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By Francis Onoiribholo, Senior Correspondent, Benin
Culture has been acknowledged as the way of life of a people and that language is indisputably the very first index of cultural affinity. Creation has been specific and unbiased by allocating a portion of mother earth to every linguistic group, no matter the size or political relevance. Even as late into creation as 1948, a portion still needed to be carved out for the perpetual freehold of a race, culture, movement and creed.
The United Nations (UN) General Assembly designated the year 2008 as the International Year of Languages in full realisation that some vulnerable languages need protection from slow death. The UN therefore mandated the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to ensure that every language is supported to survive the onslaught and oppression of neighbouring or colonising languages of higher populations or superior political ideologies.
Institute for Benin Studies, a non-governmental and non-profit organisation is dedicated to providing information and knowledge to the people of Edo to enable them contribute meaningfully to self and community development. In a retreat for Edo Language Users, which had participants from the media, educational institutions of both the secondary and tertiary and other stakeholders, the Institute interpreted the United Nations mandate and upheld her aspiration. It recently devoted substantial energy, time and resources to reviving the dying Edo Language because the visible attenuation in the contemporary use of the language needed to be arrested and reversed.
Speaking at the retreat, which took place at the Bishop Kelly Pastoral Centre, Benin City, the Secretary of the Institute, Mr. Aiko Obobaifo, described Benin as the cradle of Black Civilization but regretted that this same Benin was in dire need of a leadership that would return the kingdom and even the extent of the empire at its height to its days of glory. The reduction of Nigeria's numerous languages to mere three was blamed for the inadvertent disinterestedness being displayed towards the other languages and this, it was observed, had done incalculable damage to Edo Language.
Obobaifo characteristically admonished that "our collective apathy has done innumerable damage to our enviable patrimony - vilifying giants while Lilliputians get glorified and conferred with undeserved honours". Besides the external threat to the development and propagation of the language, internal problems are identified to constitute a large proportion of the negative response that Edo Language is now seemingly getting from the people. This no doubt would have prompted Obobaifo to further posit that, "we must reassess our value system and roundly condemn the emerging culture of bowing to the leadership of miscreants through intimidation" . When people, who largely do not appreciate the need for academic or literary pursuit, are compulsorily foisted on the people, they are not expected to champion a cause to further or promote literary development, he said.
The government was urged, therefore, to ensure that the policy on the use of the mother tongue for instruction in the first two years of primary school is strictly enforced by the Universal Basic Education Board and the Ministry of Basic Education.
The Isekhure of Benin Kingdom, Chief Nosakhare Isekhure, also observed that there was marked decline in the enrolment of students willing to study Edo Language as a course at the University of Benin and College of Education, Ekiadolor. While Prof. Osayuki Oshodi of the Faculty of Education, University of Benin, confirmed that there were adequate opportunities for the study of Edo Language, he nonetheless blamed the non-utilisation of this opportunity on the societal value the people have placed on graduates of these institutions.
To corroborate this societal neglect, the Esogban of Benin Kingdom, Okhaemwen D. U. Edebiri, extended his reasons for the non-attractiveness of the study of Edo Language to the government that refused to offer employment to the graduates. Even when it is indisputably acknowledged that trained Edo Language manpower is in acute short supply, the few available ones do not get employed. This situation can hardly encourage others to read the course knowing full well that employment may not be available and this has discouraged quite a few intending students.
Therefore, the revival of the language that many are afraid might go into extinction must commence from the home front, extend to the wider society and get domesticated in schools. Every parent was admonished to ensure that the children speak their mother tongue from home, that is the first two and three years of the child's existence even before it gets into nursery, pre - kindergarten and kindergarten classes. Once the child becomes grounded in the mother tongue before the invasion of any foreign language, the devastating effect would not be as total as when there would be a complete vacuum for the invading foreign language to occupy instead of it having to struggle with the existing mother language before it is displaced.
Expressing same view, Dr. Victor Omozuwa of Department of Linguistics and African Languages in the Faculty of Arts, University of Benin, confirmed that having primary knowledge of the mother tongue was of immense benefit when studying any other language. Though he conceded that student enrolment in the department was low in respect of Edo Language, he argued that genuine encouragement of intending students by generous incentives and the opportunity of being gainfully employed at the end of their programmes are absolutely necessary to the expected growth, sustenance and propagation of Edo and other Nigerian languages.
Participants at the retreat included those from the electronic media, churches, mosques, National Orientation Agency (NOA), Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Edo State Oil and Gas Development Commission (EDSOPADEC), the local government councils, the ministries of Basic Education, Justice, Arts, Culture and Tourism, Information and Orientation, the academia and indeed other serious stakeholders some of whom have written in Edo Language for upward of 40 years, many palace chiefs and some community leaders.
The well-attended event successfully attracted all and sundry because the collaborating and sponsoring Solomon Iyobosa Edebiri Foundation removed the financial burden of paying fees from the participants. There was a general demand that similar workshops/seminars and retreats on Edo Language and other areas of ethics and tradition be organised more frequently. The Institute for Benin Studies was highly commended for the initiative and the organisational skills displayed. The concluding singsong said: 'wa gia gha zedo!' meaning, 'Let us speak Edo Language'.
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