Places, Faces and Races—and the Question of Identity


Kayode Taiwo Olla

 

All these—language, ascent, faces, and races; all of these send you into a mad chase after the question of cultural identity, and of personal identity, at times! Will that girl from Rivers State own she is Igbo? Or that her ethnic group is both, or what? Who would—or should—she support in that argument on the Presidency when it comes to an option between a Governor from Niger-Delta (to which she more belongs) and perhaps the Governor from Igbo land, from where they themselves seceded? Really, it’s complicated. These questions will even birth other questions.

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Places. And language. The first thing that naturally comes to your mind when you want to, for instance, ask a person coming in front of you for a direction, somewhere far away from home and among another culture entirely—the first and natural thing you do is assume, of course subconsciously, that the person does not understand your own native tongue and you speak, if you can, in a more unifying language, say a lingua franca or some widespread international language, in hope that the person understands too.

For instance, back home in my native town, among the Yoruba people of Nigeria, I might instinctively make to ask something from someone oncoming, in Yoruba language, as if by default; of course, since we are in core Yoruba land. Conversely, however, here in the Heartland of the Igbo people of Nigeria where I am to live my next one year serving our nation Nigeria as a graduate youth corps member, and quite far from home, too, I would only hope and depend on the listener’s understanding of Pidgin English (of course, a more widely-spread form of language we have all over Nigeria) or, simply plain English. The rule is, I would naturally expect the average person I talk to, to not understand my native tongue language. And that is as natural as you could expect, of course. And that is the principle of language and foreign places.

There are a few simple but interesting things that happened in relation to this subject in my NYSC Orientation program in the core south-eastern part of the country that got me unraveling first in my thoughts this other interesting side of living—that is, cross-cultural interactions. In the 3-weeks intensive Orientation and drill for us corps members before we were all flung to the nooks and crannies of the state to serve Nigeria for the next 11 months, the only things that unite you and the other graduate corps members from as diverse ethnic groups as the colours in a spectrum, is the fact that you guys are humans (at least, you know you have that first in common with the next person sitting close to you!) and then, are Blacks, are Nigerians, are youths (expectedly less than 30 years), are graduates, are corps members—and then you realize maybe there’s nothing more! Even here, before you are posted to, say, the interior of that state of perhaps another culture different from yours, you have begun to see a lot faces of different races—I mean cultures now. And you have begun to expect that the next person close to you may not understand your own language. And so the tying bond of language is then the lingua franca again.

Interestingly, while one form of language becomes an obvious tool for cross-cultural communication, another form becomes our tool of coded language, as it were. You know what I mean—I’ll share one of the similar cases. Now, I’ve been part of an interesting scene where two of us Yoruba guys were talking in our language and the other guy talking to me did not so much mean the lady close to us to understand. At a point in our chat, my friend was slightly alerted by the lady’s covert attentiveness that her general manner slightly betrayed, and asked her whether she understands Yoruba, to which her answer was a no. Her friend approaching her no sooner than we resumed our talk, and oblivious to what was going on, talked to her in plain Yoruba, as though starting on where they had left off a conversation before. My friend was immediately taken aback. ‘So you have been listening to us!’ was my friend’s funny exclamation, and I couldn’t help but giggle. Even now I am laughing uncontrollably at the memory. ‘So you have been listening to us!’ Really—language and places!

And then it amazes me at times, when people were able to pick my cultural background—and even guess my particular state of origin twice, I’m serious!—from my face (and sometimes maybe without language) in the Orientation camp in Igbo land and later in the community where I am posted for my service year. How do you know I am Yoruba without speaking Yoruba? Now how do they tell where exactly I am from without necessarily speaking Yoruba at times—and I had no tribal marks or a localized family name. Interestingly, sometimes, those are the symbols we use to select and determine who and who are from our clan or dialect or ethnic group. The young man that first told me he knew I am from Ọṣun State because he is too, only explained: ‘I know how Ọṣun folks look!’ And then, of course, I too could guess those that were from Delta or Edo States, and people from Akwa Ibom or Rivers States—just from the face. And then, of course, you too may know a Hausa guy or girl too when you meet them, like I know as well; or an Igbo guy or girl when you see them, like I know too. It is the coded factor of faces and races.

