Sunday, 21 September 2008

Notes from Uppsala [3]

As published in the Guardian Life magazine (Lagos), Sunday, Sept 21, 2008

ON LANGUAGE

I have come to the conclusion that Nigerians – our conquering business sense and general assertiveness (gra-gra) apart – are not really the adventurous people we like to believe we are. No, we cherish the comfort and safety of the familiar; the routine, and will protest when the status quo is upended. Ironically we live in a country where the truism ‘Change is the most constant thing in life’ is super-true. Everything is in a state of flux / uncertainty: electricity, water, fuel queues, life even. Our reaction therefore, in the midst of all these, is to instinctively build patterns and habits that help cushion the psychic impact of the wild swings: the unending cycle of Saturdays spent at owambes, Sunday mornings spent at church and Sunday afternoons spent at home; I-pass-my-neighbour generators that stay on all night even when NEPA has restored power because we know that they might seize it again, etc.
*
Surrounded by so much discomfort, against which we have to daily battle, the last thing we want to do when we leave the country is to have to face another set or series of drastic changes. And who doesn’t know that language is one of the most significant ‘upsetters’ of the settled waters of existence. It is therefore this search for minimal foreign discomfort that explains why we will continue to flood to London and Atlanta, and Houston and Dubai, places where the Nigerian Foot has trod a well-beaten path, where at any point in time there is another Naija within sight to speak vernacular with; and where the aroma of Naija cooking hovers permanently beneath the nostrils.
*
Alas this is not the case with Sweden. It is only two weeks into my stay here but I have resigned myself to the fact that, if I want to taste anything that remotely resembles Nigerian cooking, it will have to come from my own hands (purchased from a Ghanaian-run store in Stockholm). Initially I thought it was a 'Uppsala' thing, perhaps there’d be plenty of Nigerians and Nigerian joints in Stockholm, the capital.
*
I spent Sunday in Stockholm. I went visiting, a Nigerian friend who’s lived in Sweden for years was going to show me round the city. When it was time to find something to eat I asked for a Nigerian joint. I took for granted that there’d be one, knowing that our people’s tentacles are deeply embedded in virtually every country in the world. My friend said she was not aware of anywhere were one could get a Nigerian meal. This is not to say that she was absolutely certain that there was none, but she did not know any. Of course there are loads of Chinese and Indian and Middle-eastern restaurants, and American brands – McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King. We eventually settled for a bustling food court where it seemed as though every continent – except Africa – was represented on the cartes du jour.
*
My brief brainstorming session with my friend on the above-mentioned vexatious matter threw up the following ‘communiqué-style’ conclusion:
Nigerians do not particularly like Sweden, despite its tuition-free tertiary education system, because of the cold weather, and the language barriers. As our people would say it, awoof dey run belle.
*
Language is a key. It turns this way or that, but for the same purpose: to lock. To lock one in, or out.
*
A Nigerian will sooner allow himself to be deported than learn a new language. Exaggeration. But it is true that learning things like that, for which the end result is not a certificate that can be converted directly into money, prestige or a promotion at work, is not something we like to do. How many Nigerians will ever go out of their way to learn something just for the fun of it, especially language? Look at the thousands of youth corpers that criss-cross the length and breadth of the country annually, how many have “learn a new language” on their to-do lists? Of course the NYSC obligatorily hands out relevant language manuals, but who cares about paper booklets? Na language we go chop?
*
If the Nigerian Government said that, starting 2010, there’d be a welfare system for the jobless, but that the condition for qualifying would be fluency in Chinese, I bet it that in a matter of months, even illiterate market women across the country will be speaking fluent Chinese. Students will be answering WAEC English comprehension questions in Chinese.
*
It is not that we cannot do anything we want to do. It is that we cannot be bothered.
*
The weather is not as insurmountable as language I think. Sweden can’t be that much colder than, say, Canada, which has a significant Nigerian population. But of course Canada, like America, is a well-worn path. And they speak English.

(c) Tolu Ogunlesi, 2008

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Reducing the reason Nigerians do not 'like' Sweden to the language issue might be a little bit simplistic (one can of course debate whether Nigerians like Sweden or not). Why don't you add economic interests to a mix? I see lively Nigerian communities in Germany, Spain, France etc etc... and citizens of those countries don't normally speak English. You have probably noticed that almost every Swede you meet speaks English.

Ok, I understand the issue of editorial deadlines....

KayTee said...

I concur too. I know many Nigerian (Igbo) migrants to Germany who learn and perhaps master the language in less than a year of their arrival there!

Other issues might be at play. Perhaps Sweden doesn't sound as "tush" and "flashy" as "Jand" or "Yankee" to the average Nigerian ear.

aloted said...

hmm u might have a point there..with people generally if there's nothing in it for them they aint bothered. i personally can't be bothered to learn a new lang except my life dependent on it...not so for some nigerians that enjoy learning new languages

if we wanted to, we will learn.

wait o, whats the official language in Sweden. don't mind my ignorance and can't be bothered to google it..lol...

are u learning the language?? hope your guest writing is in english sha..lol, if not...u no get choice o..

Red Eyes said...

Sounds like the more tied down, the more afraid, the more uncertain. It's like barrels of toxic waste?

plastiQ said...

I'm so coming to Sweden soon..I think...!? Ehm, nice one bro...your facts are right too.

deola said...

you are right. we need to change this attitude as a people. you are what you have learnt over the years. I think we can change.