the members and the mentality of relegating Igbo in a kind of diglossic framework to the Low language status and English to the High. In this case, Igbo is considered only appropriate for informal exchanges but when it comes to serious formal written communication, English takes the stage. Perhaps this is caused not only by the colonial mentality that denigrates the "native" and the "native language" but also the poor knowledge of written Igbo among the members. But how can both challenges be addressed if the status quo is maintained? How can members defer or exclude the use of Igbo in their organization's written communication and expect to continue learning and improving the powers of their native language? 

Moreover, the writing of the minutes in English (as translations) definitely creates additional semantic and grammatical problems which often surface when the minutes are read and debated afterwards. A lot of precious time may be wasted in determining whether what Okeke and Okafo said in Igbo had been appropriated reported in the English version of the minutes. Of course, one cannot rule out (mis)interpretations of motives behind translations of what a member had originally said in Igbo, which would generate conflicts in the group. 

Scenario Two, which involves having deliberations in a combination of English and Igbo (what has been referred to in Igbo cultural discourse as "Engligbo") and writing the minutes in English, shares outlook and repercussions with the first. But, in addition, it promotes an emergence of hybrid spoken Igbo, the code-mixing raising further stylistic problems for the minute-taker/writer who has to resolve the structural problems that affect meaning in the bilingual grammar of each speaker in trying to grasp the meaning of what has been said.

The third scenario that involves having the spoken interaction in English and writing the minutes or other written communication in same is not very common; it is to be found among Igbo elite that, by virtue of their professional engagement and training, have English as the language of serious business communication. The context of their meeting perhaps have little or nothing to do with ethnolinguistic feelings. It is simply business that has brought them together. Moreover, their competence in written Igbo may be very low. Whereas the non-use of Igbo in such a situation is excusable, nothing prevents the group from attempting to bring Igbo into their business information practice, the same way that a Chinese or Korean group working together would commit their own languages to business practice, even when English remains a language of global business communications. 

The fourth scenario, which involves using Igbo and other languages (including French and other Nigerian languages) in deliberations and having the minutes in English, often manifests in Igbo cultural gatherings outside the Igbo homeland. Clearly, the multilingual nature of the language of deliberations is not just a consequence of not being purely Igbo again (given the experience of living away from the homeland and mixing with the non-Igbo). It could also be related to the much-talked-about tendency of the modern Igbo to neutralize cultural identity in wanting to be a citizen of the world, and demonstrating this neutrality as something to be celebrated, or as an indication of the fact that the self has greater cultural adaptation and exposure. One who tries to show that such an orientation is self-deception might be mistaken for drumming their cultural chauvinism too loud in a globalized world. 

When I attend some Igbo community meetings with predominant semi-literate membership, I find the Igbo members making strenuous and sometimes embarrassing efforts to communicate in English. The minutes of their meetings are written and read in very bad English, too, but they don't mind, for English, to them, is English, and a bad English at least allows them to belong to modernity. If one has to intervene to correct the errors in such use of English, then the meeting would have to deal with serious personality conflicts and probably take a whole day. So, the minutes and bye laws are packaged and stored in bad English. 

There are some serious reasons why an indigenous Nigerian language ought to be used in written organizational communication:
(1) Promoting the development of the language, creating opportunities for the creation of new terminology where some are lacking;
(2) Assisting members to use expressions that they fairly understand their meanings/implications
(3) Keeping the language alive: a language that is not written is on its way to dying
(4) Making the language truly functional and relevant in every context of discourse. 

If serious effort is not made to use Igbo in formal written communication, the language will likely revert to its precolonial status of being only a spoken language. Igbo scholars and leaders must exhibit more than mere rhetorical concern about the future of the language.

One must acknowledge some efforts made in recent times in Nigeria to rescue Igbo language from imminent death. The Government of Anambra State of Nigeria, for instance, realizing that the use of Igbo language, the indigenous language of the state, was in serious decline, came up with a campaign encouraging the speaking of Igbo language in the home and in public interactions in Igbo communities. It has enacted the following Igbo Language Usage Enforcement Law 2009, defined as " A Law to enforce the speaking and writing of, and wide-spread usage of Igbo Language among Ndigbo in Anambra State and Diaspora," to signify its seriousness in the campaign:

"The usage of Igbo language is hereby enforced by the following means with effect from 1st September, 2011:-
Igbo language as a subject in addition to English language and Mathematics must be passed by an Igbo student before he can be promoted from JSSII to SSS I in all secondary schools in the State;
Every State or privately owned tertiary institution in the State must establish an independent department of Igbo language bearing that name;
Every State or privately owned tertiary institution must make Igbo language a mandatory General studies course in the institution."

