It’s a pity that I have to code-mix English, Pidgin and my native Urhobo language as well as code-switch between them in any lengthy conversation with a kinsman. I am a product of the “wasted” generation, and my case is far better than what obtains for 90% of my peers. One of the things that I admire about Igbos, Yorubas and Hausas is their commitment to speaking their mother tongue. Sadly, for those of us in the Niger Delta, multi-ethnicity is our undoing. We have developed a very negative attitude towards our native Urhobo, Itsekiri, Ijaw, Isoko, Okpe (Urhobo dialect), Uvwie (Urhobo dialect), Bini, Esan, etc. We prefer to converse in Pidgin, which most of us have adopted as our first language. Some would rather speak English when they encounter people of their ethnic extraction instead of conversing in Urhobo for fear of being perceived as local.
Typical Urhobo interlocutors begin conversations with “Guy, how far na?” instead of “Oshare, mavor?”. When the latter is said, they will call you an “Ogburhobo”. This negative attitude is killing our language. The linguist, Macaulay Mowarin, has predicted the dearth of Urhobo language. Already, Okpe and Uvwie have less than a thousand speakers. Urhobo is in free fall and in about 30 years times, native speakers will be too insignificant for Urhobo to be called an ethnic group. Urhobos pride themselves as the 5th largest ethnic group in Nigeria. The irony is that only a little above 50% of Urhobos can speak the language fluently. Same goes for Isoko, our sister language.
One of the primary sources of this trend is that the colonial masters wanted to anglicise all of us. They knew our languages were diverse and unintelligible to them and one another. They reckoned that if they anglicised us, we would all merge into one people. However good their plans were, it was to our detriment. The Nigerian Pidgin evolved and filled the void between English and our native languages, and the Europeans hailed and encouraged it. The people of the Niger Delta took English a little bit too far when we began to see those who speak English as successful people. We associated aristocracy with the English language, and our native languages started dying…
Today, I am a product of the culminating effects of the preceding. However, I have been able to remedy my situation before it snowballed into a personal disaster and an existential crisis. Others still have the negative attitude and will prefer to learn Spanish, French, German, and worse, Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa. Many of the “wasted generation” individuals grew up in Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt and other cities in Nigeria, as well as other countries, and instead of showing interest in and learning their mother tongue, they’ll actively learn the language of others who WILL NOT even acknowledge their language. I often encounter individuals of the two Nigerian largest tribes who believe all Niger Deltans are Igbos. They don’t even recognise that most of these tribes are not linguistically similar to Igbo! Even with their bad attitude towards the minority languages, you still find the brainwashed individuals of the lost generation learning the languages of the big three and developing positive attitudes towards them while the negative attitude towards their mother tongue persists. It is not bad to be a polyglot or to speak many languages. However, charity must begin at home.
‘I cannot learn Hausa, Igbo or Yoruba unless I have thoroughly mastered Urhobo’.
We must learn to put ours first. This microcosmic issue is what influences the “Cain-Abel” effect. This effect manifests when Nigerians believe anything Nigerian is bad and fake and everything European is perfect and right. We betray ourselves to keep capitalist societies that don’t add to our economy running.
Having observed the trend, I decided to devote my scholarship to the documentation of Urhobo language, literature and culture. I may not be able to do much in changing our negative attitudes towards our native languages, but I’ll be able to preserve our cherished language and culture, in case we snowball into extinction. God forbids it ever gets to that point!
Mathias Orhero writes from Okpara-Inland, Nigeria. He is a literary scholar and writer. Reach him on literarymathy[at]gmail.com.