Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour’s experience of the Lagos state election raised several questions, including: do non-fluent Yoruba people face a cultural catch-22? Are they confined to either ridicule if they speak Yoruba or to coming across as out of touch if they don’t?
The gubernatorial elections in Lagos State in February exposed the underbelly of the everyday tribalism that thrives underneath Nigerian society, even in cosmopolitan areas like Lagos. Despite Lagos’ seeming jovial diversity, sense of camaraderie, and famed owambe culture, questions of belonging, ownership and settler group rights have plagued the city since independence, and continually manifest during elections.
The Labour Party gubernatorial candidate for the state, Gbadebo Rhodes-Vivour (GRV), a 39-year-old, foreign educated Lagosian of both Yoruba and Igbo descent, emerged as a viable opposition for the Gubernatorial elections, and arguably served as the embodiment of these underlying ethnic, class, and generational tensions. Many analyses have paid particular attention to GRV’s mixed heritage and its significance amidst the backdrop of inter-ethnic tensions within Lagos State. For instance, Cable writer Kayode Ogundamisi describes the ‘Chinedu Factor’ referring to how GRV’s opponents ran a dog whistle campaign against GRV using his Igbo middle name as a rallying cry to discredit his Yoruba ancestry. GRV, in turn, has defended his Lagos pedigree, citing his family’s numerous contributions—dating back centuries—to Lagos’ development. While GRV’s dual heritage exposes enduring interethnic suspicions in Lagos, less attention has been paid to how GRV’s emergence as an admittedly non-fluent Yoruba speaker in a Yoruba speaking state, raises important questions for Nigerians concerning intragroup ethnic identity and its connection to language.
WHAT’S IN A MOTHER TONGUE?
Language was one of the many aspects used to justify why GRV did not represent the Yoruba people. GRV addressed his limited Yoruba proficiency during an interview with Channels Television on the 9th of March in which he stated:
It’s not as though I don’t understand Yoruba or I cannot speak it. My intonations are funny, people laugh at me, and I don’t think in Yoruba. I went to school at MIT, I went to school in Nottingham, I went to school in France. So there’s been a lot of movements in my life. But that does not change the fact that everybody at the end of the day wants good governance.
For the Yoruba people that already doubted GRV’s Yoruba heritage due to his Igbo mother and wife, his confirmation that he could not speak Yoruba fluently proved to be the nail in the coffin as to why he could not be trusted as a true ‘son of the soil.’
Nevertheless, as I listened to GRV speak, I could not help but empathize. As a Yoruba woman, who grew up with parents who spoke Yoruba to one another—but primarily English to us—I also cannot speak my mother tongue fluently. This reality is one that I have painfully wrestled with for many years and finally grown to accept.
GRV’s situation resembles my own and has become quite common among countless other people of Yoruba descent, particularly in the urban middle to upper socio-economic classes, who speak English as their first language. Many grow up as receptive bilinguals, or people who possess a native comprehension of the two languages—Yoruba and English—but can only express themselves fluently in one of those languages. In most cases, English. As I heard some of our Yoruba-speaking elders and even my peers use GRV’s limited language proficiency to discredit his claim to Yoruba heritage, I could not help but realize that in the process, I and many others in my generation had also been rendered cultural imposters.
The question of language remains extremely complex in a diverse, formally colonized African country like Nigeria. Language implicates questions of age, class, globalization, colonization, economics, culture, kinship and good old-fashioned linguistics. Despite this complexity, Nigerians too often see speaking one’s language merely as a measure of one’s cultural patriotism and interest remedied by oft-repeated advisories to parents to speak their language at home. Yet even the most Ijinle Yoruba of homes cannot solve the type of widespread, systemic language decline of indigenous languages that colonialism initiated over a century ago.
A LANGUAGE IN DECLINE?
To say a widely spoken language like Yoruba is in decline can come across as either out of touch or hyperbolic. After all, with an estimated 45 million speakers, Yoruba remains one of the most widely spoken languages on the African continent. Furthermore, it boasts a vibrant Yoruba language film industry, books, radio stations and an ever-growing library of social media content. Yoruba is a language that can be heard both on the streets of Lagos and the streets of London as well as across the Atlantic in countries such as Brazil and Cuba, where it functions as a liturgical language in religious traditions such as Santeria and Candomblé due to the transatlantic slave trade.
Notwithstanding, some Nigerian language scholars have argued that Yoruba runs the risk of endangerment, observing the gradual disappearance of Yoruba words from everyday use in favor of English equivalents. Other scholars have noted a type of ‘mother tongue eclipsing’ in younger generation whereby English is increasingly becoming children’s first language rather than Yoruba. Such language phenomena become most apparent among the educated classes in Nigeria. While scholars often blame the ‘educated elite’s’ rejection of traditional values and preference for Western norms as the culprit, a lot of Nigeria’s current language dynamics can be traced to the colonial era.
