Tomorrow is Uncertain:
Today is Soon Enough
(Translated from the Standard Igbo version)
Igbo people, I greet you! Igbo people, you will continue to live! Your compatriots in foreign lands will also live - o! The Igbo who remain at home and the Igbo who have traveled, they all will also live - o! Wherever a child is, let him wake up. Ladies and gentlemen, I greet you! Chiefs and titled people, I greet! Whichever title a person takes, let him respect it!
Archbishop Obinna, let me thank you especially for the great honor you gave me in selecting me to be the Odenigbo 1999 lecturer.
The idea you and your group had to start the Odenigbo lectures was very beautiful. The name you gave it is fitting as well. It is like the eagle that perched in the iroko tree--if you keep on looking at the eagle, you start to look at the iroko tree. This is how Odenigbo seems to me--something that is popular on the one hand, and something that is written in Igbo on the other. My prayer is that Igbo writing will emerge from the weak situation it is in now, rise, stretch, and start to become strong.
The day that Archbishop Obinna left Owerri, shot seven leopards, swam seven seas, and entered my hiding-place in a small town called Annandale, New York, my heart skipped a beat. I then asked him if all was well. He told me to hurry up and travel, that the Igbo were waiting for me to speak to them in the Owerri Archdiocese. Igbo kwenu! Kwezuonu! You will live. Archbishop Obinna has known that Chinua Achebe takes the Igbo people seriously, and that if I am told that the Igbo are waiting, I must of necessity go to them. My only misgiving was that what I came to say would not be even half of what you would be expecting from me. My fear was that I would already have been placed on a big seat that you would prepare for me and my feet would not reach the ground. So I beg you to take me as I am. I remember the day that a friend took me to an auto repair shop and told their owner who I was. He then said to my friend, Is that all? A similar thing happened the day I went out to see an elderly friend of mine in Ogidi and he told someone there with him who I was--he then shouted that famous meat does not fill his basket. That is why I beg you, please, take me as I am.
Some nine years ago, I left unprepared on this journey to the white man's land of America, and have not set eyes on Igbo land since, even for one single day. The goat perspires, but its hair prevents that from being noticed. However, what encouraged us, my wife and me and our children, was the prayers we knew that you were offering for us.
Archbishop Obinna was the one who selected "Tomorrow Is Uncertain" as the title of my talk today. I then looked at it and saw that it fit well, but I needed to supplement it, add to it so that it should not stand alone, because something that stands alone freezes to death. Because if something stands, something else stands beside it, even if the thing that stands beside it is alone, onu oyi n'onu. It is because a bad thing has no model that we call it a bad thing outright.
So I looked for something to go along with "tomorrow" and saw that I should not look for it in the past, that we are in the present now. Then I was happy and said to my friend Obinna, What about "Tomorrow Is Uncertain:Today Is Soon Enough?" He said that was fine, and we went ahead and made it final.
There is no reasonable person who is not aware that "tomorrow" is extremely important. Every tomorrow, if you try to predict it, is deep and mysterious, because God did not give us the wisdom that would tell us how things will be for us in the future.
There was a big masquerade who used to come out in Ogidi when my father was a child. He was known for the question he used to ask adults when they greeted each other: "Look at my head and tell me which is bigger--what I carry in front of my head, or what I carry behind it."
From the look of the masquerade, it was obvious to a goat and a chicken that what he carried behind his head was bigger than the part he carried in front. The one who was asked this question would then answer: "Master, Egwugwu and Egwuregwu, the one behind is bigger."
The masquerade would burst out laughing, then thank you and tell you: "You have looked the way a human being looks, and perceived things the human way. It is not your fault. But if you had looked at my head the way a spirit looks, you would have seen that what is in front is bigger. That is why a spirit says that the future is greater!"
The future is greater is another way of saying that tomorrow is uncertain. The prayer we pray and the justice we invoke is that tomorrow be born in health and peace: that the future should not hold more suffering, but more good things and happiness.
A funeral hymn of the CMS people says:
From the power of Jesus
It will be well
We expect that tomorrow,
It will be well.
Our forefathers tied (cut?) their own headscarves and said never again! But it is the same prayer that we pray, the same justice that we invoke.
The question I want us to ask ourselves is this: Is there something we should be doing while waiting for what tomorrow will bring? We will be praying faithfully. But a person whose wife is pregnant and almost ready to deliver will not take a prayer book and sit down close to her morning, noon, and night. He says his prayers and goes to look for what he will need for the hospital and for the birth ceremony and for the smoked fish used in preparing nsala soup.