Also, a group called "Suwakwa Igbo" (Endeavour to Speak Igbo) was founded by Prof. Pita Ejiofor of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, in 2006, with the mission "To restore vitality to the Igbo Language, make the entire Igbo people proud of it, speak it, write it, read it, teach it and carry out researches for its growth and development ." One is delighted that Suwakwa Igbo does not focus only on spoken Igbo. Indeed, we cannot have an effective Suwakwa Igbo without Debekwa Igbo (Endeavour to write Igbo) as its necessary complement. Speaking and writing are language production skills that are interdependent. Similarly, reading and listening, as reception skills, reinforce and are influenced by language production skills. Given this network of relationship among the language skills, how much of the use of Igbo in official written communication is actually going on in government circles and public life in the Igbo-speaking states in Nigeria, to reinforce the efforts of the "Suwakwa Igbo" group and Suwakwa Igbo as a cultural ideology? Where are the Igbo-language newspapers sponsored by the governments of these states? Suwakwa Igbo would have no meaning if it merely stops at the level of speaking the language. "Suwakwa" needs to be viewed, not just as an act of speaking (within oral communication) but as "speaking" through writing (i.e. within written communication). If the governments in these Igbo-speaking states are indeed serious Suwakwa Igbo governments, they ought to demonstrate this ideology by making Igbo a worthy language of their formal, written, administrative communications. 

It is one thing to speak passionately about saving a dying language; it is another thing to give life to such a language through permitting its use in those areas of official communication where it has to register its presence and create its future. 

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Writing for an Addresser Who Re-Schools You: The Drama and Signifying Practices of Letter Writing in an African Village


Obododimma Oha

The ability to write letters was, for the old folk in the African village, a true mark of literacy. As an indication of literacy which was considered a possession of white man's magic of civilization, letter writing, in the perspective of the local people, presented a mystery because someone's voice is captured in scribbles on paper and sent to someone else far away, and that someone addressed is able to decode the message and indeed recover the emotions packed into the message. That was a mystery. If those elderly people of those days were to witness the use of modern forms of correspondence like SMS, email, mobile telephony, and video chat, they would have simply concluded that the white man is a either a god or a powerful wizard. 

I once enjoyed the honor of being a 'professional" letter writer in our village. The non-literate in the village once in a while needed to 'talk" to their relatives in distant lands and I was invested with the honor of establishing that contact, as someone who knew the art facilitating that conversation, having been certified by the elementary school I attended that I had mastered the ways of "converting" the Igbo message of my clients into appropriate English. Indeed, the prestige seemed to lie in the idea that I had made my non-literate clients speak English to their relatives who were faraway. That was no mean feat! I would sit and listen and then try to capture the voice of the speaker in a way that would make it possible for the receiver of the letter to recognize and recover the presence of the addresser. 

There I was, a major actor in a drama of literacy. Indeed, in each context of letter writing, which I configure as a dramatic performance, I was merely a proxy protagonist: the real protagonist was the person speaking through my letter, the person who hired me. My clients were the owners of the scripts as well as the directors who made sure I performed my proxy role according to expectation. In an interesting way, too, I was the audience of my client that dictated his or her message in Igbo, the local language, again playing proxy for the addressee of the letter. Two types of proxy role converge here: proxy-sender and proxy-receiver, and they made enormous stylistic demands on me! Sometimes, I had to omit some parts of the narrative for my own convenience; sometimes I and to add some bits of information that I considered tolerable. In a word, I had to try to enter the minds of my clients to be able to write what I felt they wanted to say. Wasn't that a risk? 

How could I forget the unique style and grammar of that special local performance of the White man's language? Those words added color to the content of those letters. One found "missive" more authoritative than "message" or "letter" and so had to use it. 

The Opening always opened doors for the letter writer as an experienced hand. In spite of what my teachers had taught me about the need to "go straight to the point" and much later dwell on other matters such as little talks about the recipient, the villagers -- both the literate and non-literate -- believed that the how-do-you-do's come first. One must ask about the health of the recipient first, as a demonstration of goodwill or being a well-wisher, about the family, about employment, about this and about that, before dwelling on the main purpose of the letter. This used to put me in a fix: I didn't know whether to go with my English teacher's theories and principles of letter writing, or the templates that the villagers had in their heads. 

I was expected, at every letter writing encounter, to take care of this aspect of Opening before asking what the addresser wanted me to put down as his or her message. Very often, it went thus: "How do you do? How about you? How about the present condition of your health which is very important to me. I hope you are swimming in the ocean of happiness as we are here today. If so, thank God." Even if the non-literate persons could not read English, they at least could see with their eyes and know whether I had performed the initial regular ritual in the letter. There was no way I could deceive them, assuming I wanted to follow what my English teacher had taught me about going straight to the point. Also, I would end up making the situation complicated -- possibly raise doubts about my competence in letter writing -- if I had tried to lecture them about why going straight to the point, according to my teacher, was a better way to write letters. They could have just started scratching their eyelids, giving me one of those strange smiles one found on their faces whenever they were incredulous or had doubts about the acceptability of one's statement. The village people knew how to say things with the look on their faces! 

