‘Dead Body No Dey Do Shakara’ Frank Aig-Imoukhuede, Pidgin Stew & One Literary Bowl of Thoughts

Despite being a language spoken nationwide, Pidgin seems to have gained little attention from both established writers and the new writers who are fronting the online Nigerian literary experience.

You don’ read poem before wey ’e be like say na jollof you dey chop? The thing go just dey sweet you dey go. ’e go come be like say, you no want make ’im finish. Na this kind poem Frank Aig-Imoukhuede dey write. ’im poem na confam one wey dey blow mind. ’im words sweet die. Correct metaphor and imagery wey fine. You fit call ’im poem sef correct fufu with Pidgin stew since na Pidgin ’im dey use write. The one wey sweet pass, wey I enjoy pass for inside that im book get the title, ‘Wetin You Chop’. ’e come start like this:

Abeg you sah,
go stop yer yanga/wetin you chop wey yer head dey swell
like football wey dem dey ball/softly o, make e no bust

Until I jam Frank work, I no know say person fit use Pidgin write poetry. But how me and Frank work take jam each other get tori o. Make I tell you? Oya now. I dey 100 level for uni; na so one night we get lecture for Ajose Lecture Theatre, inside Obafemi Awolowo University. Everybody just jampack for inside the class because space no dey at all. For inside that building too much heat dey and if pesin mess na kasala be that cos the smell go take time commot. Plus, the noise wey dey inside that class ehn, no be here. As I enter class, our professor follow enter; ’im name na Dr. Mosobalaje. I rush go front, find one place where I manage stand before the class begin proper. Prof come commot book say na one man, Frank Aig-Imoukhuede, na im poem we go study as per say the course sef na ‘intro to poetry’. 

As Prof start to dey read, I just dey listen. Each line just dey make me laugh because the poem funny die. See ehn, my head scatter on top the poem power. Poem wey get social and political konji well. The poem warn person sef say shakara no good. If person look well, ’im go see for inside the poem say this world na vanity sef. As per say, nothing dey last forever. The poem remind us say na where one person money finish na where another person money start. The poem yarn say for this country proud people too much wey dey oppress others. But all na vanity sef. As we go all peme one day. And if we die, wetin we fit proud of again? Dead body no dey do shakara. Abi no be so? Na how the poem end be that. You sef see finishing! Correct hit! But no vex abeg. I wan’ go blow grammar small for people wey no too sabi Pidgin now:

‘Killin Dem’

An aerial view of Africa’s cultural landscape would, no doubt, highlight Nigeria as a teeming hotspot for commercially successful pop culture. Today, nearly every facet of Nigerian culture has embraced Pidgin as a viable means of communication. In Nollywood, Pidgin unifies a bustling industry that is maturing along ethnic lines. The industry has three major segments of this ethnic calibration: the Yoruba film industry (Yoruwood); Kannywood, which captures northern Nigerian realities and has dialogue largely seated in Hausa; and the ‘Igbo films’ where the spoken language is mainly Igbo. Igbo films, moreover, have tended to encompass mainstream, English-speaking Nollywood such as in Kenneth Nnebue’s film, Living in Bondage. Pidgin English also features prominently in such Nollywood films; sometimes, as Taiwo O. Ehineni claims, this is to suggest colloquial context and low-economy personas; other times, as Moradewun Adejumobi maintains, it transgresses this linguistic border.

There is no argument about the impact Nigerian music has had on the popularization of Pidgin. For example, in the realms of both Afrobeats and hip-hop, artists like Burna Boy, Oritse Femi, Wizkid, Davido, Naira Marley, Tiwa Savage are expanding the frontiers of the Nigerian Pidgin. Songs such as ‘Double Wahala’ (2014) by Oritse Femi featuring D Banj, ‘Killin Dem’ (2019) by Burna Boy, and ‘Malo’ (2017) by Tiwa Savage and Wizkid are embellished with Pidgin. Davido’s ‘Fall’ (2017), a favourite of mine, is steeped in Pidgin while highlighting the subjects of love, romance, forgiveness and other dynamics of emotion. With Nigerian music, one realizes that, beyond the literal sense, Pidgin has its idiomatic curve through pun on the word, ‘banana’ which can represent the fruit or phallic symbol. Hip-hop, which has become a signifier of Nigerian cultural revolution, also has led to the invention or propagation of new lexical items in Pidgin. Examples being, ‘pana’ in Tekno of the eponymous ‘Pana’ (2016), and ‘apako’ in Terry G’s ‘Free Madness’ (2008).