This is the duty of all of us when we say that tomorrow is uncertain. We should not put our hands in our laps and wait for the birth. We should go out and look for some little thing that we can be doing while waiting. Because the Bible tells us that faith or prayer without works is what? Death! (James 1:10). [Note: probably should have been James 2:17.]
There are many kinds of work: manual work, farm work, mental work, and so on. What I want us to look at today is mental work. Let us think a bit about the completely unsatisfactory situation of the Igbo language today. If you take the Igbo situation and compare the Yoruba or Hausa situations in Nigeria, in Africa and in the entire world, there is no other way we can describe that of the Igbo except one of shame and tears. How are the mighty fallen! Why is it that the Igbo, who were an example of progress in the whole world, could fall behind in the primary thing a country is known by--their language? What many people will reply if asked this question is that the Igbo people are emulating western ways, and the world then confuses them--they are not westerners, they are Igbo.
A thing like this, the Igbo say that one should make inquiry about, that this thing is not without cause. It is that inquiry that I am asking that we start making today. But let me tell you that there is no diviner or divination better than the Igbo who have gathered here today. Igbo people, I salute you! Tomorrow is uncertain, but today is soon enough.
It is true that time has been leaving us behind: indeed, the century that will end a few months from now seems to have been wasted for us, because those with whom we started the race have completely overtaken us.
But beating our breasts and grinding our teeth will not help us at all. The only important thing is to find out what happened to us, where the rain beat down on us. When we have done this, it will be easy for us to decide what to do in the future.
Let me tell you then what my thoughts are about this trouble we are in today. It began one hundred and five years ago when the people of the C.M.S. [Christian Missionary Society] sent out a young minister called T. J. Dennis to join those who were spreading the gospel in Onitsha. Dennis reached Onitsha in the year 1894, and entered the work the C.M.S. had begun in Igboland in 1857.
Thus, the C.M.S. had been there for 37 years when this man Dennis came to help them.
Dennis was a man who had heard the call of Jesus in his heart, and was also a very hard-working person. The family from which he came in the white man's land were not people of means, which caused Dennis not to be educated as he wanted. But they were people who tried, and were followers of Christ.
Dennis was born in the year 1869. On the very day that he was twenty, he gave himself to the C.M.S. people to work to spread the gospel in Africa. The C.M.S. people received him, trained him for four years in seminary, made him a deacon in 1893, and sent him to Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he stayed for one year before going to Onitsha in 1894.
Dennis did not know the Igbo language when he came to Onitsha, but he was very interested in learning it.
However, what he said after a year had passed was that he could not understand one word in fifty in the word of God spoken in Igbo. Perhaps he thought that as soon as he set foot in Onitsha he would start to speak Igbo like the natives, not knowing that Igbo was not a game of gathering snuff in the hand. But Dennis was not a diviner who was called on to chase away spirits, and then the spirits came and started to chase him.
One very important thing in the work of spreading the gospel was to put the Bible and other books in the languages of the people who were being taught. The people of the Niger Mission (as the C.M.S. in Onitsha was called at first) had made a slow start in this task. The one who began the work was a man called J. C. Taylor, who came to Onitsha along with Crowther in 1857. Taylor was a Sierra Leonean, but his mother and father were Igbo who had been repatriated from slavery. Taylor did not know Igbo well when he came to Onitsha, but he was an Igbo at heart. Another helpful thing was that there was another Sierra Leonean called Jonas who came along with Crowther and Taylor, and who spoke Igbo well.
It was Taylor who, one might say, laid the foundation for the C.M.S. church in Onitsha. There were a few books in the New Testament that he had put into Igbo, that the Niger Mission used in the church when Dennis came to Onitsha in 1894.
It took Dennis a long time to say that Taylor's interpretations did not fit well because he did not know English very well. But this was the way he expressed it. What Dennis wanted was that he himself should be the one to translate the Bible into the Igbo language.
As I said, Dennis was a hard worker. So he girded his loins to redo or set straight (as you wish) some things that the earlier people had done. While doing this, he also translated the remaining books of the Bible. In the year 1910, those who printed the Bible in the white man's land brought out the complete New Testament in the Onitsha dialect, what was called in English the Niger Ibo New Testament. If we remember that only six years had passed since Dennis had set foot in Igboland without knowing one word of Igbo, we will agree that he was a man whose voice was crying in the wilderness.
But this was only the beginning. Like the ambitious person he was, Dennis took up the Old Testament, translated, printed, and brought it out in the year 1906. Indeed, Dennis was one who wasted no time.
If Dennis's story ended here, the inquiry we make today, the many problems we have had to deal with, would not have been necessary. But Dennis is like the Ugwuoba woman of whom it is said that "she cut cocoyam expertly and then used her feet to put it on the fire," or the type of Asaba woman who, if one says that her child is beautiful, says that she has not had a bath. That is how Dennis treated Igbo, so that Igbo is in such trouble today.
