Language activists and the retirement of Ijaw language 

That Jonathan in the Delta


“Izontu mi egberi mi mo ami na weri emi? Bele boseria kuro emi!”


Ijaw is dead! The death occurred yesterday. For decades Ijaw had been depressed caused by afflictions of the disease named ‘IZONFIYEBOWAISM’. She committed suicide out of the depression of being recklessly abandoned by her own children for whom she had laboured devotedly to nurture to maturity – that communicatively rich language called Ijaw language that linguistically enjoys dialectal variations whenever it is spoken in the clans/kingdoms that historically constitute Ijaw – Mein, Gbaramatu, Ogbe-Ijoh, Obotebe, Isaba, Iduwini, Kabo, Kumbo, Ogulagha, Operemo, Ibani, Bille, Kalabari, Ke, Kula, Nkoro, Okirika, Opobo, Andoni, Tungbo, Opokuma, Oporoma, Apoi, Olodiama, Ogbia, Ogboin, Okodia, Seimbiri, Tarakiri, Tuomo, Egbema, Furupagha, Arogbo, Akassa, Bassan, Beni-Oyakiri, Bumo, Buseni, Ekpetiama, Epei-Attisa, Gbaran, Kolokuma and Nembe as it is in the book THE IZON OF THE NIGER DELTA edited by Ebiegberi Joe Alagoa, Tekena Nitonye Tamuno and John Pepper Clark.

I have been to many places in Ijaw, sometimes by human-assisted telepathy, mental projections and meditations aided evidentially by telephone conversations with different people. Specifically I have been to Warri South-West, Bomadi, Burutu and Patani Local Government Areas of Delta State. In all these places physically visited and visited by projections telephonically confirmed, I discovered a treasure trove of believable statistics of nonchalance and indignity displayed towards the Ijaw language by its own people, and this is contrary to the efforts of Timiebi Maika directed at the survival and indestructibility of the Ijaw language through her stories told in Ijaw to make the language grow because a language in stories can never die as it travels and flows with the people like waterweeds that journey to anywhere the tide carries them. Waterweeds can die only when the tide dies and the tide can never die as long as this world still exists by God’s decree as it is with language stored by people through constant communications and uses – which is an echo of Professor Kay Williamson’s exhortation that goes thus: ‘USE OR LOSE YOUR LANGUAGE’.

Driven by strength gathered from all these evidence-laden journeys and conversations drawn from both the young and the old, it is with grief, sorrow and sadness I announce the death of Ijaw language whose funerary activities are now being held daily as a herald of the final burial. Unlike the final burial rites of Timiebi Maika fixed for 25 November 2022 in Oyangbene, the final burial rites of Ijaw language would be likely fixed after the frenzied pre-burial formalities.

Ijaw the fourth largest ethnic group in Nigeria naturally endowed with abundant oil and gas resources but burdened by political marginalisation, environmental degradation and underdevelopment is terribly endangered here in terms of its language development and growth.Whether from ignorance or from dignity and pride,I know not, but what I know with certainty is the fact that the Ijaw language is endangered because the Ijaws have decorated their own Ijaw language with a disorientating chokehold. This was perhaps the language endangerment that dominated the mind of Bamgbose when he said:’The fate of an endangered language may lie in the hands of the owners of the language themselves and their will to make it survive’ (The Izon of the Niger Delta,103). And so lies the fate of Ijaw language in the hands of those Ijaws who are so proud it has been ornamented with a chokehold bound to leave only of its own awakened volition which still seems to be many nautical miles away because death is already in the house.Perhaps death from the decorated chokehold!

That Ijaw is dead is made possible by the rebellious activities of persons who refuse to walk on the path ploughed by Gabriel Imomitimi Gbaingbain Okara, JP Clark, Chief Thomas Omette Onduku, Professor Kay Williamson, Chief Matthew London Agbegha, Timiebi Maika and many other activists of Ijaw language. These deviant and rebellious activities need to be highlighted to see if Ijaw could miraculously rise from the death either like Jesus Christ or the phoenix that burns itself and rises from the ashes. The dead Ijaw language may wake up if we work hard and pray because it is not yet three days as anything could still happen between now and when the funereal rites would be over. Could Okara, Clark, Chief Onduku,Chief Agbegha, Professor Williamson and Timiebi Maika have erred when they ploughed the language path for this generation to walk on?

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Okara and all the activists of Ijaw language know that language is not fixed as it has the potential to grow on the developmenting events in the world of its users. Language is also productive, intrinsic, multi-modal, human-specific and non-instinctive as it is authoritatively viewed by Edward Sapir as something ‘purely human and non-instinctive method of communicating ideas, emotions and desires by means of a system of voluntarily produced symbols’. In the critical thinking of David Crystal, ‘Language, like all other skills, does not come naturally, we have to be taught how to use it. Once it has been learnt, we tend to take it for granted.’ Driven by this knowledge of the general configuration of language anywhere in the world, Okara, JP Clark and others laboured to plough the path for Ijaw language to journey away from threats of extinction but these visible marks of language-development have been abandoned recklessly by this generation of Ijaw people.

A normal expectancy from the users of an indigenous language is for sentences to be made first in Ijaw language and thereafter look for its equivalent in English expression. Now people make sentences in English first and then struggle to express it in Ijaw. In this way the natural evocative power of Ijaw, the natural expressive effortlessness, elasticity, carrying all the communicative nuances, disappear through reasoning first in English before relocating to Ijaw.

Only culturally deracinated or rootless writers journey imaginatively first in English. For culturally rooted writers like JP Clark and Okara, they think first in Ijaw and then secondly in English. The original imaginative framework is built in Ijaw and then later painted in English using original Ijaw verbal paints and imagistic resources. The striking newness in the English of Clark and Okara is drawn from Ijaw. The poetry and the technique of indirection resident in the works of Clark are taken from Ijaw. The natural poetry associated with Ijaw people is always drawn on by Clark in his writings and these are echoes of the power of thinking first in your indigenous language before taking on the anglicised journey.

The novel THE VOICE by Okara, a work viewed as a unique creation ‘because it is the first known attempt in fiction by any African writer to compose in an African language and then transliterate into English’ (The Izon of the Niger Delta,198), shows how Ijaw language enriches English expressions though this often results in syntax distortion and reorganisation of English word-order, yet the result is amazing. Like someone who paddles straight from a brook into a river, Okara imaginatively moves into English straight from Ijaw and this produces unique Ijaw expressions no nation other than Ijaw can claim with pride. This is creatively done to protect Ijaw language from extinction. Ebi Yeibo the exceptionally gifted leading new generation poet who teaches at Niger Delta University, Wilberforce Island, Bayelsa State, and some identified Ijaw writers are already on this path. This ploughed path is for all the Ijaw people to walk on so that their language can journey side by side with other languages in the world and interact functionally for communicative purposes.

In all the works of JP Clark there is a visible gravitation towards language-development and growth as he often journeys imaginatively first in Ijaw before English, consequently producing striking verbal constructions. Specifically, Clark’s The Ozidi Saga is written both in English and in Ijaw. Even in the one written in English the Ijawness in the inner built of the expressions is predominant. When a work is written in English and then translated into Ijaw, it is geared towards the development and growth of Ijaw language because, as C. Budonyefa Agbegha contends, ‘For Izon to be alive we must use it at all times, we must study and develop it’. This is the ploughed path for all to walk on but has this generation walked on this ploughed path?

The creatively anchored efforts of Okara and JP Clark towards the development and growth of Ijaw language may not ring a loud bell in the ears of some Ijaw people. If this is true, what about the efforts of Chief Onduku? Chief Onduku (1923-2008) the first secretary of Western Ijaw Language Committee(1965-1976), one-time Chairman, Delta State Ijaw Language Committee, member Izon History Compendium headed by Professor E.J.Alagoa, the author of ESSENTIALS OF IZON GRAMMAR AND SPELLLINGS FOR SCHOOLS AND COLLEGES and many other books in Izon language ‘was the progenitor of Izon language orthography’ and was part of the team that translated The Ozidi Saga of JP Clark from English into Ijaw. All these efforts are borne out of the genuine desire to develop the Ijaw language. Has this generation ever bothered to look for these books and be grounded in the essentials of Ijaw language?

