By Jude Atupulazi and Ikeugonna Eleke
If you want to hide anything from the Igbo people, write it in the Igbo Language; that was the sad reality which foremost Igbo Language promoter and activist, Prof Pita Ejiofor, found out long ago.
To say that among the three major tribes, the Igbo Nation has the weakest language power is to state the obvious. At functions which take place in Igbo Land, Igbo people seem to delight in doing everything they can to subjugate their language. Thus, even at village meetings where many are barely literate, such meetings are conducted in the English Language.
This seeming determination to kill the Igbo Language is also witnessed in schools in Igbo Land where pupils are punished for speaking the Igbo Language. What is worse is that even in the various Igbo homes, it appears taboo for children to converse in the Igbo Language. Any wonder that today, it appears as if to speak the Igbo Language is to display ignorance.
Thus, today, while other major languages in the country continue to thrive, the Igbo Language continues to make a down ward spiral, a development that is gradually threatening to push the language into early extinction.
Indeed, years back, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, an organ of the United Nations, had predicted that some languages might go into extinction before the year 2050. This is because of the expected dominance of other more widely spoken languages over them. The Igbo language was listed as one of those that may possibly be phased out then.
The question then arises as to how Ndigbo got to where they are today, language wise.
A linguist, Mr Joseph Nzeadi told Fides during an interview that a number of factors were responsible for some Igbo people not speaking or being unable to speak or outrightly being ashamed of speaking the Igbo Language.
He said, 'Number one is the literacy level of some people which make them tend to think that the Igbo language is inferior to the English Language, and so to impress you, they rather speak English.
'Another factor is also the unwillingness of parents to teach their children Igbo. Even children living here in Igbo land do not speak Igbo, especially the children of the rich. They communicate in English, even at home. You even find out that in most schools, teachers tend to think that children who speak a lot of English are the brilliant ones, so you see children who speak Igbo resorting to poor English just to convince the teacher that they know. Some teachers even go as far as banning the speaking of the Igbo language. It was the case during my secondary school, and you had to pay a fine if you spoke Igbo in class. It is that bad.'
For Miss Chinemelum Nwosu, an Anambra indigene who studies at Sacred Heart College, Uwani, Enugu, who recently won the overall best Igbo student in the 2018 West Africa School Certificate Examination, it was a case of making up her mind that Igbo was a good language.
'I dedicated my time to studying it, despite the fact that some students when they see you always speaking Igbo, they think you do so because you are not good at speaking English,' she said.
Speaking on how the Igbo Language could be saved from going into extinction, Prince Ben Onuorah, President General of Igboekulie, a socio-cultural interest group of the Igbos which champions the cause of the people of the area, said his group supported the study of Igbo and had also instituted an annual prize for best Igbo student in the senior secondary.
Prince Onuorah said the group was working hard to forestall the UNESCO prediction about the Igbo Language going into extinction, saying that it had instituted the Asusu Igbo Amaka Award, geared towards encouraging secondary school students to learn the Igbo Language.
'We are motivated by the need to encourage our students to see the Igbo Language as not inferior to other subjects where prizes are regularly given to winners. We are motivated by the need to have more competent speakers of our language, especially among children and youth. We are motivated by the desire to have more Igbo teachers and a lot of more Igbo Language teachers, and more books published in the Igbo Language.
'Above all, we are motivated by a compelling determination to ensure that the Igbo Language does not go extinct or die as predicted by the UNESCO. We will continue to support the speaking of the Igbo Language to ensure that the prediction does not come to pass,' he assured.
Speaking on this obvious sad situation concerning the Igbo Language, Prof Pita Ejiofor, former Vice Chancellor of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, as well as the leader of Otu Suwakwa Igbo (a pro-Igbo Language advocator body), said that the position of the Igbo Language among the three major ethnic languages in the country was very saddening.
Alluding to a pictorial depiction of the place of the Igbo Language in a book which cover is displayed on the front page of this paper, Ejiofor said no depiction of the sad condition of the Igbo Language could be more graphic, repulsive and revolting as the Throne-Mini-Stool-Throne depiction on the front page of this paper.
According to him, it was taken from the front cover of a pamphlet published barely over a month ago.
He said, 'It is clear from the picture, that as far as their languages are concerned, our brother ethnic group in Nigeria, the Hausas, are sitting on one of the thrones, another brother ethnic group, the Yorubas, are sitting on the other, while ndi Igbo are huddled between them on a kitchen stool called in Igbo, nwanyi nodulu okwu. The picture is titled, “The position given by Ndi Igbo to their language'' (relative to the Hausa and Yoruba Languages). For a lover of the Igbo ethnic group, the picture is definitely repugnant, a horror, an outrage. Not even the Biafra war, 1967-70, downgraded Ndi Igbo that much.'
Going further, Ejiofor poses more questions: 'Several questions definitely beg for answers: is this presentation a true representation of the condition of the Igbo Language, or is it an exaggeration or even a blatant falsification? Who authored that drawing, a saboteur, an imperialist, a fifth columnist, a hater of the Igbo race? Is the author talking of our dear Igbo Language, the indigenous language of over thirty million black people, home to great Nigerians like Dr Azikiwe, Ikemba Ojukwu, Chinua Achebe, Blessed Iwene Tansi, etc; or is he talking of the language of one tiny ethnic group inside the forests of the Amazon? Is it a carefully crafted gross insult on the pride of the Igbo man by an Igbophobist, mischievously adding another insult to the already raging injury of political marginalization?
'On the other hand, is the author telling the truth? Has the doctor, after a thorough lab test, told the seemingly healthy-looking patient the unpalatable truth that he is seriously sick? In other words, does the author have facts and figures? Can he accept the challenge of proving this beyond reasonable doubt?'
He provided the answer himself, noting that what was depicted was nothing but the true situation of affairs about the language by her owners.
His group, The Society for the Promotion of Igbo Language and Culture, has been blazing the trail in the struggle to save the Igbo Language.
'These days, Otu Suwakwa Igbo and some other organizations have made many commendable achievements in the promotion of the writing, speaking, teaching and learning of the Igbo Language. The churches and governments in Igbo Land have also instigated many positive changes in the past few years. But the destination is still very far,' Ejiofor said, beckoning on the Government, the Church and the Traditional Institution, including the Ohaneze, Town Unions, and Women's Organizations to team up with Otu Suwakwa Igbo to restore the lost glory of the Igbo Language and elevate it to the high pedestal of its sister languages in Nigeria.
'Sure, every Igbo man and woman has a role to play. But the buck stops on the table of Government. The time to plunge into this cooperative effort is now,' Ejiofor averred.
There however seems to be light at the end of the tunnel for the Igbo Language propagators, given the efforts of the Anambra State Government, past and present, to boost the popularity of the Igbo Language.
Sir Willie Nwokoye, Principal Secretary to the Governor of Anambra State, said the governor had been very proactive in matters concerning the study of the Igbo Language through such actions as diligently paying all incentives promised the teachers. He said that such gesture had in turn impacted on the learning of the Igbo Language in the state.
He said, 'Of course, you know that Anambra is the only state where teachers of Basic Science subjects, and the Igbo Language are paid higher salaries as incentives. In Anambra too, you know that Wednesdays have been marked as days when we speak only the Igbo Language, both in schools, government establishments and others. Even Igbo traditional attires are the only acceptable forms of dressing on those days, so you can see that we have done all that we can to ensure the preservation of the Igbo Language, here in Anambra.'
Dr Mrs Ngozi Emeka-Nwobia, the Head of Department, Language and Linguistics, Ebonyi State University, who spoke on the topic: ''Keeping Igbo language relevant in our modern and technology driven world'', during a recent event on the Igbo Language, encouraged secondary school students not to be intimidated by the belief that only students who spoke English were considered brilliant.
'I have travelled round the world, courtesy of the opportunity granted me by virtue of being an Igbo language teacher. I have presented papers in very prestigious places and met very important people.
'If anyone tells you, you cannot go far by studying the Igbo Language, tell them it's a lie. I have students who gained admission the same year in our university, and one shouted God forbid when she was asked if she would like to study the Igbo Language, but years after graduation, the Igbo Language graduates have long secured employment, because a lot of opportunities abound in the area and there are only a few people in the field, but those who studied other courses enter into competition on how to secure a job,' Dr Mrs Emeka-Nwobia said.
Despite all the efforts to revive and sustain the Igbo Language, however, one thing is very clear: only the Igbos can save their language and to achieve that, their attitude to their language must change for the better.