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Adebayo Adegbembo: A True Story on Illiteracy & Our Native Languages

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A few months ago, I was riding a commercial tricycle popularly called keke napep along with 3 other passengers. It was late evening and the ride was the last leg of my commute home after what had been a busy day. The route itself was straightforward going from Apple Junction to Festac town, both in Amuwo-Odofin local government areas of Lagos. I was seated in front with the driver while an elderly-looking woman sat sandwiched between 2 male passengers behind.

We had barely made it halfway when we encountered traffic. Attempting to navigate another route, the driver asked if any of us would be alighting at any of the stops along the route or were all headed to the final busstop. He sensed something was amiss when the old woman mentioned an obscure landmark as her intended stop.

On probing further, it turned out she was confused, as the landmark in question was too vague to correctly identify her busstop. To complicate matters, she couldn’t express herself in Pidgin English let alone English. Instead, she began to panic even as the driver became agitated, muttering to himself that he’d been unlucky to pick up an illiterate who not only was lost but couldn’t even speak any form of English – the only language that he seemed to understand.

Myself and other male passengers intervened urging the driver to calm down, while we sought to also make her feel at ease. Her Igbo language stood out as she tried to explain herself. Thankfully, one of the male passengers understood Igbo and began to converse with her. Going by his interpretation, she was on her way to her daughter’s residence, but had mixed up the direction given her. She also mentioned she had a mobile phone in her bag but that its battery was flat. By a stroke of luck, another passenger had a similar model of phone to hers. We powered her phone with his charged battery, retrieved her daughter’s number and called her. She provided directions on where to drop her mom off saying she’d be waiting there and everyone was relieved.

Throughout the situation, the driver didn’t stop his complaints about the old woman’s illiteracy. To him, she was illiterate because she didn’t speak English however basic, not minding the fact that his spoken English was pidgin.

Irritated, I thought about the broader meaning of Illiteracy, “Lack of knowledge in a particular subject; ignorance.” The driver perfectly fit that label given his lack of understanding of Igbo. Ironically, what had saved the day was in fact her ability to clearly express herself in Igbo, which so happened to be understood by a co-passenger. After all, illiteracy cannot simply be defined from the perspective of English language.

Personally, that episode was a learning experience given the nature of my work, which involves helping children learn Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa and other native cultures vis-à-vis interactive mobile games and cartoon videos.

While many see the need to preserve our native languages, sometimes, the essence of these cultural values can seem lost in debates over issues bothering on their extinction and other academic theories that we miss out on the obvious: everyday instances involving them. Some of us have had moments when a spoken native language was the difference between getting a good bargain for a product or nothing. Or when a stranger connected with us simply because we spoke his or her language. From market situations, social connections to emergencies home and abroad, many have had memorable experiences where our native languages have proven useful beyond something to speak with village people.

These glimpses of everyday use can only mean one thing: native languages are important! That said, I am not advocating for the use of only native languages, as the benefits of understanding English are far too obvious to all. On the other hand, just as one can be computer literate, financially literate or any other form of describing one’s enlightenment on several subjects, one can also be culturally literate from a native language point of view. It doesn’t require much.

Photo Credit: Rodrigolab | Dreamstime

Adebayo Adegbembo is the founder of Genii Games Limited; creators of interactive mobile apps, animated videos and workshops to make African Cultures fun for kids. A trained Engineering Surveyor from the University of Lagos, Bayo went the route of entrepreneurship in fulfillment of his passion for writing, technology, arts and culture. Follow him on Twitter @technobayo

8 Comments

  1. Physio Tinu

    July 20, 2017 at 7:11 pm

    A topic close to my heart. We have defined literacy and being educated =ability to read and write in English language. Forgetting that we had the Nsibidi writing script of the south-east and arabic of the north before oyinbo people came. Many folks don’t also realise how “educated and civilised” the benin empire was before the Portuguese came. Neither do they realise that the mathematics of ifa could have been the backbone of computer algorithms if uninterrupted.
    To those of you documenting and preserving our languages, I say well done. On my to do list is donating millions and billions of dollars to folks and things like this. Amen.

    • Adebayo Adegbembo

      July 21, 2017 at 4:20 pm

      Thank you. It comes down to self-awareness. The more confidence we have in ourselves and our heritage, the more we can make these distinctions.

  2. amaa

    July 20, 2017 at 8:09 pm

    don’t forget we also had the a,b,ch,d in Ibo which many believe was the foundation of the phonetics abi na Montessori style of teaching.
    you are illiterate if you can not converse in any language including sign language. You will be shocked at the reading level of people in NA. I saw some viral post in HPost where an 11 year old wrote to his parents about camp and being bored (by the way an 11year old in Nigeria is in JJS1 that is what they call grade 7 in NA) The scribbles he called a letter and the quality of the sentences that was used in the letter would easily be put into the bracket of some one lets say in grade 1 or 2. I might be exaggerating but it wont reach grade primary 5 classification.
    That said we need to make sure our kids learn at least one Nigerian language including pidgin English if not we are in trouble big time.

    • Mikeolysis

      July 20, 2017 at 9:04 pm

      Why? Why did you have to put Ibo there?. I dont understand this disrespect at all. You can comfortably say Gbolayan or Gbagaun or Gbedu or whatever has “Gb” in your language, but you choose to call us Ibo. May God forgive you.

    • ignoranimus

      July 20, 2017 at 11:44 pm

      @mikeolysis….gerrout joor.Why are some Igbo people always itchy and feel insecured.Always ready to bark and bite.Kosi lo….radarada

  3. mia

    July 21, 2017 at 8:26 am

    I once had an experience when i was on my way to Delta State from a South West town. I had to speak to the agbero loading the bus so i spoke in Yoruba. I happened to be sitting beside a warri lady who doesn’t understand a word of Yoruba and since I was gesticulating around her, she immediately felt we were talking about her and barked at me “you these Yoruba people wey no ft speak English wey everybody hear”. I was livid! I immediately asked her if she even understands or can fluently speak the English she was accusing someone of not speaking. I then went on to tell her to reply me in fluent English not pidgin or Nigerian English and see whether she can survive two sentences. She kept mute.

    I don’t understand our issue with people who choose to speak our native languages and our easy discomfort when we cannot understand other people’s language. Why do we always think their conversation is about us? why is it that the people who can only speak pidgin are the ones who accuse others of illiteracy or inability to speak English?

    • Adebayo Adegbembo

      July 21, 2017 at 4:17 pm

      Thanks for sharing your experience. I do think issues surrounding our native languages cannot be isolated from some larger issues facing us as a very diverse people. The stereotypes surrounding our ethnic groups coupled with the experiences people have had sometimes reflect in these conversations.

    • tunmi

      July 23, 2017 at 2:10 pm

      Pidgin English is also its own language. Let’s not make it secondary to English. She is fluent in Pidgin, are you?

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