Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Notes from Uppsala [9] - Nigerianitis

Published in The Guardian (Lagos) Life Magazine (Sunday, November 30, 2008)

As I spend my (final) days trying to psychologically disengage from Sweden – it’s for my own good that I do this before I return to Lagos – I find myself thinking again and again about the life I left behind, and to which I will be returning in less than a week.
Accents are baggages that we carry on through life, unable to drop.
Actually, that wasn’t supposed to be an attempt at philosophical profundity. It was meant simply as an ordinary observation, open to rigorous questioning.
I think the statement is true in some ways and untrue in others. True in the sense that everyone has got an accent; as in, everyone has got to have an accent. Compulsory. Every time we step outside our ‘linguistic comfort zones’ our accents tag along, with or without our permission, compelling us to sometimes repeat words for the benefit of people who are not used to our ways of pronouncing (certain) words.
Untrue in the sense that people sometimes deliberately cultivate (i.e. drop and pick up at will) accents – at great personal cost of course. Or what else would you say to the case of a Nigerian who has never been outside the country for longer than 2 weeks at a time, but insists on speaking ‘American’ – or at least his/her idea of ‘American’ – and has to maintain the unintentionally comical (sometimes sickening) charade at all times. Chances are that if you turn on the radio in Nigeria, especially to one of those stations in love with phone-in programmes targeted at a young (hip) audience, you will hear all sorts of strange ‘Vocal Variations on a Theme of Americana’.
A few years ago I was asked by a Ugandan why I don’t/didn’t speak like a Nigerian? Whenever I get around to compiling the most baffling questions I have ever been asked, this will take a Top-10 position. How could anyone imagine that I do not speak like a Nigerian! I, who grew up in Abeokuta and Ibadan, archetypal Yoruba cities, and not in no-man’s-Land Lagos where one might assume that a ‘wannabe’ mentality reigns, the land where Money Talks, and where People-Talk-Like-Money. It took a while for me to realise what the Ugandan meant. It was all about Nollywood. As you are all aware, Nollywood is one of our greatest exports to the world, especially to other African countries. Kenyans, Ugandans, Ghanaians, South Africans, Zambians all adore our Omotolas and Genevieves and Ramsey Noahs as much as – if not more than – we do. The bulk of what these people therefore know about Nigeria comes from television; impressions piped in through Africa Magic and itinerant VCDs.
In this case the Ugandan had come to a conclusion that there is such a thing as a Nigerian Accent, and had approximated the voices he heard in our home videos into a ‘Nigerian Accent’.
There’s nothing wrong with thinking that way, or making such approximations!
Well, not exactly. There is a small problem, and it is this: Nollywood (I’m straying into potentially dangerous territory here) – at least the version of it that travels the farthest; the ones originally shot/recorded in English – is typically an Igbo phenomenon, set in Igboland or around Igbo characters, families, culture and customs. And (Achebean) proverbs.
This is where the Ugandan must have got it wrong. What he had approximated into a Nigerian accent was no more than the Igbo Nigerian accent. There is of course the Yoruba Nigerian accent, and the Hausa one, amongst many others – don’t we all know how many Naija comedians would go out of business if a ban were to be placed on Hausa-Yoruba-Igbo accent jokes?
I have just finished watching (on YouTube of course, where else?) a series of comedy sketches by the British-Iranian comedian Omid Djalili, on a phenomenon newly discovered by him, called “Nigerianitis”.
He defines Nigerianitis as follows:
1. “It’s when you feel slightly emotional, and a Nigerian voice just shoots out of you involuntarily”
2. “A [Nigerian] voice that shoots out of [you] for no reason”
By these definitions it is obvious that Nigerianitis is not an syndrome that afflicts/affects Nigerians. Only non-Nigerians are at risk of contracting it.
Omid singles out “Nigerian Traffic Wardens” (in England) as a set of people who inspire (rouse, arouse, instigate) demonstrations of (the symptoms of) Nigerianitis in foreigners. He talks of the wardens speaking in “unnecessarily eloquent language” (“unnecessary” because they are traffic wardens, not University Professors), and advises that in dealing with them it is important for non-Nigerians to “shout back” (and hiss and make noises like ‘Aha!’) at them in the most Nigerian accent they can muster.
Snow has finally reared its frozen head. The last few days have seen non-stop snowing that has left a layer of shin-high soft white ‘powder’ everywhere. Temperatures hover around minus-five degrees centigrade, but I’ve been told that in the past they have gone as low as minus-twenty.
I’ll be out of here (and languishing in temperatures of 30+ degrees) before that happens!

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