Great Benin Bronze


To sustain our languages, we must teach students in local languages

–Dr Ayakoroma

Sunday, 20 February 2011 00:00

Abubakar A. Ibrahim Sunday Trust magazine - Feature

.Dr. Barclays Ayakoroma is the executive secretary of the National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO). He is advocating the use of indigenous languages in imparting and acquiring knowledge as a means of sustaining indigenous languages. He tells us why, and shares his thoughts on other issues.

Sir, NICO is heavily involved in the campaign for cultural rebirth. Can you tell us more about this?

Well, if you look at the circumstances surrounding the birth, so to speak. of NICO, you will understand the mandate. NICO is a product of the world decade for cultural development which UNESCO declared between 1988 and 1997. UNESCO reasoned that Nigeria needs an organ to look at this aspect of our national life that is bringing culture to the fore in our national development. That was how NICO came into existence via decree 93 of 1993. NICO is 17 years plus in age, so to speak. And of course, having been created for a purpose to look at cultural reorientation of the people and train cultural workers who are in the culture sector - for example, I came in here and met people who read microbiology, who read biochemistry, who read chemistry, biology and so on in the organisation. This people need to be retrained so that they will be in a position to look at the mandate of the institute from that perspective. This explains why we have the training school in
Lagos. It started in Lagos but very soon, we believe before the end of the year, the training school will come to its headquarters in Kuje, here in Abuja, where programmes will be intensified. Apart from the regular diploma and post graduate diploma programmes, we are going to be having regular workshops. Actually, we are looking at the training school as a place that will be very, very involved in conferences and workshops. And of course in the area of orientations, the institute is doing everything possible to look at our language culture, our dress culture and popular culture. In the area of language, we have the Nigerian indigenous language programme. That is because we realise that the average Nigerian family faces the danger of inability to communicate in indigenous languages. English has become lingua franca in most homes and most hit are families where there have been intertribal marriages; Hausa married to Yoruba, Yoruba married to Ijaw or Igbo
married to Efik. The question is which of these languages the children will speak in the house when the parents are not communicating in an indigenous language? So, NICO is providing the platform for children and even parents to learn the other language. For example, you are married to a Yoruba woman; you have an opportunity to learn Yoruba. What we met on ground was a long vacation intensive programme, but we have reasoned that that’s not good enough. We have to improve on it and we have thought out a weekend programme which one will graduate eventually to the long vacation programme. You register for the long vacation programme, and after the long vacation programme, we will continue with the weekend programme so that you don’t face a situation where you learn a language for four or five weeks and then wait for a whole year before you start learning again. By then most of the things you learned would have gone, you may not remember them again. But
when you sustain it every weekend, chances are, with the interest, you will improve. So the institute is seriously into that. We are happy that the Director General of the NYSC has given his nod to collaborate with the institute. So once we are ready, we are able to get our study centres in all our zones and of course in the states with the support of the various state governments, the NYSC will post language corps members to us who will be facilitators on this programme. And we believe that once we actualise that, it will go a long way in generating interest in our indigenous languages because if you are in a family probably in the city and you speak Hausa, some children will say daddy what is that. Some youths even take pride in the fact that they don’t speak their language. They don’t see anything wrong in it and this is where our orientation needs to change and gradually, we are working towards that. And we are thinking that apart from the
programme in the country, we only have to look at our foreign missions possibly in Paris, London or Washington DC, where we have Nigerians in large numbers. We can provide the platform for their children, their wives or husbands to learn one or two Nigerian languages. It may not be realised this year. It may not be realised next year but it’s something we are working towards. That is on the issue of language.

Still on languages, there have been agitations for pupils to be taught in their mother tongues, what do you make of this?

I think the ministry of education really needs to look at this. why is it that our children go to Ukraine, they go to Bulgaria, they go to china, they first have to spend a whole year to learn their indigenous languages before you now talk about studying what you went to study.

Don’t you think the multiplicity of languages here is a factor?