COLONIALISM’S ROLE IN LANGUAGE POLICY
The Nigerian state was never designed to prioritize indigenous languages. Colonial administrators viewed English as the language of civilization and saw little economic value in teaching languages that they not only deemed inferior but also feared could compromise their attempts to control ‘the natives’. Indigenous languages thus served primarily as vehicles for religious instruction. Accordingly, contributions from missionaries such as Samuel Ajayi Crowther in developing orthographies for some of Nigeria’s indigenous languages, were done in the name of religious conversion. The Education Ordinance of 1882, for instance, controlled the educational activities of missionaries in British controlled areas such as the Gold Coast Colony (modern-day Ghana) and Lagos Colony. It offered funding to schools provided that ‘the subject of teaching shall be reading and writing of the English Language.’ Although the ordinance made provision for other subjects, it excluded Yoruba, the mother tongue of the majority of the colony’s inhabitants. Unsurprisingly, amidst restrictive policies such as these, the speaking of indigenous languages, such as Yoruba, was severely limited in schools during and even after the colonial period.
‘Do not speak vernacular’ is a chorus that many, in my parent’s generation know all too well and carries the unacknowledged trauma that older generations experienced under English-only language policies in the Nigerian educational system. Nigerian students were shamed, punished and looked down upon for speaking in their indigenous languages, or ‘vernacular’ as the British pejoratively referred to them. As a result, many have developed a double consciousness of sorts as they relegate their indigenous languages to informal spaces, such as the home, where they can serve as languages of intimacy, banter and trade but never as the language of reason, formal education, and commerce.
Nevertheless, times have changed. Whereas up until about the 80s, a child from a privileged home, growing up in Surulere or Ikoyi, and attending Kings or Queens College, would still likely speak fluent Yoruba, regardless of their ethnic background, the same cannot be said today. After decades of mandatory English education, globalization, western migration, and a level of internet saturation that makes Nigerian youngsters much more likely to learn a TikTok dance move than any Yoruba proverb, English has officially overtaken Yoruba as the informal language of the Yoruba, educated elite.
Factually, I know many people who were born and bred in Lagos in the 90s and 2000s who are unable to speak Yoruba. While some people who grew up in exclusively Yoruba-speaking households may at best order food or speak to their older relatives or domestic staff in Yoruba, very few speak Yoruba on par with their English.
DIVIDED BY LANGUAGE AND GENERATION
Language shift is a process in which a speech community consisting of bilingual speakers gradually shifts to using one of its two languages over time. It is a phenomenon often observed in diasporic immigrant communities such as German Jews in the UK or Latino immigrants in the US, and one that has several causes including economics, socio-politics, language attitudes, and demographic changes among others.
Language shift is a reality that Nigerians have been facing for decades and yet few recognize its existence, or the role colonial education played in initiating it. Moreover, we suffer from a class and generational disconnect when it comes to addressing language issues. For example, older generations of Yoruba people often experience speaking Yoruba as a conscious choice and sign of cultural loyalty which they were punished for as children. As a result, when this same group hears someone like GRV claim he does not think in Yoruba, they do not hear his underlying language insecurities about his poor intonation or consider how his international schooling may have magnified some of the effects of intergenerational language shift. Instead, they hear arrogance and willful cultural rejection.
They may wonder how one could attain almost 40 years of life and not bother to learn their mother tongue fluently. How can one govern an entire state without thinking in the language of its indigenes? Accordingly, while they may acknowledge his Yoruba paternity, they refuse to consider him a true ‘son of the soil’. As some Yoruba commentators have been quick to discount GRV’s Yoruba cultural heritage based on language, I wonder how many consider the implications that this standard of cultural purity has on their own flesh and blood.
Non-fluent Yoruba people like myself are in a cultural catch-22 of sorts. To speak Yoruba and risk butchering our own language amounts to opening up an age-old wound and willfully subjecting ourselves to cultural ridicule. Yet, opting to remain silent risks us coming across as elitist and culturally detached. As a solution, many in my shoes ultimately choose to withdraw from identity-driven environments such as politics entirely.
Let me confess. If I was GRV, I would not have run, primarily on the basis of my limited Yoruba proficiency. In a state where a good number of constituents speak Yoruba as a first language, where agbero politics is the order of the day, and people throw Yoruba insults at one another, left and right, even and especially in government offices, the thought of showing up as the principal leader of the State with my poor intonation, seems unwise.
Nevertheless, I realize that my position stems less from fears of incompetence but rather from a position of cowardice. I wonder how many talented individuals who, like me, have a heart for service and a love for their nation, are self-selecting themselves out of any active role in government to avoid reliving the cultural exclusion we’ve experienced our entire lives.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE FUTURE OF NIGERIA?
Until Nigerian society views the decline of our indigenous languages not as platforms to measure cultural purity but rather as a systemic colonial legacy and collective issue that implicates all of us from various vantage points, the question of language will only continue to divide people across age, class, and even within families, while making non-speakers of indigenous languages, more reluctant to participate in cultures that insist on seeing them as outsiders.
Our indigenous languages are incredibly invaluable. They function not only as communication tools but also serve as deep reservoirs containing rich knowledge that can provide solutions to many of the problems we face as a society today. The way to preserve these cultures lies not in creating environments of cultural rigidity and continuing the colonial tradition of linguistic shaming, but rather in creating accessible, and inclusive environments of cultural regeneration which allow people to engage with their languages and wider cultural practices freely without fear of failing to measure up⎈
The views, thoughts, and opinions published in The Republic belong solely to the author and are not necessarily the views of The Republic or its editors. We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected].