Reading Chioma Unigwe’s essay about her decision to stop calling bush meat ‘game’ raised a lot of questions in my mind, and I began to ponder about how political language is and can be, how words sometimes are not just not words and how they can be used to convey cultural imperialism and appropriation.
It also got me pondering on the term “civilisation” and how we, as Africans are taught formally and informally that the colonial masters, were the messiahs who brought civilisation to us.
Let’s go back to that word:
Civilisation; Definition: The condition that exists when people have developed effective ways of organizing a society and care about art, science, etc.
The colonial masters might have brought their processed wood and mirrors and trains, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have a well organized society.
Did they teach us how to mill corn, preserve fish or make adire? Did they teach us how to tap wine, the art of story telling, poetry and even spoken word? And what about our beautiful art : Nok art, Ife art, etc , most of which was stolen from us anyways?
From this, it is clear that we were already civilised since we did meet the “civilization requirements” according to the definition.
Why then is our history not written in this manner? Because our history is white-washed.
My contemplations on the term civilisation got me thinking about how it has affected our outlook on our cultures and the different narratives being pushed because of this, how we are subliminally taught to hate our African cultures.
Going down memory lane, I remember once speaking Yoruba, in primary school and I was reprimanded by my teacher. I can’t remember his words exactly, but he did say something about this being a private school and not a public school and I was supposed to act in a “refined” manner and vernacular was not permitted within the school grounds. I was only permitted to speak Yoruba during Yoruba class alone.
It was the first time I heard the word ‘vernacular’; Definition: using a language or dialect native to a region or country, rather than a literary, cultured or foreign language.
Again with my questions:
What makes my Yoruba ‘uncultured‘ and the English I am allowed to speak ‘cultured‘?
And if, my Yoruba is deemed vernacular what makes it impermissible? Could this be cultural imperialism taking place yet again?
I was taught etiquette as a child and while I was not day dreaming during the class, I would be present to witness my etiquette teacher’s near futile attempts to refine us and turn us into ‘civilised‘ individuals. She would demonstrate which fork was for salad and which was for dessert. What glass was for wine and which was for water. In that class, I also learnt it was a taboo to eat with my bare hands- especially in public. “That’s for local and uncouth people”.
Now, with all that I have learnt and unlearnt, I am thinking: I eat fries with my hands in public and I am neither considered local nor uncouth, but when I want to eat my Eba in public, I must proceed to look for cutlery and then feel disdain for people who don’t do the same. What makes one act acceptable and the other local?
My spoken Yoruba is terrible. Yoruba from my lips sounds like my throat is being pinched with every word and the words being forced to roll off my tongue. I find myself wishing this was not the case, and making a constant effort to practice speaking Yoruba. I’m not one to play the blame game, but I feel the need to in certain circumstances such as this one. I see parents conversing with each other in their rich native languages, then moving on to speak in English to their kids. And it’s not just the elites who are guilty of this. I listen to my hairdresser as she twists my hair, narrate a story to her colleague in beautiful Igbo, then say to her toddler in broken English that he should go and take his food.
They do this so unconsciously. It seems like some unspoken golden rule, ‘Whatever you do, ensure your child understands and speaks perfect English while making your native language irrelevant.‘ Of course the fault is not theirs alone, but the whole structure of society. In a society where so much emphasis is placed on knowledge of the English language, a language that was imposed and forced on our tongues, what do you expect?
I made a pact with myself at sixteen to never again judge a person’s ability by their inability to speak a particular language. The only thing I am sorry for is that it took me that long a time to realise my previous foolery.
I reason that whenever I make terrible grammatical blunders while speaking Yoruba or my murderous French, and I am not ridiculed for doing so, why should someone who commits grammatical blunders in English be the subject of ridicule and comedy skits?
Someone once answered me by saying in Nigeria, our official language is English, so it would be a big shame to not be able to speak it properly. I say, since when? Did your forefathers speak English?
Most Americans speak terrible English but are not trolled for it. Isn’t their official language English too? Open your eyes and resist the cultural and language imperialism! Haven’t you ever wondered why to your ears English spoken with an Australian accent is sexy but with an Igbo accent it is rib cracking worthy? Or even why you drool over “white people” speaking our native language and are so impressed, but we speak their language everyday and it means nothing to them. Hell they even make us take silly exams to prove our proficiency.
It’s the way your mind has been conditioned to think! It is the self hatred that has been passed on successfully from generation to generation. It is the belief that anything from your black roots is inferior, uncultured and uncivilised. It is the way you are taught right from birth to be ashamed of where you are from and who you are.
I would leave you with a quote from one of my favorite books, Half Of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie :
I am a Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was igbo before the white man came.