The students here can be given options. If for instance someone is going to ABU, we all know that it is Hausa he would use to communicate with the local community. So, the location of the university should determine the language an external student should learn. If a student is going to the Niger Delta, then he should learn Ijaw because that is the language he will use to communicate with people in the local community and appreciate their culture. You see, this is cultural diplomacy.

Well, don’t you feel that other minority tribes will feel kind of left out?

There is no way you can say that all the over 300 ethnic groups will be... some languages have to be given prominence whether somebody likes it or not. Some languages will be given prominence. If you go to somewhere like Cross Rivers State, between communities there are different languages. Some of them have to give way but at the local level in primary schools, in secondary schools, the learning of these languages should be encouraged, communication in these languages should be encouraged. If you go to a place like Rivers state, there is a language that is almost going extinct; Igbani, it is almost going extinct. If you go to Bonny it is only the old people who can speak Igbani, the younger ones speak Igbo because of the domination of the Igbo language on the people, and unless the interest is generated in the indigenes that no, we don’t want our language to die, then it has to be put in the school system and children will start learning that
language. So I think the ministry of education has a serious role to play in resuscitating the languages.

In India only last year, the only person left who speaks the Bo language died and the language died with her. Now you mention this tribe in Rivers. The tendency is that smaller languages are collapsing into larger ones, what does this portend?

It is not [positive] because as a language dies, the cultures, the tradition, the belief system of that language dies. The last man has died. So everything he knew about their ancestral history, their oral traditions, everything has died with him. So, it is not a healthy development and that is why we need to encourage the learning and speaking of these indigenous languages. Agreed, that due to the population, some have the numerical strength and the advantage, but then every ethnic nationality has its own unique features and these things have to be sustained.

There have been these persistent cries of cultural imperialism where western cultures dominate others, but it would seem we have local cultural imperialism where the larger tribes dominate smaller ones.

Everything depends on the individual. Why we are saying the larger tribes are dominating the smaller ones is if we have a hundred persons and 80 per cent are from one tribe, 10 are from another, five from another and the others like that, there is no doubt you will see more of those that are 80 but then if you are only one, if you have pride in your own culture, you will also exhibit that. Look at [Jacob] Zuma [president of South Africa]. He wears his local attires even for public functions, he is proud of his ancestry. So once we are not ashamed of our ancestry, we will display it. Even if you are one person in position of authority...look at Mr President [Goodluck Jonathan] now. Now everybody knows about the dressing of the Niger Delta. If he were not there, nobody would have been wearing woko or etibo but because he is there, he is now the image of Nigeria. So it is all about having that pride in your cultural background. If you are not proud of it,
then you are allowing it to die.

NICO is partnering with schools to form Cultural Clubs, what is the idea behind this?

You know, children are very, very impressionable, when they take to something, they keep to that. That is why they say train up a child in the way he should go; when he grows he shall not depart from it. We are catching them young. When we teach these children to be proud of their language, to be proud of their dress culture, to be proud of their food culture, to be proudly Nigerian, then there will be that new sense of patriotism in them because most of our value systems are dying by the day. You can imagine I was telling someone the other day that a young girl in those days will not bring a young man and say, Daddy, this is my fiancé, who are you to now have the impunity to come and tell your father that this is your fiancé? Or you went to Malaysia or Japan and come back in three months and you are now building a house. Your father will chase away the labourers and wake you up at three-thirty in the morning and ask you, did you pluck that money from
the tree? That was what the country was like, we never thought about ill gotten wealth, we never thought about get-rich-quick, we never thought about killing somebody who is competing with you. So the value system is really in trouble and we believe that by the time we work on the mindset of these children, we will have that belief that they will save the country. So the cultural clubs are set up to imbibe in these children the essence of our culture, the need to embrace our culture, the need to speak our indigenous language, the need to dress Nigeria, not indecently because you go all over the place and find girls displaying their breasts in the name of cleavages, boys are showing us their buttocks that is “sagging” and taking scissors to tear up new jeans and say that is what they want to take out saying they are doing rag day or in the name of fashion. But you see, these children will be trained to realise that all that is vanity. How do we do
that? As we are setting up the clubs, we will provide fora every year for them to come together for oral renditions, drama competition in their languages and on the spot cooking competitions from lighting the gas - because our children, if you tell them to cook, they will burn down the house - to how to clean after you have finished cooking. And at the end of the day, we will be seeing a better generation.