Has it equally been heard by this rebellious generation that an Oyibo woman of British extraction was remarkably instrumental in the development and growth of Ijaw language? Kay Williamson, a Professor of Linguistics at University of Ibadan and University of Port Harcourt, is the Oyibo woman who devoted her intellectual resources to the development and growth of Ijaw language. Professor Kay Williamson is a British linguist with a specialty in the study of African languages, especially languages of the Niger Delta in Nigeria. She was born 26 January 1935 and died 3 January 2005. She was the author of the book, A GRAMMAR OF THE KOLOKUMA DIALECT OF IJO, first published in 1968. Until her death in 2005, she was devoted to the development and growth of Ijaw language. A great Briton she was unto death. She is unforgettably among those who have ploughed the path for Ijaw language to grow.Professor Kay Williamson devotedly laid this indestructible foundation for Ijaw language to grow beyond the thorns of extinction because she believed like C.Budonyefa Agbegha who still believes that: ‘It is therefore the responsibility of every Izon son and daughter to rescue the language from extinction’.

It is also historically on the path of professor Kay Williamson that Chief Matthew London Agbegha (1912-1999) of Ayakoromo town in Burutu Local Government Area of Delta State, a revered catechist in the Roman catholic church, walked unwaveringly from birth.Chief Agbegha was among those who ploughed the path for the advancement of Ijaw language. Chief Agbegha was a reputable activist of Ijaw language advancement. It was he who authored IZON-ENGLISH VOCABULARY(1961) and IZON-ENGLISH DICTIONARY BASED ON THE MEIN DIALECT(1996).

The moves of Okara, Clark, Williamson, Onduku and Agbegha are visible enough for anyone to see; yet some may attitudinally pretend not to be aware of them. If we must take them for their pretentious claim, would they also claim ignorance over the the language-advancement efforts of S.K. Karibo, Cardinal Jim Rex Lawson, King Robert Ebizimor, Bestman Doupere, Hon. Teiyeibo Agbeotu, Professor Ik Belemu, Field Marshall Echo Toikumo, King Fezena Pius Alabeni, King Allen Alabor, King Alfred Izonebi, Barrister Smooth, King Pereama Freetown, Ball-ere, Bekedoumo, Birifou, Kuro-endi, Binta, Minister Izonfade Bouy, Boware M. Bakumor, Golipat, Abraham Young, Kennedy Duduku, Joseph Ekeremieye, Intelligent Odogwu Emeka, Glad Ozidi, Best May, Bestman B, Bestman Bibowei, Smally Okpe, Thankgod Ayagbene, Gift Ebigba, Brown Kesina, Fereborn, Queen Smith, Godfrey Smooth, Alex Kimaki, Ogbomudia, Omoko, Eseimokumo, Peremobowei Okpe, Kingsley Takemebo, General Ebikabowei, Dr. Boatman, President Rufus Ayafou, Eniekenemi Fred, Eyeoyagha Kalu, Abasa, Okito, Eniye Egole, Fiyebo Endurance,Karinto Fokitei, A.S. Eseduwo, Skido Ozidy, Prince Abraham P. Dono, Fine S. Diaware, Anthony Cockson, Pinnock Timiebi, Shadrach Fine, Peremobowei Okpe, Kentel Bekeyeibo and many other musicians who have been using music to anchor the development, advancement and growth of Ijaw language? The language-advancement efforts of Ijaw musicians cannot be denied by any iguana because they constantly deafen everywhere with their thematically and instrumentally striking songs.

The direct movement of Ijawness into English expressions pioneered by Okara, and then followed by others in varying degrees is a display of the communicative sophistication and richness of Ijaw language in the midst of other languages. Ijaw intermingled with English transforms the communicative and imagistic power of English and this is critically branded Ijaw English with a distorted syntax and word-order grammatically alien to English language.

