Nigerians are in love with language, though meaning is not always a priority - C Don Adinuba hacks through the thickets.
‘I never perused the inner anatomy of the female homo sapiens,” the eminent historian Emmanuel Ayandele once announced to his bewildered students. This was the former vicechancellor’s way of confiding that he had remained chaste throughout his undergraduate programme.
Maybe he had, but his romance with words is clearly torrid. In his infatuation he is not alone, for Africans are great lovers of language.
The dexterous use of any of the colonial languages is considered to be a manifestation of stupendous intellectual accomplishment. It is also a target of satire. Chinua Achebe’s novel No Longer at Ease offers us a “Welcome Address presented to Michael Obi Okonkwo BA (Hons), London, by the officers and members of the Umuofia Progressive Union on the occasion of his return from the United Kingdom in quest of the Golden Fleece”. It opens with: “Sir, we the officer and the members of the above-named union, present with humility and gratitude this token of our appreciation of your unprecedented academic brilliance —” The union secretary also reads out a new arrangement by the town union so that “an endless stream of students will be enabled to drink deep at the Peirian Spring of knowledge”.
Narrates Achebe: “Needless to say, this address was repeatedly interrupted by cheers and the clapping of hands. What a sharp young man their secretary was, all said. He deserved to go to England himself. He wrote the kind of English they admired if not understood: the kind that filled the mouth, like the proverbial dry meat.”
Words hold great interest for new literates in Africa, literary critic Emmanuel Obiechina observes—“an interest which is excited by the very novelty of writing and the written word. The intellectual authors draw attention to this peculiarity in a semi-facetious, semi-satirical tone while the popular writers symptomise it.”
But, even for highbrow writers, meaning is not always a priority. The poet Christopher Okigbo writes: “The only way to go through the marble archway / to the catatonic ping pong / of the evanescent halo ...”
In Toward the Decolonization of African Literature, critics Chinweizu, Onwuchukwa Jemie and Ihechukwu Maduike comment on this extract: “Whatever it is, at least it reads well, it is smooth, it has magic, its images are striking, it is pleasurable. Nonsense perhaps, but pleasurable nonsense.”
Journalistic writing in Africa relishes the pleasure of impenetrable nonsense. Take this example from The Guardian, a daily that prides itself as the flagship of the Nigerian press: “— unless there is a splendrous restructuralisation of the society, we shall have a concatenation in our values.” Another newspaper piece, on the government’s decision to cut workers’ salaries, reads: “The hara-kiri behind the euphemism for sonum manum called pay cut will chloroform the ideological blinter of the peasantised and marginalised proletariat.”
Nigerian media-watcher Mary Kanu complained that during the debate on whether the country should accept an International Monetary Fund loan, she was hit by sentences such as: “Much of the opinion — have [sic] been that of emotional exegesis, ideological fixation, rhetorical epidemics and sentimental parallelism.”
A stunning species is politicians who instead of using “if” speak of “in the contemplated eventuality”. Veteran politician Kingsley Mbadiwe was a consummate dramatist who seemed more interested in the sounds of words than in their meanings.
When something was fantastic and fabulous, it become “fantabulous”. The flamboyant politician, who at times launched “operation earthquake”, “operation bulldozer” and “operation fantastic”, described himself as having graduated from being “a man of timber and calibre” to “a man of steel and iron”, and from being a “mere political institution” to “a political caterpillar” and now “a political juggernaut”.
In 1987 Mbadiwe announced a programme of action against “political agafuism” (agafu is an Igbo word for a rascal). Earlier, under the civilian government of Shehu Shagari, he was “ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary”, a mouthful he cherished.
The grandiloquence of Nigeria’s first president, Nnamdi Azikiwe, was regularly satirised. Writing in the Sunday Concord of September 21 1980, journalist Dele Giwa said Azikiwe’s speech to the Anambra state legislature “read like a page from Roget’s Thesaurus”.
Giwa observed that the president managed to stuff into one sentence the words anarchy, chaos, disloyalty, egoism, indiscipline, insubordination, licence and rebellion. Another claimed vice-president Alex Ekwueme’s speech on party discipline could lead to “sabotage, schism, sedition, subversion, treachery and treason”.
Azikiwe’s pen habitually dripped gall, observed politician Obafemi Awolowo in his autobiography Awo. He imagines Azikiwe denouncing a “ban on palm kernel as ‘a gross betrayal of trust, an indelible stain, blemish and stigma on British imperialism, a vain attempt, a complete misfire and a palpable boner in the realm of divide et impera’”.
The sheer fun this kind of language elicits is evident in Onitsha market literature, a genre thriving in the south-eastern city of the same name. Ogali A Ogali’s Veronica, My Daughter is popular for its highfalutin and bombastic language. A character called Bomber Billy describes his fall: “As I was descending from declivity yesterday, with such an excessive velocity, I suddenly lost the centre of my gravity and precipitated on a macadamized thoroughfare.” A bottle of embrocation is called “voscandum, miscandum and tiscono. This medicine I have in hand is called Grand Electrical, Punctual Demoscandum which cures all diseases incident to humanity.”
The fascination with language is not confined to pamphleteers. J Ade Royasin in TM Aluko’s One Man, One Wife writes a petition for a client that shows more interest in linguistic musicality than in anything else: “I beg Your Honour most respectfully and respectively to carefully and patiently peruse these few lines of a tale of woe and persecution and prosecution perpetuated and perpetrated on your Honour’s most unworthy servant, to wit, my humble self, Longo of Idoka Village.”
Lakunle, the schoolmaster in Wole Soyinka’s The Lion and the Jewel, describes bride price as “a savage custom, barbaric, outdated, rejected, denounced, accursed, excommunicated, archaic, degrading, humiliating, unspeakable, redundant, retrogressive, unpalatable —”
And it is appropriately Soyinka who contributes with Nobel Prize-winning flair Nigerian fiction’s most concisely enigmatic opening. “Metal on concrete jars my drink lobes,” begins his novel The Interpreters. Can you beat that?
C Don Adinuba was a broadcast journalist at Radio Nigeria and chief editorial writer at Satellite newspapers. In 1993 he was special assistant to the Nigerian minister of science and technology. He runs a public affairs consultancy in Lagos