Dennis discovered that Igbo was spoken in various dialects, so he realized that he had more work to do. But the Igbo had known from time immemorial that communities had different dialects. The communities referred to were not Hausa or Yoruba, but in other parts of Igboland. The townspeople spoke in a dialect, but their compatriots knew what it was. But Dennis did not understand this bit of wisdom.
The various dialects that the Igbo spoke started to disturb Dennis's sleep. What was to be done to this Igbo language so it would become a real working tool one could use to spread the word of Christ throughout all of Igboland? What he thought of was that he should call together a few people from Bonny, Onitsha, Unwana (Afikpo), and Owerri to meet in Egbu Owerri and think about a new Igbo not belonging to any particular person, but belonging to all of them as a group, which was Union Igbo, Igbo njikoaka.
The way I have told this story, maybe you are thinking that Dennis was the only one in the C.M.S. Niger Mission. Others were there, both whites and blacks. The head of C.M.S. in Onitsha was Archdeacon Dobinson, who had been in Igboland for many years; pastors Smith and Basden; Miss Warner, who started Saint Monica, the first school for girls in Igboland; and others. There were blacks there, but let us leave them for now because they did not own the church. What did the other whites think of Dennis's idea about Union Igbo? Someone like Basden began early to say that it was not clear to him, nor was it clear to Miss Warner and Smith. But this did not bother Dennis, especially when the head man himself, Bishop Tugwell who lived in Lagos, supported Dennis wholeheartedly. But even if the bishop had not supported Dennis, God supported him, according to his own thinking.
I think that one thing more than all the others that he put forth as important to the C.M.S. support of Union Igbo was that it was easier to have one Bible everyone could read, rather than to have three or four. It would also cost less. It is clear to me that it was not the future or the progress of the Igbo language that they were thinking about.
One C.M.S. department located in Bonny, called Niger Delta Pastorate (NDP), and their director, Mr. Crowther, did not agree with the translation of the Bible that was being done in Onitsha. They then started to translate their own in the Isuama dialect. Dennis, with Bishop Tugwell supporting him, then began to undermine them by going to the Bible printers and telling them to wait a while until after a meeting of various churchmen of the NDP, the Methodists, the Presbyterians, and the Qua Ibo who were spreading the gospel all around Igboland. This meeting was called in August 1904, but Dennis was unable to get to Onitsha for it. Those at the meeting then agreed that translating the Bible in Onitsha dialect as well as in Isuama dialect would be a good thing.
However, Dennis was now very old, and he had become like one who, although a discussion had been concluded in his absence, when he entered, the discussion was repeated. [He had acquired status.] In 1905 he called another meeting in Asaba; being careful about his support, he saw to it that Bishop Tugwell himself would come and preside.
Everything went the way Dennis had planned. It's true that not everyone at the Asaba meeting agreed with what Dennis had planned, but they kept quiet because the majority of them supported Dennis.
The place Dennis selected to be the headquarters was Egbu Owerri. In October, 1906, he left Onitsha and went to Egbu, where he and his helpers began to put the Bible into the language he called Union Igbo that Dennis hoped the Igbo would speak in the future. What Dennis did was go to one area of Igboland and take a word, go to another area and take an additional word, go to a third place and take another one to add. The three areas they emphasized most were Onitsha, Bonny, and Unwana, because no Bible translation had been started in these dialects.
I want everyone to understand that I did not come here to malign Dennis or his work. What I want to throw out to you is that language is not a piece of iron that the blacksmith takes and puts into the fire, takes out and knocks into shape or molds as it pleases him. Language is sacred, it is mysterious, it is awesome. It lives and breathes. It is what separates humans from animals. It separates people from their companions; towns from their neighbors. Thus a guest coming from the land of my fathers owing a debt of a cow will enter and take my language from me, establish it, spread it, and say that it will benefit me in the future.
We should remember the year 1913 as the day Archdeacon Dennis let loose the rain that is beating down on the Igbo language today. It was in that year that those who printed the Bible in London brought out the poor quality testament called the Union Igbo Bible. But the matter did not end there. It is necessary to ask some questions: Where were the Igbo? What about the one who owned the cloth the goat was chewing? Where was Anyaegbunam, the first one to be made a priest in Igboland, where was he? What about A. C. Onyeabo, the first one to be made a bishop in Igboland? It is true that these people were at the meeting, but they had no say in the matter. They had rejected the devil and all his works, but they were not the ones who owned the gospel.
In the year 1918 G. T. Basden, who was secretary for the C.M.S. in Onitsha, sent out questions about the Union Igbo Bible, in order to find out the thoughts of the C.M.S. workers--the whites, the Igbo pastors, the West Indians. As Basden said, all of the whites replied to the questions. . . Let me say the rest in English: "Of the native clergy the three youngest answered. . . the reason why the native clergy have not answered is that they are afraid to state their opinions on paper."
Only Basden spoke strongly against Union Igbo. But as we have seen, Dennis defeated Basden. However, it was not Basden who was defeated, but the Igbo language.
In all the years people were arguing for and against Union, one thing Dennis and his group emphasized was "understanding." Did the Onitsha people understand Union Igbo? Did the Owerri people understand Isuama? Dennis never asked, How does this sound to them? He never asked, Will you really use this language to sing songs of joy or cry tears of sadness? This question was not important to Dennis. But Basden understood its future consequences.Bible reading becomes a burden, rather than a duty and a pleasure. . .one cannot find Lancashire, Devonshire, Cornish and Somerset dialects mixed up in our Bible. Why should such a system be inflicted upon a poor, uneducated people. . .?Never mind whether the Igbo were "poor, uneducated people" or not. The truth in what Basden was saying was that what Dennis did with the Igbo language was unheard of--it had not been done in any other place. It is very important that we all understand this well--that what was done in the Igbo language in 1913 was unprecedented. Those who did not get the point used the Yoruba Bible or the Efik Bible as examples. They asked, Why is it that Yoruba can have one Bible but Igbo cannot? The answer to this question is simple. Yoruba has one Bible because the person in charge of the gospel in Yoruba was Samuel Adjayi Crowther, a Yoruba by birth. He then set about selecting one among the various Yoruba dialects. The dialect Crowther selected was that of Oyo. Now listen carefully. Crowther did not go and first study Yoruba for five or six years; e did not go and call a meeting with one Ijebu person, one from Lagos, one from Owo, one from Ogbomosho, and others who spoke various dialects in Yorubaland, and tell them to take a word here and a word there so as to create a new language they all would understand. Crowther knew instinctively that language was not something manufactured, for which tools needed to be brought in and applied.
What Dennis did wrong, or the way he went wrong, was not to seek one Igbo dialect to be used in translating the Bible, but rather it was the pride and disregard on the part of a stranger who entered their country as superior to Igbo, and told them that he himself was the blacksmith of language who came to mold for them a new language better than what they spoke, that their fathers spoke, and their ancestors had spoken from time immemorial.
Nothing I have read or learned about Dennis shows me that he was a bad man. He was a very hard worker, one who came wholeheartedly to help the Igbo, and brought his wife and his brother and sister to that work. But this did not prevent Dennis from looking down on the Igbo or disrespecting their language. Listen to what he wrote concerning Igbo:"Our translational difficulties were two-fold, viz, firstly, those arising from the poverty of the language, and secondly, such as arose from difference of dialect. The former are, of course largely chronic in character, and are common not only to all the Ibo dialects, but also, many of them, to all barbarous languages" (Church Missionary Review 1912).The two words that jump out above, that are paired, are poverty and barbarous. The Igbo language had no wealth; it was found wanting. It was a language of uneducated people, who are like wild animals with no understanding. Tell me, if someone uses ideas like this in his approach to a language, will he deal with it respectfully, or will he deal with it insultingly?
This matter did not concern Dennis alone. It concerned the interaction between whites and blacks starting from long ago. It is three hundred years since the white man came from across the ocean and ascended, step by step onto the African land. The wars they brought with them were unprecedented. They carried guns, wielded knives, and spoke fiery words.
The white men did not fight wars themselves, but they ferreted out the ne'er-do-wells and the know-nothings among the blacks, gave them weapons of war, gave them hot wine and told them to enter and stir up the land; they seized men, women, and children and took them away to be sold. The slave markets started in this way, slowly increasing and penetrating deeper every day, every year, until all of Africa was in turmoil, for three hundred years.
The matter we fought about in the Biafran war lasted fewer then three years, but look at the effect on us after we finished fighting. Think about three hundred years! The Biafran War over and over, one hundred times! One hundred times!
What happened to Africa is not something people are told about. If someone does not believe that the monkey's illness was severe, let him go and see how the eyes of the field mouse have set him on fire!
When the gospel arrived in Igboland in 1857, the Igbo did not know themselves. Unending troubles had oppressed them hopelessly.
The white people, on their part, did not regard the Igbo as anything, on account of the years upon years that foreigners kidnapped black people and sold them in slave markets. It was not for nothing that one elderly man in Onitsha during those times said that if he should come back again to the world he would not come as a human being but rather as a stone. What else need a person hear to know that times were not good in Igboland?
If the Igbo situation was so bad, should we blame those who brought the gospel for the disregard they came with? Their blame was that disregard was not in the teaching of Christ; another thing was that the foreigners bore some responsibility for the things that placed Igboland in that condition.
Sometimes in my travels in the white people's land, a question students ask me is: "The coming of the gospel to Africa, was it good or bad?" This question is a trap. The way I answer it is that the gospel, according to its name, is very beautiful. But the gospel that came to Africa was not the only thing in the bag that it came in.
The white people's disregard for blacks was in the same bag. It was this disregard that caused Dennis to think that he was a god who would create a new Igbo language; to think that the Arochukwu Igbo did not know what they were saying when they said that they understood Union Igbo but it was not pleasant to the ear; to think that all the others who were saying that one should go slowly in taking up Union Igbo were cowards. The name the Onitsha people gave Dennis was ozojiriogwe [one who tramples on thorns]. The Igbo say that the name given to a man is what he becomes.
I first asked myself this question: Where were the Igbo when all this was happening? The answer was that they were there but they had no say. But that answer was not satisfactory. We must examine it well to see what we can learn about today and yesterday. The child who has been stung by a bee runs away from the big fly. It is true that the Igbo had no say at the first discussion at their place, but there is a way that the person who has no say will make his face look so that everyone knows immediately that he approves of what is being said.
The Igbo did not stand together and show that they disapproved. Some showed it, some did not. The white people from various places around Igboland wasted no time in using this matter to divide the Igbo: Onitsha, Owerri, Isuama, Bende, Arochukwu, etc. The question we should ask ourselves for today and tomorrow is this: Why was it easy for us to fight among ourselves, backyard squabbles, yet ignore the fight that was in the village square?
The C.M.S. opened Awka College for teacher training at the start of this century. In the year 1919 a man who was an unswerving supporter of Dennis went and asked the people of that college what they thought. According to this man, they took a vote that showed that 19 people supported the Union Bible, while 15 did not support it. This man came from the British and Foreign Bible Society in London. The vote of the Awka people made him very happy. But listen to what this man, whose name was Banfield, said about the discovery he made about the Igbo who did not support the Union Bible:"You know as well as I do that the native has little stability of his own, and moves and thinks as his superiors do."What do we call it? Scorn!
But what I want to point out is the thoughts of the college students who were going to spread the gospel and knowledge in Igboland. What one of them told Banfield was, "It would be good for us to learn to read the Union Bible and then we can be understood wherever we are stationed." This young man was at Awka College, but he didn't know that Awka people were touring all around Igboland without first learning a new language called Union. He didn't know that my mother's father, Iloegbunam, a well-known blacksmith, had traveled to Okigwe, married a woman there, and had children. Did he go and learn Union Igbo before he left on his trip to Awka? Don't blame the Ogidi woman who said that if you keep on reading books, you read yourself into the bag of stupidity!
Let's cut short the Dennis matter here. It is finished. The only thing we can do now is to bite our fingers in regret and say, "It is like a wrestling match, it will change."
There are two or three misunderstandings about the Union Bible. The first is that the Yoruba have a Union Bible that they all read. This is a big misunderstanding. What Bishop Crowther did was to take one dialect that the Yoruba spoke in Oyo to be the Bible language for spreading the gospel. He did not run to Ijebu and Ibadan and Owo and Akure and Ogbomosho and others in order to obtain Union Yoruba. He took a living tongue that was spoken, a tongue that had a home. Whoever wanted to know about it could go to its home and ask.
The second misunderstanding is to think that what Dennis did in Igbo was something languages do to themselves if they are left alone. Dr. Westermann wrote in 1929 that what Dennis did to Igbo was what some small European languages did to themselves on their own in ancient times. The only difference was that what Dennis did "was done by one person within a definite time, and not by slow and natural development." Dr. Westermann had several educational degrees--why then did he tell us that there was no difference between a living tree and a dried up one? Indeed, wisdom and foolishness are neighbors!
Archdeacon T. J. Dennis died on the ocean in the year 1917, as he and his wife were going on leave in the midst of the first German war. As I said earlier, I do not regard him as a bad man. Rather, he was a man strong in his faith. The work he came to do in Igboland was quite clear to him. He wasted no time and he struggled to keep that work as the most important thing. But his continuing disregard for the Igbo language and those who owned it led him to spoil things.
It was not only Dennis who committed this error. Those who committed it were everywhere in great numbers. One man who is world-famous, Albert Schweitzer--philosopher, theologian, musician, medical missionary--was curing the sick as well as spreading the gospel in Gabon while Dennis was at Onitsha and Egbu Owerri. As Schweitzer's work became known publicly, he was given the Nobel Peace Prize because of the way his work uplifted the brotherhood of nations. But all these things did not stop Schweitzer from opening his mouth and saying that the blacks were his brothers, albeit small brothers. You have seen the error of disregard that we have spoken of. Naaman was a commander of the army of the king of Syria and was well regarded, in view of the fact that it was by his hand that Yahweh gave victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper (2 Kings 5:1). The attitudes of disregard on the part of those who were bringing the gospel were like marks of leprosy on the bodies of God's messengers. He did this, that and the other, but he came with disregard.
The story of Dennis and the Union Bible has been a great regret to me in several ways. But the greatest one of all is how the opportunity the Igbo Bible had to be the headwater of Igbo literature was thrown away. The opportunity was thrown away so Dennis could have a chance to experiment in someone else's language. The worst thing was that after finishing the experiment, he stopped those who were printing the Bible from bringing out the first Bible again: that is, he did not give the Igbo a chance to say whether they preferred the first one or the new one. Instead, what was demonstrated to the Igbo was that the foreigner had the knife and also had the yam.
This is how the Niger Mission, a hundred years ago, put Igbo writing in the situation where it is today. Archdeacon Dennis marked the trail that we are following, which is that one man can stay in his own place, smell his hand, and dictate how the Igbo will be speaking or writing their own language. If he wants to be gracious, he calls a meeting of a few people and they bring out various new words. If someone hears that experts were called and asks what it was about, he is told that apparently he did not come to the meeting that was held in March!
Please forgive me. I don't want to wrong anyone. What we are dealing with today is something that happened to us long ago. There is no one to blame.
What gives the most trouble is the teaching of Igbo children in the schools. We have come out of Union Igbo into Central, come out of that and entered Standard Igbo. But what happened then is still happening. Why? Because of Dennis. It is the law of Dennis that fills our heads. The law of Dennis is that everyone must speak or write the same Igbo dialect, come hell or high water!
The reason this matter is so difficult is that those who need instruction are not the children, but the teachers themselves. You will remember the teachers being trained at Awka in the year 1919 who said that Union Igbo would benefit them when they reached their stations. I don't know if it was only I who heard the voice of the District Commissioner in the mouths of these teachers. The only thing they thought about was something that would make their work easy.
One thing I want us to hear and understand well is that one person alone, no matter how important he is, can not enact laws about language. One hundred people can not give orders about language, even if their heads are in the clouds. Language goes along its own path. Sometimes it is very clear to us; sometimes it confuses us. If one studies language too avidly, it can be lost to him completely.
What is happening in schools these days is taking away from children some of the Igbo they spoke in their mothers' and fathers' houses. This is a very bad thing for which there is no precedent; a bad thing to say the least. What kind of person are you if you tell a person that he should not continue to use the language he was born with, that he should get rid of it, and start to speak the one that Dennis's followers brought out? The child who writes "fa" is told to cross it out and write "ha."
It seems to me that we have completely opened the bag of foolishness. But today is still soon enough. Even though a lot of time has escaped us, let us put an end to it and stop wasting another hundred years. Because when the old woman falls down twice, you count the things she is carrying in her basket. If you shoot once and strike a tree trunk, shoot a second time and strike a tree trunk, was that arrow carved specially for the tree trunk?
Those who teach Igbo should meet together and consult about how they will change the teaching of Igbo language so it will be a thing of joy, and not a heavy burden. When our children were small, I remember how their faces shone like the sun if I told them to come so I could tell them some folktales. Those who teach Igbo should be making efforts to bring out to the faces of children this sunshine that is in their hearts. What Dennis and his followers brought the Igbo was clouds that obscured the face of the sun like darkness.
The language that the child comes out into the world and hears is an ancient language, the way an elder's name was the name of the day he was born. The European calls it "mother tongue" - olu nne. To take a child's mother tongue away from him is like taking his mother's breast away from him, pulling his mouth from the breast.
Some of those who believe that everyone should be made to speak and write Standard Igbo have said that what caused Chinua Achebe to go against Standard Igbo was that they did not base it on the Ogidi dialect. Let me reply to them before all the Igbo here today. I do not want them to take it. Do you understand what I am saying? I say that I do not want them to take it! Do you know who I mean by "them"? It is the learned people, the followers of Dennis, those who think that language is "engineering." Language is a gift of God. I do not want to take his own from anyone; I do not want anyone to take mine from me. Perhaps some are thinking that Chinua Achebe does not regard Igbo the way he regards Ogidi. This is a lie, lie, lie!
One who has no regard for Igbo is someone who takes a matchet and chops up all of its branches. I love both Igbo and Ogidi.
My prayer is that we train a mass of workers who will use our language and place on people's faces the morning sunshine that God placed in their hearts, by writing various books of wisdom and discoveries, and books of plays, and stories of the land and folktales, funeral songs or poems, both old and new.
Those who want all of us to speak the same dialect are saying that there is no time to wait until the Igbo language on its own speaks what will be Standard Igbo. But they forget that it was in wanting a Standard Igbo that Dennis gave us Union Igbo, which gave birth to Central Igbo, which gave birth to Standard Igbo. Making changes now does not help. It is like the bachelor who wakes up one day and says that the search for a wife should begin one of these days--does he think that a woman is a cloth that you hang up? Yesterday has gone, let us take the short time remaining today and encourage ourselves to go forward before dawn arrives.
What can I tell you about the Igbo situation in Nigeria that you do not know better than I? Let me start with the edge in licking hot soup. Every place and every town has something it is known for, that is what others know it for. But most important is what people know themselves for.
If one could go back in history and ask the white people who trafficked in African slaves what they thought about the Igbo, they would tell you to go away, and they would agree that an Igbo would rather fall into the river than become a slave. That means that they were not profitable at all. They would tell you that there was a time that people who came in ships and were brought overland to South Carolina, turned
back--all of them, men, women, children and old people--turned back, as many as could do so, entered the ocean and wasted the money that had been used to buy them. The name given to the place where this calamity occurred is Ibo Landing, even until today. There is an African American spiritual called "Walking in the Water," which is still sung because of this happening of long ago.
If you leave Ibo Landing and go back a bit farther in history and stop at two hundred years ago, you will find a man called Ekweano, from Iseke in Olu Division (as I myself discovered), captured during wartime at eleven years of age, taken and sold in the West Indies, in America, both on land and sea, until he became a young man. He struggled as Igbo people do and taught himself to read, worked for money
to free himself from slavery, then wrote a famous book in the year 1789 and called it "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olauda Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself."
Ekweano was the first Igbo who wrote a book to tell the world that he did not come out of a jungle, that he was a well-born person whom the slave market had dragged through the mud. Every Igbo person should read Ekweano's book. Thanks to the publishers, anyone can buy it today. This book is a gold mine of learning for the Igbo and the Europeans and all human beings. Many things that Ekweano wrote will touch the hearts of all, but none surpasses the joy he felt when he freed himself from slavery and leaped up, crying, "I am my own master!" two hundred years before Martin Luther King, Jr. cried, "Free at last!"
The reason I talk like this is that some stories I heard concerning what is happening in Igboland showed me that some of our countrymen do not know, or have forgotten, what Igbo people are known for. I then thought that I should tell you or remind you. The Igbo do not want someone they must call nnamukwu or "master." The Igbo do not want someone who will make them slaves, someone who will use them as boy-boy. If the Igbo finds himself in the position of slave or boy-boy, he will be working and striving to come out of it and be free. When did we learn that a man who lived in his own home should leave his place and go to Abuja to chant that a chief should live forever?
Do you know why the Igbo have no kings? It is not that the Igbo don't know what a king is. Remember that the Igbo and the Bini are neighbors, and references to the Oba of Benin filled the folktales of the Igbo. Remember that Igalla and Igbo were neighbors on the other side.
The fact that the Igbo have no kings does not mean that an Igbo does not want to be a king. Any Igbo you see wants to be a king; but he does not want someone else to become a king while he himself lives under that person. So the Igbo says, "Fine, everyone should go home and reign as king in his own compound." Anthropologists did not come to the land of the Igbo to learn about them, because the Igbo knew what those people knew. But there was one American who went to Onitsha forty years ago to learn about their customs. He entitled the book he wrote about his discoveries "The King in Every Man."There is nothing that has been said about the Igbo that is more accurate than this. When did we start to think that there was no Igbo good enough to govern Nigeria, that it was only foreigners who should have kings?
When did the Igbo discover that what was good for Nigeria was dictatorship, government by heartless people? A friend of mine from home and I were conversing about it not long ago, at my house in America. What my friend said was that democracy was not for us, that what we needed was 'a strong man" like Abacha, one whom the white people would fear. I told him to please stop! This time he became specific. He told me that he did not understand what I was saying. It was I who wrote Things Fall Apart. Was not Okonkwo "a strong man," was he not the type of person the Igbo selected to rule them?
This should have come as a surprise to me, yet it did not, because it was not the first time I had seen someone misunderstand Things Fall Apart. Several years ago a professor from Germany came to see me. The question he asked me was not really a question; rather he was telling me how things stood. He asked me if Okonkwo was representative of the Igbo people.
I then told him that he was, but he was not--this confounded the man; all he could do was scold me. I laughed to myself because I understood the problem I had given this man; the man had already written his thesis on Okonkwo as a representative of the Igbo, had come to get confirmation, and I had thrown sand iinto his gari [grated cassava].
Igbo thought is not drawn from the top of the water; it is very deep. It is not a dance that you do after gathering snuff in the hand. My friend who was an Igbo came to my house and did not understand Okonkwo's situation, a scholar from Germany came and did not understand it. But above all, Okonkwo himself did not understand it!
Okonkwo was a strong, diligent man, who tried hard, spoke the truth, amassed wealth, took titles. All of those were things the Igbo said should be done. It was not only that people spoke to him this way, they spoke to him loudly. Okonkwo heard, then acted. But there is another thing the Igbo whispers in our ears. He says that if something stands, something else stands against it; if we take up guns and
knives, we should not criticize the flute and the gong and the calabash in the women's meeting, and those in Okonkwo's deepest thoughts did not hear this message that was sent in a small voice. Umuofia then did not support him on the day he broke his leg and fell into the fire.
The Igbo teach that a man should not go home by the same path that another man takes. This is a good teaching. But if one misunderstands this teaching, he might think that all people are equally endowed in the various gifts of God. The town that thinks like this will not progress.
One who says that democracy is not good for the Igbo does not understand the Igbo nor does he understand democracy. The Igbo govern themselves town by town. If there is something important for the town to discuss the gong is sounded, all the men who are old enough to speak go and arrange themselves at the town square; the matter is discussed in public. The Igbo do not send a "representative"--someone who will speak out for them. It is obvious that this thing the Igbo were doing since ancient times is established as the first principle of democracy, or the father of democracy.
We cannot say that we should turn back and start to follow the ancient ways, because we are not the only ones who own our land. But one should not use this to argue that democracy is beyond us or that it is too much for us. Rather, what we should be considering, and considering strongly, is how we will learn to select the messengers who will be going to the various houses of assembly to represent us ably when they get there. When the debates over independence started in Nigeria, one young man with fire in his heart went to ?ka to seek votes to enter the "House of Assembly." At that time, that type of political oratory was not familiar to many people. The young man traveled around and spread his messages of war and fighting about how to chase away the white people immediately, take their positions and distribute them to our children. One elderly man then asked him this question: In designating the one you all will send, will mad people be included, or those who are sane?
What is important for us today is government by those who are sane. We don't want government by fools. It is true that suffering and hunger are in our towns today. But it is in times like this that a town falls into the traps of fools. That means that we shuld be very careful in choosing those we will send out to become our eyes and ears. A fool will not be our eyes and ears, but he will be our stomach, eating both his own share and ours. The writer Chinweizu used as an example the type of person on whom is placed a great masquerade who is controlled by a rope from behind, then comes out into the path and chases away the young men who hold it; then there is fear!
When I was very young there was a well-known strong man in our town. He grew to adulthood, was good-looking, could speak well, but he practiced thievery. However, he did not do it at home; he used to travel out. What he did was, in midday when everyone had gone to their farms, he entered our neighboring towns, carried away goats and went home. As he kept on doing this, the people of this town then got ready for him. When he came again and stole, as he was carrying off his loot, eight young men came out, surrounded him, took a six-inch nail, drove it into his head, and left him; he ran for his life toward home, and collapsed on the ground.
The man's people went and picked him up, arranged him properly, sat him down the way it was done at that time, took a red cap and put it on his head, and told the townspeople that he died a natural death. They then went to the house of bereavement, carried the corpse around, when the nail that was in the man's brain, as if he were sitting here and doing whatever, suddenly exploded and threw the red hat into the yard. Those who had come to the house of mourning, and the one who had carried the corpse around, forgave the man.
This is not a good story, but I tell it so that we may remember that foolishness is not new. Also, that humans are responsible for their own foolishness; that brothers who cover up their children's bad deeds are wasting their time, because you do not use the palm of the hand to cover up diarrhea.
The fools in our politics are those people in their towns who are responsible for speaking to their children, before something bad suddenly breaks out, and really sends everyone scurrying. I am not saying that nothing is going well in Igboland. There are many things that one can say are going well. The way Dr. Alex Ekwueme accepted the way things went in the presidential election shows the behavior of a good citizen. The politics of "all or nothing" is what is seen in a town that is uneducated, a hungry town, a town of people who do not know what to say.
Let us start by abandoning "all or nothing" and work together to lift up Igboland, so that it may shine like gold in the rising sun.
Several things that I said about the work of T. J. Dennis in Onitsha came from a new book by John Goodchild which is being published, which he calls Dennis and the Ibo Bible. I thank him for this help.
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