It scalds one like hot water to know that some people grew up in Burutu, Warri, Bomadi and Ogbe-Ijoh here in Nigeria and yet admit shamelessly that they cannot speak Ijaw language fluently when we know of people who spent their entire life abroad with their families but still communicate flawlessly in Ijaw language. This was the ugly phenomenon that bothered Chief Matthew London Agbegha of Ayakoromo town when he said: ‘It is an indisputable fact that our vocabulary is on the verge of decaying simply because we tend to speak English in our everyday conversations rather than our mother-tongue whereby we are identified’.

Chief Agbegha’s observation bordering on how the Ijaw vocabulary has been begun to decline and the questionable penchant for communicating in English just highlighted, necessitates some questions here: Who is being fake, nonchallant, pretentious, unrealistic and deceptive here? Are these nonchallant and pretentious people not the cause of the death of Ijaw language over which funereal vigil is kept in preparation for the final burial rites? Is it not better to publicly discard indigeneship of Ijaw when you cannot speak Ijaw language despite being raised in an environment where your own parents flawlessly speak Ijaw right from your childhood to adulthood in addition to the ubiquity of the book entitled IJAW-ENGLISH VOCABULARY authored by Chief Matthew London Agbegha in 1961?Is there any dignifying ‘Asiyai’ or ‘Erewou’ in not being able to communicate in Ijaw language?

In the hands of a culturally rooted person who speaks Ijaw flawlessly or who casts his sentences first in Ijaw and deposits the Ijaw structures in English when English is to be spoken or written, when English and Ijaw journey together, a third force of expression is created. That third force is a unique expression of thoughts whose sentential originality English can never claim because the sentences are built into striking verbal architectural shapes with resources drawn from Ijaw. The expressive uniqueness in the third force sometimes makes critics term it Ijaw English just as we have British English, American English and many others.

Even with the communicative possibilities buried in Ijaw either as a third force when English is spoken or when Ijaw is spoken flawlessly, users of language still demonstrate bizarre antagonism towards using Ijaw in communicating ideas, emotions and desires with the correct accent, pronunciation, stress and intonation. The present group of Ijaw people have deserted this path and have deliberately put in place mechanism bound to endanger the Ijaw language and foreclose its resurrection possibilities as expected when Jesus Christ died. In every step taken they devise ways to deaden the operationalisation of Ijaw as a language designed to be spoken constantly so that it can grow rapidly like other languages.

Parents and politicians who should ideally be agents for the advancement of Ijaws language have attitudinally killed this possibility. Parents and their children daily speak English. At schools Ijaw language is not taught. Students and pupils are given orientation to dream in English at night and speak English at dawn. In Bomadi, Burutu, Patani, Warri South-West, Patani and many other places, the dependable canoe of communication is undilutedly English and it is even done with shameless pride and imagined dignity. The new status-enhancement symbol is to speak English and dramatise how great sentences can be orally delivered with ornamentation and ease. How well parents and their children speak English has become a status-symbol in the society. Even among most politicians people look up to for moral and political direction, both simple and complex political arguments and analyses are rendered in English so that the apparently most fluent users of English language in the course of arguments and political analyses even within a totally homogenous Ijaw gathering could be commended or applauded as a man of erudition. These are the culturally rootless people who are not bothered by the fate that awaits their language in future. Politicians,parents and their children who labour to publicly dramatise their fluency and proficiency in English and move sadly away from purposeful cultivation of balanced and healthy bilingualism need to be reawakened and conscientised by Professor Kay Williamson on the right route to take when it borders on communicating in languages:’The children are going to learn English at school;let them learn their own languages at home,so that they face the world with more than one language'(The Izon of the Niger Delta,111).

Cultural rootlessness is infectious and dangerous because it threatens the republic of culture and cultural development.For some people whose right to existence and social dignity is that of irredeemable cultural rootlessness, they pontificate publicly that their children speak simple and correct English day and night at home and school and that they don’t know how to speak Ijaw and pidgin English. For these irredeemable culturally rootless individuals, an award-winning dignity lies in being unable to journey fluently in Ijaw language when engaged in communication. These are the undesirable elements working hard to bury the dead Ijaw language with pomp and pageantry when the funerary activities are over.

Fast becoming a norm whenever parents and politicians are gathered is the use of English as an agent of social stratification and a derogatory tool for looking down on people seen as habitual users of native language when communicating. At such gatherings simple and correct English and Pidgin journey interchangeably as the landlords of the communication space like turbidity-blinded fishes that emerge from the depth of the river and gasp on the surface of the river, and sometimes,when unfortunate, speared with deadly accuracy by fish-hunters. Among culturally dead individuals, assessment of intelligence quotient of people is now done in English. No wonder some women courted for either marriage or situationship would want to see how well one uses English and say either yes or no. There are women who would not marry or befriend a man just because the man’s English is badly-grammared, full of Ijaw original structures and accent when being full of Ijaw should ideally move women to okay the solicited relationship. We are gone! This generation is gone! This is perhaps why C.Budonyefa Agbegha is worried when he says:’The most worrisome thing is that Pidgin is spoken not only in the street corners and market places but right into the bedroom even in homes where both parents are Ijaw’.

Predictably, Budonyefa Agbegha is more worried by the fast advancing forces of invasion and encroachment upon the Ijaw language in different parts of Nigeria, particularly in Ondo and Delta States.Among the Apois in Ondo State the Arogbo dialect of Ijaw language is being invaded and assimilated by Yoruba and Ilaje in communication as it is in Patani where it is invaded and endangered communicatively by Isoko and Ukwani, and in Kiagbodo in Delta State where Ijaw is communicatively encircled and dominated by Urhobo. This communicative invasion,encroachment, endangerment and encirclement can also be located in Bedeseigha(Bulou Apelebiri) where the Kumbo dialect is communicatively threatened by Urhobo. All these are visible signals of a language entangled in spasms of death, frothing all over the mouth like an epilepsy-struck forester because the Ijaws have attitudinally begun to lose a firm grip of their language in communication.

There is a confirmed antagonism demonstrated against Ijaw language by this generation and this has even been extended to me. Some of my readers have critically pointed out that neologisms journey boundlessly in my writings, originating more from Ijaw than from English. They hold the view that my neologisms characteristically carry my Ijawness. My readers are very right here. My neologisms are indeed consciously drawn from Ijaw for the growth of the Ijaw language because language anywhere functions as a store of knowledge, an instrument of peace and unity, a tool for emotional relief, a tool that aids invention and it is mastered and acquired. A language replete with neologisms whose vocabulary is constantly put into use can hardly die because people communicate everyday using the neologisms as lexical items.

From the journey taken so far, it remains a fact that Ijaw language is dead because the Ijaw people have vehemently refused to walk on the ploughed path for its advancement. For the bereaved anywhere on earth, conscious or accidental resuscitation is their constant meditation. If Ijaw language must be reawakened from its deep slumber, conscious efforts must be renewed and reinforced with all the vigour in the world to speak the Ijaw language fluently as an indigenous language, and as a third force for communication.Towards this path of resuscitation, users of Ijaw language must reason first in Ijaw and bring their Ijawness into English and transform its communicative power in such a way that the marks of Ijawness can always be located in the third force. This is the only way the dead Ijaw language can be awakened from death and be denied burial very much unlike Timiebi Maika whose final burial rites fixed for 25 November 2022 can never be denied her in Oyangbene on the agreed day.

Nothing can be more nourishing and beneficial in a situation when pragmatic preparedness to walk on the ploughed path becomes the renewed resolve of Ijaw people; and when this projection becomes a concrete dream, the likes of Okara, Jp Clark, Chief Onduku, Chief Agbegha, Kay Williamson and Timiebi would become very proud in the underworld because it signals the fact that their pioneering efforts to develop and advance Ijaw language have been deeply appreciated by this generation – which would be tantamount to carving an indestructible canoe for the Ijaw language to journey everywhere without self-inflicted bruises! Izontu mi egberi mi mo ami na weri emi? Bele boseria kuro emi!

Enewaridideke, writes from Akparemogbene, Delta state.

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