The progenitor of Afrobeat, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, used Pidgin as linguistic foundation upon which he built socially conscious music. For Fela, Pidgin was a bridge that connected his songs to the souls of his audience. Although at the beginning of his musical career, Fela experimented with Highlife, his artistry really manifested when he began to sing in Pidgin. Some of his popular songs such as ‘Yellow Fever ’ (1971), ‘Shuffering and Shmiling’ (1978) and ‘ITT’ (1979) not only delivered harsh verbal onslaught at the social and political anomies of Nigeria’s post-colonial state, but also drew attention towards the political power-brokers in Nigeria—criticism, which led to military attacks on Fela’s Kalakuta Republic base and Fela’s subsequent imprisonment. Olusegun Obasanjo, Yar’Adua and Abiola are figures heavily inveighed in Fela’s songs, which frown at the imperialism, military cronyism and patronage politics of the 70s & 80s. Nevertheless, Fela’s lyrics brought some symbolic changes in Nigeria as his imprisonment enraged both domestic and international communities. 

‘Katakata for Sofahead’

As Nigeria entered into the new millennium, Pidgin continued to be deployed as a language of protest in Nigeria’s musical scene, and Nigerian hip-hop gained more visibility and usage among the youth. Through Pidgin lyrics, rapper, Eedris Abdulkareem explored the shambolic socio-political phase of the much vaunted Fourth Republic under the leadership of Olusegun Obasanjo. Abdulkareem was not alone in the sub-genre of political hip-hop as Sound Sultan was also an eminent artist who engaged Nigerian politics, using Pidgin in his songs. 

It was on Pidgin that the Ajegunle music tradition and its adaptation of reggae developed. Notable among the artistes from Ajegunle are Oritse Femi, whose career stemmed from the tradition, and African China whose 2006 album, Mr President, does not only relay the harrowing conditions of dwellers of urban slum and plights of the masses in Ajejunle, but also warns about the putrid corruption that continues to hinder Nigeria’s development. In ‘Mr President’ (2006), African China sings: 

If you be president
President well
If you be senator
Senate am well
If you be governor
Govern us well
If you be policeman
Police well-well, no dey take bribe.

From Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Teju Cole, prominent Nigerian writers have, although not significantly, invited Pidgin into their literary exploits. Sometimes, to portray Pidgin as an accepted literary language, these authors insert Pidgin into the dialogues of characters, suggesting class differences or levels of education as seen in Amusa in Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman. Other times, Pidgin is more prominent as in some of Ola Rotimi’s plays, such as Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again. Aig-Imoukhuede’s poetry would then fit into the landscape of Pidgin poetry. 

‘Wetin You Chop’ was just one poem in Aig-Imoukhuede’s seminal 36-poem collection, Pidgin Stew & Katakata Sufferheard. Aig-Imoukhuede was not alone in the business of Pidgin poetry, either. In the trough of this linguistic practice is also Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Sozaboy, which Saro-Wiwa wrote in ‘rotten’ English. This notion of rottenness was a semantic association aimed at articulating the sufferings and dehumanizing conditions residents in the Niger-Delta faced. As Sarah L Lincoln emphasizes, it is rhetoric made to distinguish between the grandiloquence of Nigerian elitist class and the pedestrian language of the lower rung of the Delta. Today, Pidgin Stew & Katakata Sufferheard and Sozaboy have become canonical references for literary inquiry and are equally darlings of critics at home and abroad. In other literary genres like drama, Katakata for Sofahead by Segun Oyekunle and Oga Na Tief-man by Tunde Fatunde are examples of texts written entirely in Nigerian Pidgin.

I came across ‘Wetin You Chop’ again a few weeks ago, while scrolling through my phone gallery. I found a cropped picture of the poem and posted it on Twitter without mentioning the writer’s name as a kind of social media experiment, trying to see if the post would go viral. One of my followers asked for the writer’s name. I followed up by asking a few friends in my small literary circle to suggest names of newer writers writing in Pidgin. Most of my friends who are literary enthusiasts and scholars pointed again to Frank Aig-Imoukuede and then to Ken Saro-Wiwa.

What makes ‘Wetin You Chop’ such a rich piece are the ways it uses Pidgin terms like ‘chop’ ‘yanga’, and ‘wetin’; the musical nods such as ‘sah’ and ‘yanga’; and the metaphors such as ‘sand’, which encapsulates mortality. The poem is a thoroughly woven free verse that examines life as a vanity project. It reads in an ecclesiastical tone because of its strength of biblical allusion evident in lines such as, ‘except you go claim say, your sand fine pass my own’.