It must have been established in their heads long ago when they had the highly trusted first generation of village letter writers who, armed with Standard Six certificates, knew the White man's language and "proper" ways of doing things. Those of us who came much later when adugbolija had also entered post-colonial Nigerian schooling had some difficulty proving that we knew our kernel. For the villagers, Standard Six was the measure of learning. And so they sometimes sang satirically:

Pasin'  Six 
Amaghi ede leta
Na ebiisi ka ya mma 
O hooo!

Roughly translated, this means:

A holder of Standard Six certificate 
Who knows not how to write letter
Someone in the kindergarten is better than s/he
O hooo!

And so, one always remembered how this satirical song could apply to one, and therefore just comply with the conventional model of letter writing in the village. No professional village letter writer wanted to be told indirectly that a KG child was more experienced in that art of writing. 

For the locals, those opening inquiries are not a casual howdy which a linguist would explain as not being a question requiring information about the addressee's welfare but a way of servicing relationship, of showing concern. For the locals, the howdy goes deeper than a mere ritual that services tenor. So, the recipient of the letter in replying has to take time to respond to such an inquiry. In fact, it is also part of the main purpose of writing the letter, so to say. The village letter writer thus has to respond to inquiries made about every Okeke and Okafo, as well as inquiries about the New Yam festival, the age grade, the ezinuulo, and other things the original addresser had asked about in demonstration of the spirit of community. 

Indeed, there is some sense in wanting to ask after an addressee's welfare before presenting the main issue of the informal letter. In one respect, the context of indigenous Igbo culture privileges identifying with the other over the propensity for minding one's business. One who therefore writes to the other acquaintance or relative and just plunges into the main issue might be viewed as preferring to be distant. If it is a request that the person wants to make, such a request might be given a negative or casual response. This is particularly so in the case of a tenor that makes it necessary for the recipient to be searching the language and structure of the letter for evidence of the performance of affection and intimacy. In this regard, what comes first matters to the addressee. Is it the symbolic presentation of affection that comes first (to prepare the mind of the addressee) or the "selfish" requesting of a favor?

On the other hand, presenting inquiries about the addressee's personal life, which are outside the main purpose of writing the letter, delays or even "buries" that main purpose. It could therefore be a risky distraction that might affect the measure of attention given to the expressed purpose. Buried things take some effort to dig up, and might not be properly or fully dug up! Now, that my English teacher's theory of writing, which my clients in the village only find funny, for they believe that an addressee that cares for an addresser and relationship with the addresser has to "dig" into the letter with utmost commitment. Only an ofooegeri whose mind is elsewhere would receive a letter from a relative and not read every word as if it were a precious message from his or her chi. Which is why the hired letter writer must know the craft and show it in the run of his or her pen, they reasoned.

The problem however lay in the generalization of this pattern, even to the point of using it in official letters, as well as thinking that it was the only "appropriate" way to begin all informal letters. 

One must not, of course, forget another important source of education which the Onitsha Market pamphleteering represented on such matters as "how to write powerful letters," "how to talk to girls and win their love," "how to make money in business," etc. Those how-to pamphlets provided what many of their readers thought were the right models of writing.The model letters, whether in an Onitsha Market pamphlet or a secondary school English text such as that of the popular S.M.O. Aka, even consolidated the wrong assumption that they were the formulae to good letter writing. One only needed to copy a pattern in one Onitsha Market letter writing pamphlet while writing to one's girlfriend, in the sure hope that it would turn her head and make her fall madly in love with the letter writer. So, one did not forget to sprinkle such "magical" expressions as "You are the apple of my eye," "You are the sugar in my tea," etc in the love letter. 

But why shouldn't the art of letter writing be sensitive to cultural preferences and expectations? Who says that societies that were assumed not to have developed traditions of writing cannot inject into received written communicative forms their own concerns about what makes communication much-more fulfilling? The village folks, whether educated and half-educated on Western ideas, can localize the Western forms of communication brought back by those they sent out there to be their eyes and ears. 

Being a "professional" letter writer in a remote African village is not just something one can easily dismiss as one of those strange things associated with strange places. It did serve as a training (and even re-training) for many locals on how to manage information and also manage an employer whose voice one must speak. I cannot see much difference between being a letter writer to a non-literate or semi-literate villager, with some little ego mmiri oyi as compensation afterwards, and the "big job" of a Personal Assistant or Speech Writer to a big man in government in Nigeria. The Personal Assistant takes dictations or originates what he or she thinks is the Master's Voice. The big man in government also re-schools the PA, "helps" the PA to see the world and ways of addressing issues in the world differently. School is theory; the job is practice. Yes, the "job." The job re-schools and changes us. We write the job. Our creativity and radicalism can wait.

Friday, February 3, 2012

English, Colonial De-jobbing, and the Mapping of Victimhood


Obododimma Oha

This day in history, 2nd February 1929, Asuquo Okon inyang, a colonial subject and employee of the colonial British government in Nigeria, wrote a very powerful letter to the British Embassy, protesting over his dismissal and appealing for reinstatement. The letter has come to be recognized as one of the significant documents of Nigeria's colonial history, especially with regard to the colonial subject writing back to the imperial authority. A confirmation of the letter's significance is the fact that it has been archived in notable repositories such as the online "Letters of Note." It is also widely consulted and read. Whereas many of its readers are excited over its author's unconventional and humorous use of English, some examine it as evidence of the emerging non-native variety of the language in the colonial environment, or as evidence of the proficiency levels found among the colonized people struggling to embrace Western culture and expressions. For me, it is not just about "good" and "bad" varieties of English. I am rather attracted to Asuquo's courage in trying to exercise the right to twist the language, creating words that are non-existent in English, even as a non-native speaker. He has been given this language as part of the project of colonizing and governing him, and as Chinua Achebe indicated in one of his essays "The African Writer and the English Language," he (Asuquo) would make English carry the burden of his "dejobment." A transcript of the letter which has been sourced from Letters of Note is as follows:

February 2nd 1929. 

Kind Sir, 

On opening this epistle you will behold the work of a dejobbed person, and a very bewifed and much childrenised gentleman. 

Who was violently dejobbed in a twinkling by your goodself. For Heavens sake Sir consider this catastrophe as falling on your own head, and remind yourself as walking home at the moon's end of five savage wives and sixteen voracious children with your pocket filled with non-existent £ S D; not a solitudery sixpence; pity my horrible state when being dejobbed and proceeding with a heart and intestines filled with misery to this den of doom; myself did greedily contemplate culpable homicide, but Him who did protect Daniel (poet) safely through the lion's dens will protect his servant in his home of evil.

As to reason given by yourself — goodself — esquire for my dejobbment the incrimination was laziness. 

No Sir. It were impossible that myself who has pitched sixteen infant children into this valley of tears, can have a lazy atom in his mortal frame, and the sudden departure of eleven pounds monthly has left me on the verge of the abyss of destitution and despair. I hope this vision of horror will enrich your dreams this night, and good Angel will meet and pulverise your heart of nether milestone so that you will awaken, and with as much alacrity as may be compatable with your personal safety, you will hasten to rejobulate your servant. 

So mote it be - Amen

Yours despairfully

Sgd. Asuquo Okon Inyang.

The colonial job of entrenching the values of Englishness is transmitted through a language which the colonized African did not share (or was not allowed to share) in the pride of its mastery. The colonial subject, it was assumed, would never measure up to the competence of the native speaker, even with the best colonial education, even with an Oxford training and foreign sojourn. Perhaps, Braj Kachru's Circles of English presents a clearer mapping of the location of the colonized in an English world. In the Kachru model, countries colonized by Britain and which have English as a second-language, are placed in the Outer Circle and regarded as "norm-using" while countries like the UK, the US, New Zealand, Australia, etc where English is used as mother tongue, are in the Inner Circle. These Inner  Circle countries are regarded as "norm-producing," in other words, they dictate correctness in the use of the language. Countries such as France, Germany, Russia, China, and Japan, that were not colonized by Britain and which do not assign any official function to English in their government and public communication, are located in the Expanding Circle. Although the Circles of English in Braj Kachru sense represent an imagined geography of English language speech, the word "Outer" in "Outer Circle" already suggests a sense of exclusion and/or distancing. And so Outer Circle speakers of English like Asuquo Okon are greatly distanced from appropriateness in the use of the language and would therefore need to be "helped" through language teaching procedures, to minimize their errors and ascend to a level of intelligibility.

Asuquo Okon's letter was a symbolic case of the Outer Circle writing to the Inner Circle. Already, the Outer Circle suffers a disadvantage in not being recognized as an authentic source of good English. Its members are already dejobbed as transmitters of acceptable English, or at most needed to be monitored closely and "assisted," even when they can never be seen as measuring as high as native speakers. This dejobbing, sad as it may seem, has been an inspiration for determined and highly creative experiments with English in the cultural productions in the colonized environments. Rather than despair, Outer Circle users of English have gone ahead to make English do business for them in many aspects of their cultural lives, registering impressive results in the area of literature mainly. 

The transcript of Okon's letter above exhibits an attention to the expansion of the structures of English words, both in acceptable and unacceptable directions. Perhaps, he might be said to generalize the affixation rules of English and therefore poor in his English lexicology. I am sure many readers of his letter would find his uses of words like "dejobbed," "childrenised," and "bewifed" strange, not because some English words don't have that kind of structure, but because those words are strange and have been created to solve conceptual problems experienced by the writer of the letter. Okon was creating and using words he felt would capture situations or phenomena he could not immediately find words for in his English. Ok, let's say his stock of English vocabulary was much limited but the interesting thing is that he did not treat that as a disadvantage; he rather went ahead to make English say it. Would you say he was a kindred spirit to Humpty-Dumpty who would insist that if he uses words, they mean what he means, whether the relationships between those words and meanings assigned to them are generally recognized or not? 