And how have the students responded to these clubs so far?

It’s been encouraging. Incidentally, our Lagos office did a pilot programme in December where they held the end of year children’s cultural extravaganza and they did all these things and it was very successful and we believe that by the time the programme graduates from all the zones to a national event, then it would be something to watch out for every year.

Many Nigerians cannot read in their local languages and literature in indigenous languages is dying out. What is NICO doing about this?

We are encouraging our writings in indigenous languages. Actually, we are happy that the Association of Nigerian Authors will be having its convention this year in Abuja and we are looking at instituting prizes in select areas in indigenous languages. In those days, when we started primary school, alphabets were taught in the local languages and I realise that once you learn anything in the local languages, you can never forget it. Most times when I study, I spend my time looking at it in the local language and by the time I do that, if I enumerate my points in the local language, I will never forget it. So, NICO is ready to encourage writings through instituting various awards for writers who want to put in their works for the various prizes. We are still working on that.

We have realised that culture is a very powerful diplomatic weapon. We can see what other countries are doing culturally in Nigeria through their cultural centres. What is Nigeria doing?

In the first place, you know that we have a Nigerian cultural centre in Brazil now and we are also working on one in, I think, Japan. As at now there is even a private university in the United State, Valparaiso University, setting up a Nigerian cultural institute for the study of Nigerian culture. And we also have a minister [of culture] who is very, very determined to make sure culture takes its pride of place in the scheme of things. You know countries like Korea, China, Germany, they are looking at the cultural dimensions of the economy. Nigeria, for us to move forward, we know that the over dependence on oil will have to be reduced and culture and tourism offers an alternative. We believe that with the networking that is going on, our cultural diplomacy will come out very strong. We have some products like the Calabar carnival. It has become an international event that is attracting tourists, Osun-Osogbo [festival] is one, Abuja Carnival is one,
Argungu fishing festival is another. And we also have the Black Heritage festival in Lagos. By the time we have more of these events, once they are on the international cultural calendar; you will find out that we will be making a global statement as far as our culture is concerned. And we believe that with what we are doing in the area of language, in the area of dress culture, it will go a long way in projecting our country globally. You will agree that Nollywood is doing its bit in terms of spreading our culture. Just recently, I was in Kenya and realised that two TV channels show Nollywood films 24/7. The only time they have for other things is maybe 15 minutes [for intermissions].

It’s good you mentioned Nollywood because there have been statements to the effect that the aspects of our cultures they are portraying are negative. Is NICO doing anything to reverse this trend?

First and foremost, whatever negativity you see will not be divorced from society because Nollywood is a reflection of what is happening in the society. People complain, oh too much witch doctors, we know that it is common in the society. You know, people when they want elective offices, they go to the church in the day and go to the native doctor in the night because of desperation. So people should not be blaming Nollywood for portraying these things. Society has created the ingredients for some of these things to be done. If one is talking about quality, fine. And of course, if government is not funding, then government cannot control the content. We can’t say Nollywood should be branding Nigeria when you are not putting in the funds, once the money is there. But when the government is funding, you will say there have to be criteria to be met.

Finally, what can an individual do to promote or sustain his culture?

As an individual, first, your appearance matters a lot. You are dressed the way you dress. If you dress respectfully, people will address you respectfully; if you are a dressed shabbily people will address you that way. Appearance matters a lot. Secondly, your way and manner of approach. As a Nigerian, you have to be grounded in your culture. If you are a Hausa man and you can’t speak Hausa properly then there is something wrong, if you are Edo, Yoruba or igbo and you can’t speak the language and you are proud to say, well, I have not been travelling home, I can’t speak the language, then something is wrong.


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