There have been times—quite a number of times, when I either am bargaining something with a market seller or be asking, say, a direction, from a person, here in Igbo land, that midway into our conversation in pidgin English or plain English the other party would surprisingly switch to Yoruba language, as if to say ‘I just confirmed you are Yoruba, like me—come on, don’t use Oyinbo for me!’ And then I chuckle aloud and say in Yoruba, ‘Aha, you are Yoruba!’ And the rest of the conversation goes on in our native language. I’m sure it’s the same for other ethnic groups too. That is the luster of places and faces and races. As ever as peoples and cultures and languages exist, these will always be.

I therefore see a common tendency among us crop of youth corps members having our National Youth Service in that part of Igbo land—a tendency towards defining our cultural identity more in terms of ethnicity than nationality. And this is more natural than it is forced. It seems to be a very natural effect. It is here I have witnessed a couple of days ago, a very interesting but sentimental argument between a corps member lady from the Niger-Delta and an Igbo man arguing on whether or not President Goodluck Jonathan is up to the task as the president of Nigeria and whether or not Governor Rochas Okorocha of Imo State is better than him or whether or not Governor Amechi of Rivers State is better than Okorocha and therefore more favourable to lead Nigeria than the latter, if they really were to lead. Of course, you can tell where each parties’ argument swung more to—who sided Okorocha against Jonathan and Amechi and who defended Jonathan and Amechi against Okorocha. There you go—the policies and politics of identity! I really wished the arguers were not arguing as from their geo-political zones, we would have had a stream of intense but interesting debate of logic. But what did we have?—a hot and noisy feminine verbal-disagreement! And that is what most of the midnights at the NYSC camp were used for in the hostels by young agitated guys arguing politics and ethnicity together like no man’s business. We did not hear logic—just a clash of identities.

And then there is another part that interests me a lot. Talking of races; talking of the question of identity. During the argument aforementioned, the Igbo man who is from Imo State got to know the lady is from an ethnic group in today’s Rivers State that seceded from the Igbo peoples during the outbreak of the Biafran War, simply by her family name that sounded very much like Igbo but with just slight alterations in pronunciation and word structure. Her friend from the NYSC camp, too, got into the argument. She is from the same area too and her family name is cultural modification of the Igbo form, too. Their cultural language too reflects this. The Igbo man argues they are Igbo, while they both contend they are never.

Interested in the subject but tired of their emotional argument, I just chipped this in as an onlooker, and just said: “This seems just like the case of England and New England. Americans were once English but to call them English today is to be incorrect in terms of convention and yet to say they were never English is to be incorrect historically.” Yes, American English is a cultural modification on the British English—it is English with the American signature on it. Yet it is not this simple and straightforward, I guess. Because it reveals to you an even more complex base and influx of cultural, historical and economic heritages.

All these—language, ascent, faces, and races; all of these send you into a mad chase after the question of cultural identity, and of personal identity, at times! Will that girl from Rivers State own she is Igbo? Or that her ethnic group is both, or what? Who would—or should—she support in that argument on the Presidency when it comes to an option between a Governor from Niger-Delta (to which she more belongs) and perhaps the Governor from Igbo land, from where they themselves seceded? Should Yoruba people naturally support APC candidates, and, let’s say, PDP candidates that are from our geo-political zones—when it comes to an option between us and, say, the North? Really, it’s complicated. These questions will even birth other questions.

Now you see Nigeria is not one nation—much less talking Africa is a country, like the Whites would talk! (Yes, actually, Africa is one nation, having many more in her!) You would want to ask yourself, what is the motivation behind the formation of the Yoruba Afẹnifẹre political group and the Hausa Arewa Consultative Forum? We tend to be more ethnocentric, even in national politics; that is it. As much as Nigeria is one big nation, it is even truer that it is an assemblage of many diverse peoples and cultural identities. And each person in a mad chase after the question of identity is essentially more ethnocentric than he or she is nationalistic, which maybe natural in some cases. And for many, nationalism will never even come along on the way! This is the plight, I believe, of Nigeria today. I am Yoruba, I know—but I am Nigerian too! I am Nigerian, yes—but I am African too! THAT SHOULD COUNT WHEN I MEET YOU!

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