But Okon's letter also indirectly calls attention to the irregular nature of lexical derivation one finds in English and how it could lead to the creation of strange and amusing patterns. If the plural of "ox" is "oxen," why is it not possible for the plural of "box" to be "boxen" in English? Why the hell is this language so unpredictable? If we can say "begotten" and "besieged," why can't we also say "bewifed"? And what about "childrenized" when we can also say "womanized"? Moreover, one who carries the burden of providing for several children that have probably resulted from a marriage he never wanted is not wrong in describing self as being "childrenized." And, if we can "reinvigorate," why would anyone ridicule a "dejobbed" Okon for asking to be "rejobulated"?

By the way, Asuquo Okon, as an Outer Circle courageous manipulator of the English language might as well be the precursor of today's African scholar who, in navigating between the post in post-colonialism and the post in post-modernism, has to attach the "de" and "re" prefixes here and there, in order to be properly read and endorsed by the colonial master and norm-producer. As the "postal" Asuquo Okons, we in the knowledge ilo have to try and speak the Master's voice, with the Master's little extra tricks with words!

Has Asuquo Okon not shown that he is an exciting poet and rhetor who would not spare any imagery that could turn the heart of his highly placed addressee to "rejobulate" him? Who but a heartless boss would not listen to the plea of an employee saddled with "six savage wives and sixteen voracious children" in "a den of doom"? The addressee is reassured of the high esteem in which he is held -- his "goodself," for whom a prayer is made that the "good Angel will meet and pulverize (his) heart to awaken" to the necessity of this "good" deed of "rejobulating" Okon. 

Indeed, what Asuquo Okon's letter suggests to his addressee is that he is a victim: he is a victim of the culture that has orientated him to enter into polygamy and poor planning of parenthood; he is a victim of five "savage" wives who probably make his life an example of hell; he is a victim of an employment system that appears not to bother about the personal lives of employees and how the stress from those lives affect their work performance, in fact, an employment system that dispenses with feelings; and of course, a victim of the colonial system that does not understand the colonial subject, and does require the touch, indeed some "pulverizing" by the "good Angel."

Indeed, in cultural productions and oratory of public display in Nigeria, the tendency to play with and enjoy English as a "strange" language has long been in practice, typical examples being Chief Zebrudaya Okoroigwe Nwogbo's English (or "Zebrulect") and Igodomigodo rhetoric associated with the Edo State politician, Patrick Obahiagbon. Chris Okotie, the evangelist, also represents another case of an attachment to flowery gobbledygook in English.

Now, is Asuquo Okon only a victim of what Basil Bernstein calls "language deficit," the type we make him become when we regard the English in his letter as inferior to ours, just as the colonial power cancelled the authenticity of the colonized culture? No; at another level, Okon's letter as a cultural production signifies the struggle of power at the level the signification. As a subject of the English language, he is already a victim of the process that requires him to search for a semiotic that would ensure his being understood by the colonial master. It is this task of making oneself understood, even at the cost of being laughed at both in the colonial moment and in the online presence, that seems to me to be Asuquo Okon's highest level of victimhood.


Tuesday, January 31, 2012

New Years, New Yearnings: Discourse, Time, and the National Voyage to a Becoming


Obododimma Oha

"What can be said in New Year rhymes
That's not been said a thousand times?
The new years come, the old years go,
We know we dream, we dream we know.
We rise up laughing with the light,
We lie down weeping with the night.
We hug the world until it stings,
We curse it then and sigh for wings.
We live, we love, we woo, we wed,
We wreathe our prides, we sheet our dead.
We laugh, we weep, we hope, we fear,
And that's the burden of the year."
        --- Ella Wilcox.

I stayed awake in the night of 31 December, 2011, as I have been doing all these years, to witness the transition from a retiring year to another taking over. I wanted to witness that split moment of transition that made the difference between an old year and a new one. I didn't notice any difference; I didn't even realize that any change had taken place. I looked and listened; only the sound of fireworks and hooting of triumphant entry into a new year filled the air. Always the same noise of triumph, with varying embellishments. In our Igbo village, I recall, such witnessing of a transition to another year had some interesting folk ritual performances to go with it: the villagers usually plucked leaves and marched round the village in the final hour of the dying year, chanting.

Afo gbara aka laa oo!
Afo gbara aka laa oo!
Afo gbara aka laa oo!

Roughly translated as:

May the year go without a mishap!
May the year go without a mishap!
May the year go without a mishap!

In its literal translation, the chant actually says: "May this year go empty-handed!" This end-of-year ritual, called ichu afo, considered an important deployment of the powers of human speech, indeed communal affirmation, means expelling whatever evil that is waiting to strike anybody in the community. The forces of evil, it is traditionally believed, always stand by waiting at that strategic moment like a year ending, to poison the joy of the community with terrible grief. But a communal speech, representing the power of the many endorsed by Chukwu-abia-amuma, can foil such a spiritual conspiracy. So, no one needed to be reminded to join in the communal ritual and "chasing away" the old year, asking the old year to go empty-handed. 

So, caught in the unfortunate demands of my profession in the urban Nigerian environment, I was unable to travel home to my village to join the larger family in driving away the old year. That also came with the idle reflection of wanting to know what made the difference between an old year and a new one. An alienated soul is wont to seek such deep things, against its own happiness. And so it seemed to me that the idea of a "new year" is a mere fiction which human beings find convenient in trying to reassure themselves that a future is real, and that they are moving into it. 

A new year supposedly calls for newness, for a renewal, at least. Coming on the heels of the birth of Jesus the Christ, whom Christians consider the Son of God and savior of the world, the New Year celebration becomes a moment for the renewal of vows, or the making of resolutions. For Christians, it involves renewing the vow of living the life of the savior and depending on the grace of God to experience greater blessings in the next eleven months and after. Christians and non-Christians make resolutions, which are supposed to be serious statements about what they must do to show that the year has some newness and difference. Whether the resolutions are kept or not is another matter, but the fact remains that many would like to be part of that ritual of moving into a future that is different from its past. 

New years still have the old yearnings. When I look at the resolutions and prayers made on Facebook by my friends, I find that these old yearnings about personal dreams of greatness, of experiencing better days as a citizen in a troubled country and global environment, of overcoming the drawbacks experienced in the year just gone.

Here are some interesting randomly-selected samples of New Year wishes and messages posted on Facebook on January 1, 2012 and January 2, 2012:

(1) "We've stepped into a brighter light.
    Happy new year, friends."
          (Olisakwe Ukamaka Evelyn, posted 12.55am on Jan. 1, 2012)
(2) "01-01-12 watching my goodies coming."
         (Ayobami Omonijo)
(3) "I wish all Nigerians a Happy New Year. Now let's be reminded that this is a new year and in 2011 Nigeria suffered because we politicized religion. In 2012 this trend must change and we all must make a conscious and proactive effort not to repeat the mistakes of the past year."
        (Pat Utomi, Jan. 2, 2012)
(4) "My New Year Solutions, Not Resolutions
    This Year I want to be a monkey
    Jumping from tree to tree
    Next year I can be a donkey
    Why can't I be a bubble?
    Blow away and disappear
    Instead of getting into trouble
    Making resolutions every year."
        (Orok Duke, Jan. 1, 2012; 3.24AM)
(5) "This is the 12th year of the New Millennia (sic), let's write our 
    future with Big Ideas, enquire into all problems that afflict us. 
    Happy New Year, folks, friends and compatriots."
         (Abdul Mahmud, Jan. 1, 2012; 1.13AM)
(6) "Finally, 2012. Finally, a year with new clothes. Happy new Year 
         (Chitzi Ogbumgbada, Jan. 1, 2012; 1.04AM)
(7) "YES!
     Time to knot my shoe lace. 
      2012 ... another desert to be fertilized.
      As the journey begins!"
       (N'Time Joseph, Jan. 1, 2012; 12.55AM)
(8) "Thank you GOD for today -- jan 1st, 2012. 2012 the year of the 
     Dominion and Manifestation of the WORD. The WORD. The WORD. 
     The WORD. Happy New Year. This year is for you, by the power 
     of the WORD."
        (David Ishaya Osu, Jan. 1, 2012; 12.43AM)
(9) "Welcome to the Year of the Dragon. This also shall be the Year 
    of Sacrifice, and if it pleases the gods, a man who was born in the
    Year of the Dragon shall return through the Path of Thunder, and 
    a People shall either rise like humans, or perish on their knees like 
         (Olu Oguibe, Jan. 2, 2012; 7.38AM)
(10) "I wish all a New Year filled with personal growth and 
     professional accomplishment. And may the year be marked by 
     peace and an end to senseless violence."
        (Okey Ndibe, Jan. 1, 2012; 8.54AM)
(11) "... he said to me 'drop ur map for this year (2011) cos tmrw u 
     shall take up a new identity, and a new map for the new year. 
     dust ur coat and tighten ur boot ... by this time tmrw, u shall be
     on the cool blue sea drifting on ur feet, without a boat, without
     an oar, without a lifejacket nor a float tyre ... cos the angel on
     the other side of d sea wud ve locked them in his barn.... but ... u 
     shud fear no tempest, for thou at (sic) with the wind and a fair
     weather to comfort u ... a thousand shall drown by ur side and 
     ten thousand by your right hand but shall not come near u, only 
     with ur mind eyes shall u perceive it "...but he quickly added,    
     'make sure ur eyes re closed thru d journey and only see with ur 
     senses ... if you opened (sic) ur eyes, d fishes ll call ur name, d 
     crocodiles ll give u gifts, d seagulls ll sing u a melodious hymn, 
     and d sea ll wink at u ... then u ll go dancing after them ... then 
     ... u ll begin again from d very start and the tempest ll rock ur 
     nerves, and d wind ll not be ur friend and all ll conspire and give 
     u a fear jacket ... but with eyes closed, u shall get to d other 
     side of the sea and only God ll be mighty in ur inside.
           (Alake Titilope, Jan. 2, 2012.)
(12) "May 2012 be better than 2011 for those who believe!"
           (Hope Eghagha, Jan. 1, 2012; 8.49AM)

Light-Dark images feature in the communication of the New Year wishes, indicating that indeed the main issue is about the picture of the new year that we create or carry in our heads, pictures that reveal whether we have fears or hopes, whether we have chosen an optimistic orientation or a pessimistic one. It is particularly interesting that the new year, which represents a future, is  configured as a sea of uncertainties in one of the Status posts. The sea has always featured as an archetypal imagery of fear in writings by poets, sometimes along with night, suggesting in a rather amplified way the magnitude of trouble for which deliverance is sought. This desired deliverance is imagined as Dawn or Light. Thus we find in Olisakwe Ukamaka Evelyn's post a resonance of that deliverance/hope imagery: stepping "into a brighter light." It is also noteworthy that her expression of deliverance is cast in a comparative degree -- "brighter" -- which suggests that we are already out of the zone of trouble; we are already in the "light" and not in the Dark.

This representation is in conflict with the posts that suggest that the "sea" of the new year on which we must travel is not the zone of light, or that it is left to us to create that future through the choices we make. The events following the removal of government subsidy on the local prices of petroleum products in Nigeria indeed indicate that Nigerians are not yet out of the Dark or tempestuous Sea  configuration. They have rather just entered a trying part of their voyage through that sea and will have to make the kind of critical choices suggested in Alake Titilope's post. Alake, in her status post, presents a very interesting configuration of the new year as a dark sea populated by dangerous creatures, such that traveling through it requires a special protection from the Almighty. In her interesting narrative, she reports that on the very night of transition to a new year (a passover night), an angel of the Lord appeared to her with a leather box containing gifts, asking her to drop her map of the passing year and take the map of the coming year. And how is that new map read? The map, as seen from the angel's narrative, says her journey through the new year is not going to be smooth, if that was what she was expecting, but that it would be a journey through a rough and dangerous sea of crocodiles. 

Alake maintains a highly engaging prophetic posture, her predictions apparently fulfilled in the violent experiences which occurred in Nigeria few days later. One, in fact, finds a disturbing relationship between the imagery of "the sea of crocodiles" in Alake's prophetic post and "the river of crocodiles," which is the English translation of the name, "Kaduna." Well, Alake might have been referring to what Nigerians would pass through generally in their journey to healthy governance and democracy, but, as in the Prophecies of Michel Nostradamus, this closeness in naming is highly suggestive, especially considering the violence and killings in Kaduna State recently, the Boko Haram terror, and the alleged conspiracies, which have set many Nigerians wondering if many people in government in Northern Nigeria are not secretly connected with the terrorist attacks. In fact, Alake uses the word "conspire" in describing the roles of certain mythologized figures in that imagined journey: "... the crocodiles ll give you gifts, d seagulls ll sing u a melodious hymn, and the sea ll wink at u ... then u ll go dancing after them ... then ... u ll begin again from the very start and the tempest ll rock ur nerves, and the wind ll not be ur friend and all ll conspire and give u a fear jacket...." Isn't terrorism about conspiracy and particularly the giving of fear (jacket)? Terrorism spreads fear, and, from Alake's prophecy (which applies to individuals just as it applies to government), this fear is meant to derail, to prevent one from focusing on one's goal and getting it accomplished. 

It is interesting that she deploys a mythical technique, effectively appropriating patterns of agency associated with derailment of mission, as one finds in Homer's Odyssey (or in Jason and the Argonauts) as well as in African folk narratives. Her "seagulls" might as well have been Homer's sirens using a melodious song to seduce the person on the mission. Could Nigerians also not be called "Naijanauts" making a journey on a dangerous sea and facing many forms of deception, distraction and treachery?

This deployment of myth in prophesying about the New Year for the nation is particularly evident in Olu Oguibe's Facebook post. The author of A Gathering Fear, Oguibe has consistently demonstrated a very radical posture in his narration of the Nigerian nation-state. Perhaps the title of that collection of poems of his utters its own prophecy which has started unfolding in Nigeria. His Facebook New Year post cited in (9) above, in a Nostradamus style, warns that: "a man who was born in the Year of the Dragon shall return through the Path of Thunder." 2012, he informs his readers, is "the Year of the Dragon." So, who could this man born in the Year of the Dragon be? 

The year 2012, according to Chinese astrology, is the Year of the Dragon. For the Chinese, the Dragon is a special animal and a symbol of power and uprightness. The following information available on the is very helpful in this regard:

"... in Chinese astrology the dragon person born under this Chinese Zodiac sign tends to be a "doer" – they do things and achieve power by getting things done.

