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 A confirmation of the letter's significance is the fact that it has been archived in notable repositories such as the online "Letters of Note."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.



Odozi Obodo said...

Calabar Market Literature? Did he write it or was it written by the 'letter-writers' of the era - the bombastic poets of Soyinka's Ibadan: The Penkelmese Years?

Obododimma Oha said...

Good question, Odozi Obodo. Asuquo Okon Inyang, I believe, wrote the letter in 1929 and sent it to the British Embassy in Colonial Nigeria. The letter obviously found its way to the British National Archives through the files of the Embassy.

Ibukun Filani said...

To me, Okon Inyang is a personality of tow extremes. He displayed this clearly by showing that he could protest in a dignified manner (letter writing) hence, he depicts a refined Nigerian during the colonial era. At the same time, his expressions show that he is not as refined as his method seems to portray him.