The poem shells haughtiness in all its forms, and it is as if Aig-Imoukhuede himself had written it as a rejoinder to an old feud as seen in the first four lines: ‘Abeg you sah, go stop yer yanga/wetin you chop wey yer head dey swell/like football wey dem dey ball/softly o, make e no bust.’ Further along, the poem also satirizes materialism in the rhetorical question, ‘Tell me, na you go first ride for auto?/ As you dey ride auto na ‘im another man dey ride small car.’ 

Aig-Imoukhuede points to a moral footnote on life as a vacuous terrain and suggests the need for a more equitable redistribution of resources in society. In the 80s, when he published the collection of poems, post-independence Nigeria was characterized by social stratification despite an oil boom.

‘Wetin Dey?’

Pidgin English in Nigeria is a language that evolved out of proximity with Europeans in the fifteenth century as Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún emphasizes in ‘Wetin Dey?’. Pidgin is a blend of local idioms from different languages. For example, the word saber means to know in Portuguese, the language of the first Europeans to reach the Nigerian coast, while sabi which is a Pidgin derivative also meaning ‘know’. Nigerian Pidgin also has a dialect known as ‘Waffi’ in the Niger Delta, which has gained an extensive scholarship coverage. Lexical additions such as ‘yer’, ‘tori’, ‘sei’, ‘ondastan’ and ‘shuo’ are, as Joseph Babalola Osoba acknowledges, elements of Waffi variant.

While Pidgin can be traced as far back as the pre-colonial era, imaginative literature written in the language remains scant perhaps because of textual reception and marketability among the Nigerian readers. Despite being a language spoken nationwide, Pidgin seems to have gained little attention from both established writers and the new writers who are fronting the Nigerian online literary experience. 

To borrow from Chinua Achebe, it is not yet morning for Pidgin literature’s creation day. Instead, one could argue that the literary merits of Pidgin are still overlooked despite the steady rise of the Nigerian literary scene and its emergent young voices who are exploring digital and other innovative avenues to publish their work.

A recent story written in Nigerian Pidgin is ‘Ugborikoko’ by Jerry Chiemeke in The Johannesburg Review of Books. Below the title of the story on the website is the following annotation: ‘The piece is written in Warri Pidgin English, a dialect of Nigerian Pidgin, and is our first published work in this language. It tells the story of a boy growing up in a suburban neighbourhood in southern Nigeria in the late nineteen-nineties.’ ‘Ugborikoko’ explores childhood memories of a southern Nigerian urban neighbourhood and touches on many themes. In essence, the story retains its uniqueness through its distinct verbal aesthetics, Pidgin. Beyond such rare stories, however, I worry that Nigerian literature in Pidgin English faces protracted negligence. 

And yet, the battle to promote literary Pidgin is not totally lost. A campaign towards increasing Pidgin literary consciousness led by Eriata Oribhabor has birthed more literary works among young writers such as Otu Abimbola Ayinke, Christine Chiaku and Adie Lawrence. Oribhabor’s Naija Pidgin is a platform committed to promoting poems, short stories, essays and any other art forms written in Nigerian Pidgin. The platform also features different contests and awards to encourage writers who are writing in Pidgin. Oribhabor himself has authored a book titled Abuja Nakpangba and Oda Puem-dem, which was published in 2011, and he edited two volumes of Nigeria Pidgin: If Yu Hie Se a Deprizin and Amebo Yad. 

Dead Body No Dey Do Shakara 

While recent books like Ẹ̀fọ́ Rírò by Iquo Diana Abasi, which is a fistful of culinary tales, have chapters written in Pidgin English, individual efforts cannot produce the robust attention and investment that literature in Nigerian Pidgin needs. Recently, I discussed with Jerry Chiemeke, who affirmed that his forthcoming story collection would include short stories written in Pidgin. I believe with more young writers interacting with Pidgin, there could be great reawakening. That said, literature in Pidgin will need to be embraced with open arms in the publishing industry, both in the print and digital traditions. Regarding digital publications, digital bookstores like Okada Books are already making valuable efforts in growing the body of works written in Nigerian Pidgin. Cunny Man Die, Cunny Man Bury Am by Abisola Ikotun and The Pidgin in Nigeria as a Poem by Ruth Yacim are important examples of such works; but when I asked friends in my literary network about these books, no one was aware of the publications.

Publishing, one must say, has its own specific economic variables and in this case the audience for music is not necessarily the same for books. This may mean differences in the yield a book in Pidgin might bring compared to the yield of an Afrobeats song. Another factor that may influence interest in publishing Pidgin is the global marketability of such texts and we have reception to works from authors like Frank Aig-Imoukuede and Ken Saro-Wiwa to look at as examples. Nonetheless, it is fair to say that promoting more Pidgin, be it by encouraging more works in Pidgin or by supporting platforms focused on Pidgin, would introduce more representation and authenticity to the Nigerian literary sphere

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