I had a moment recently, one quiet moment
A friend sent me a message asking for the Urhobo word for freedom. I thought of all the Urhobo words I knew in English; cup, spoon, come, go, hair, and arrrgh, freedom was not one of them. So I called my mum.
That was when I had the moment. If I have children in the future, I have nothing of my heritage to pass down.
I am one of those people who are just Nigerians in a country where people are first Tiv, Idoma, Kanuri, Ijaw before being Nigerian.
Yes, I know I am Urhobo/Okpe but it is not the first thing that comes to my head when I am asked “tell me about yourself.” So I was forced to dwell on this, on why I and most of my friends from home feel this way. It’s simple.
Growing up in Warri did not leave much room for cultural identity. You see, Warri unlike most cities in Nigeria is home to three major tribes: Ijaw, Itsekiri and Urhobo. From the Urhobo nation two more separate dialects- Okpe and Isoko (who sometimes say they are tribes on their own, but for now, let us call them dialects). And Warri, the famous oil city plays host to people from all over the country, also many foreigners looking for oil money and those chasing the businesses that come with oil money.
Because of this, most children my generation were brought up speaking pidgin English, it was easier for communication –why our parents did not teach us our languages indoors I still do not know. So, the formula was pidgin at home, Queens English in school. When pidgin started affecting our English, pidgin too was banned from home so it was English all the way. I would still have learnt or picked up Urhobo but my family moved to Delta Steel Company (DSC) Housing Estate. In DSC there was someone from every ethnic group in Nigeria. We attended same schools, churches, hospitals and we all spoke English and 95 per cent of us did not understand or speak our mother tongue; the other five per cent mostly understood but could not speak. (Of course, there were a few exceptions)
I was very interested in my maternal grandmother. People said I look like her, and she was very mysterious, but the few times I saw her, we couldn’t communicate. I needed my mum around to talk to her, and there are some words that my native Okpe language does not have in English.
I assumed wrongly that every other person had language barrier issues with their grandparents until I went to the East for university and later visited the West. I tried to learn Okpe then, asked my mum to speak only Okpe to me when she called. If she talked slowly, I’d pick up words sometimes. Other times she just used English.
We are now in our 20s, the ‘generation of speak only English’ children, most of us are getting married and having children, we have nothing to pass down.
Without our parents and relatives, we do not know how to conduct our traditional marriages, burial rites, cook our native foods, how to even dress in our attires. I do not know how to tie two wrappers properly without the help of an older person, and this is same for my friends and cousins.
In secondary school, we were supposed to learn one of the major languages, Hausa, Igbo or Yoruba. My school had only Yoruba teachers so Yoruba it was. For four years, I learnt Yoruba diligently, crammed for exams and passed. I am more literate in Yoruba language than in my own. (I admit I have forgotten most things) but…
Is it even safe to be just Nigerian in this country of “write your state of origin and local government area”?
And you know the most amusing part? When you have to write TOEFL/IELT because English is not your native language. See ya sef!
Ha ha ha