A dragon can breathe out fire so the person born in the Chinese Year of the Dragon can be a hothead. Watch out if you make them angry!

However, the dragon has a soft underbelly and so in Chinese astrology the dragon person born in this Chinese Zodiac year has a "soft spot" to them. They may get angry at someone who annoys them but they also show great compassion to people in need.

A dragon has a long tongue which is often seen.

So in Chinese astrology the dragon person born in this Chinese Zodiac year has a sharp tongue – they will say things that can be quite sarcastic and biting.

The person born in the Chinese Year of the Dragon can be quite a confronting person but if you can reach their "soft heart" they are worthwhile allies.

2012 is the Chinese year of the dragon. So what does 2012 hold for a person born in the Chinese Year of the Dragon?

Such people double their efforts in whatever they do - work, education and other projects. Their natural talent and abilities should stand out with great results.

However, watch out for that temper! Keep it in check and do not spoil your good work."

So, Oguibe's prophecy is about the fact that the new year is a historical turning point for a nation, a year in which citizens will either "rise like humans, or perish like animals." The Dragon avatar returns through the "Path of Thunder" (obviously a symbol of violence, derived from the work of Peter Abrahams with the same title and later the title of Christopher Okigbo's 1968 collection of poems, later included in Labyrinths), indeed suggestive of an opportunity for redemption (which could be lost, if there is no determination and conviction on the part of the citizenry).

Indeed, the New Year celebration calls for the making of resolutions, which involves setting goals and working towards them. This is obviously in line with the idea of the part the individual or society has to play in relation to the prophecies discussed earlier. Orok Duke in his poetic status post (see sample text (4) above) deconstructs "resolutions" to register his preference for "solutions." His erasure of "re" in "resolutions" shows that desire to remake things: it points to the idea of being fed up with the tendency to plan and not execute, to make promises without making efforts to fulfill them. Thus, Orok Duke's poem, sounding like a limerick, playfully interrogates this orientation which critics of the government in Nigeria have been reiterating. As it applies to individuals in the way they have to perceive the meaning of the New year, so does it apply to governments. 

Wishing that good things come one's way (or happen to one's society) is just a prayer, which needs to be matched with action. In contemporary Nigerian life, it has become common for individuals, aided by Pentecostal narratives, to imagine a new year in various utopian forms. There are such slogans as "My Year of Restoration," "My Year of Glory," "My Year of Deliverance," or even "This Year Is My Year." The slogans are produced as stickers that are placed on automobiles and walls of buildings or sometimes printed on T-shirts. These days, they also appear as wallpaper on mobile phone screens and computer monitors, perhaps as a way of making the message so pervasive that it invades and occupies the viewer's mind. The origin is the advocacy by Pentecostal pastors that church members engage in positive thinking and positive talking, as a way of spiritually invoking good or positive things to happen in their lives. The slogans also advertise their users as being spiritually triumphant. 

Positive thinking and positive talking may have their own good psychological advantages, but may end up being misleading if they are seen in themselves as the keys to miracles. Unless people get up and work to change their lives, no miracle-talking will transform them and their societies into civilized and progressive entities. That, by implications, requires that we do not repeat the mistakes we made in the past, mistakes that included making resolutions and not working towards solutions (as noted by Orok Duke). Quite rightly, Pat Utomi in his own New Year status post advises Nigerians to make "a conscious and proactive effort not to repeat the mistakes of the past year."

Nigerian New Year yearning on Facebook becomes very significant in the light of the crisis over the removal of subsidy on petroleum products consumed in Nigeria and the terrorist attacks by Boko Haram. The discourse generated by the Facebook status posts once more brings up the idea of a virtual Nigerian public desiring, questioning, correcting, and guiding the troubled Nigerian nation and how the online forum becomes a veritable tool for mass enlightenment and consciousness-raising. 

The New Year invites individuals as well as a society to some newness, but this newness cannot happen without a reference to the past. Indeed, it may be futile to expect the past to be locked away, with a Time boundary, a rift that must not be tampered with. One must expect the presence of the past, for the present and its achievements are never complete without a reference to the past, as T.S. Eliot says in his essay, "Tradition and the Individual Talent." If like Capt. Jack Harkness and other characters in "Torchwood," a BBC series, we try to prevent the unlocking of the rift and the consequent invasion of aliens (including the dead), how far can we really go? The Nigerian dead, as a matter of fact, have been discursively brought back to life in some of the Facebook posts focusing on terrorism and the possible break-up of the country. One has read several posts by Imo Eshiet, for instance, bringing back Alhaji Ahmadu Bello back to our realm/universe to say again what he had said many years ago about the Nigerian entity. So, the Nigerian past cannot be wished away easily, even in spite of the priestly advocacy about positive talking. Bringing back the past may be, in fact, very important in the project of rethinking and remaking Nigeria.