by Ikemesit Effiong
I pride myself in the fact that I see myself first as a Nigerian, then a Christian, and finally a member of the Ibibio ethnic group.
However, I am always reminded of the immense diversity of our country when I’m in a danfo in Lagos, a bukka in Zaria, a petrol station in Makurdi, a car repair shop in Enugu and especially in church in Abuja. The ministers in my denomination, who are predominantly Igbo, are fond of illustrating Scripture with poems, jokes and wise sayings in the Igbo language. I always have to wait for the translation. Needless to say, it is not always the best laugh.
There is a vibrant debate going on behind the scenes of our everyday news headlines. This debate is centered on the issue of what our official language or as linguistic aficionados will render it, our lingua franca should be. Ikemesit, we have enough problems you may scream! Plus we already have an official language – English. Not to worry, I am not here to stir any trouble. I am just here to make a case for the most prevalent, widespread and yet still perennially overlooked language in use in Nigeria today. It is second only to football as the single most unifying factor in Nigeria today. I am talking about Pidgin English
It sounds ironic that I will be making the case for Pidgin in perfect Queen’s English. For all the liberties granted me by my editor, writing in pidgin is not one of them. Please bear with me as I bear with him.
According to Wikipedia, Nigeria is classified in those categories of nations that use English as a second language. Other countries in this category include Singapore, Malaysia, Burma, Guyana and every former African colony except South Africa. Personally, I think there’s a racist bent to this classification because South Africa is classified as a first language, mother tongue nation in spite of the fact that 80% of its 48million people are black.
Having a lot of white people in your country helps apparently, but that’s not the point.
Pidgin is everywhere, stupid
The funny thing is that the variety of ‘Nigerian English’ most prevalent in the country is not as widespread as you may think. Out there, there are about 40% of our people who cannot speak proper English (probably a reason why we are classified as a second language country). However, there is a solution. All hail Super Pidgin.
Pidgin is spoken everywhere, by practically everyone, in almost every situation. Irrespective of ethnic background, education or social status, pidgin has served as that great cultural bridge enhancing communication flows, facilitating commerce and trade, and encouraging understanding and brotherliness. Case in point, I recently lambasted someone who had agreed to buy my old laptop on the phone – in pidgin.
Our pop culture celebrates pidgin. Our music stars swoon, and boast, and rap in pidgin. Our comedians have long cracked our ribs with it and the runaway popularity of Wazobia FM – which is my father’s favourite radio station – all speak of one thing, Pidgin is here to stay.
Pidgin also has a practical side to it. Health workers, non-governmental and charity organizations and other professionals who generally deal with the less privileged among us have found that pidgin is an excellent tool in reaching out and understanding the needs of the people they seek to serve. It is especially good when communicating with people who are not from your ethnic group or do not have the quality of educational qualifications you possess.
In what now seems like many years ago, the 4th National Assembly proposed a solution to the language problem by advocating the evolution of a uniquely Nigerian language to be designed by the Ministries of Education and Information and National Orientation and systematically taught to everyone. It is not without precedent. Modern German, Korean and Yiddish (Hebrew) are all the result of a deliberate language policy crafted, encouraged and enforced in their respective countries.
The only problem with the National Assembly’s conception (which needless to say woefully failed), is that such a language already exists – Pidgin English – and it comes without the political or ethnic baggage that characterizes most of our political initiatives. Therefore, let us encourage and not stifle its use keeping in mind that according to Wikipedia, seven million Nigerians speak pidgin as a first language.
I once had a colleague in secondary school that wrote beautiful English but could never speak it. Try as we may, and we tried very hard, he could only speak Pidgin English. Well, he aced his WASSCE, got a university degree and is a development worker with a reputable international charity. Who says that Pidgin is only for ne’er do well’s? Who says that English is a prerequisite for success?
According to the latest 2012 Forbes ranking, the most powerful woman in the world is the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. If you carefully notice, she speaks no English. Enough said.