A Word is Enough for the Wise

This final installation of the Speaking “Nigerian” series is about the amazing talent we have of summarising an hour of intense conversation into one short, sarcasm-laced proverb.

When your parents are tired of slapping and shouting at you, they offer a proverb, delivering it calmly and solemnly which often has a more terrifying effect than ten strokes of cane.  We resort to these ancient words of wisdom to admonish, advise and abuse a person.

Though seemingly cryptic, nothing speaks more clearly about daily life than proverbs.  For example, a hungry man is an angry man and “I am hungry”, cannot be said by whistling.  So, to be taken seriously, the man needs to display his anger somehow.  That’s why the wife says,Now the marriage begins”, after she’s been beaten with thorns.  You might ask, “So where’s the love in marriage?”.  Well, the ant does not love the corn stalk deeply so human beings can only love you a little.  Horrid example, I know; but the point is: Proverbs speak the bitter truth plainly with no sugar coating.

Some proverbs are just hilarious and offer questionable advice such as, he who marries a beauty marries trouble.  Maybe that’s why girlfriends are generally hotter than the ‘wife material’ Nigerian men prefer to marry eventually.   Some other sayings make no sense at all – a woman possessed by demons dreams of toads in red dancing shoes.  Maybe I just don’t get the cultural setting.

Proverbs are incredibly prophetic.  Any wealth that takes only a market week to acquire definitely contains in it things for which the gods will surely come to make claims.  The former National Security Adviser, Dasuki, and Badeh the ex-Defence Chief should have taken heed to that one before they decided to steal – sorry, I mean ‘allegedly divert’ – $2.1 billion meant for the fight against Boko Haram.

We should pay attention to our proverbs once in a while.  Only a foolish town crier does not listen to his own words.  We have a not-so-funny habit of beating children for the same crimes we ourselves commit, and most often than not, we do them on grander scales.

Here’s a list of more Nigerian proverbs to tickle your fancy:

A child who is carried on the back will not know how far the journey is.

A lounging lizard catches no crickets.

A person is a guest for one or two days, but becomes an intruder on the third.

A tree is best measured when it’s down.

Before you ask a man for clothes, look at the clothes that he is wearing.

Choose your neighbours before you buy your house.

Fine words do not produce food.

He who pursues an innocent chicken always stumbles.

Hold a true friend with both your hands.

If u don’t want to see evil, talk to your legs

The lizard that jumped from the high iroko tree said he would praise himself if no one else did.


Image| talking drum| Source: digitaltemi, Flickr


Can You Hear Me?

[Phone rings]







Above is a typical phone conversation I hear every day here. I even do it myself. We use bad network as an excuse for our raised voices but even when the line is crystal clear we still shout. We just can’t help it.

Shouting is an essential part of communication in Nigeria. If you are not shouting, then surely what you are saying cannot be important. That’s why we see those jesters howling at each other in parliament, and why the voice-overs for Yoruba film trailers are always screaming.

There are exclusive phrases that must be shouted and not merely said or whispered, each with their own unique situations. “BLOOD OF JESUS!” is for when you are shocked or receive a fright. For instance, when you almost get hit by a speeding driver who doesn’t know their car came with mirrors, or when you see something scary, strange and unfamiliar. “JESUS IS LORD” is reserved as your first reaction when something unthinkable happens. Let’s say when your daughter comes home and tells you that she’s moving in with her boyfriend or that she’s pregnant. There are also “CHAI!” and “KAI!”. One is not exactly sure what they mean but they make lovely melodramatic punctuations at the end of sentences. However, they are rather electrifying when said on their own.

I love watching passengers yell at danfo bus conductors on the streets of Lagos. On Monday, I saw a woman arguing, no, destroying a conductor. She looked as if she was ready to eat him alive. She had a small fragile frame, elegant weaves and a well made-up face. Dressed to impress. And she was aggressive. Though the conductor, a man bigger and taller than she, kept throwing sharp retorts, you could see the unmistakable look of fear in his eyes. With flare, she pointed her long fingers at his face – hand gestures are essential when shouting – “YOU ARE STUPID! YOU ARE AN IDIOT! YOU ARE A FOOL!”

We even shout when using a microphone. I wouldn’t wish my worst enemy to be the one with the seat next to speakers at a party or in a church. Ears ring for days after having to listen to a thousand “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!” and “HALLELUYAH!!!” coming from those humungous old school speakers with their volume as high as it can be. The primary purpose of a microphone is to project one’s voice, not just a fashion statement for the camera. No need to shout and burst eardrums.

Come to think of it, I wonder if the quality of the average Nigerian’s hearing is less than the world average. Perhaps that’s why we shout so much… Nah, we just love shouting.

Fake Accent Disorder

Nowadays, only the brave can listen to certain radio stations.  One has to be almost sadistic to inflict such torture on the ears.  The strange sounds that come out of presenters’ mouths serve as classic examples of Fake Accent Disorder (FAD), a psychological condition that is troubling the country.

FAD is the inability to speak with one’s native accent.  In Nigeria, it is the preference of the voice box for a horrendous imitation of an American accent if you are a radio or television presenter, or a ghastly ‘British’ accent for people who work in education and cooperate executives.  The effects on uninfected listeners include: aching ears, hysterical laughter and a state of confusion due to the unintelligibility of the speaker’s words.

This does not concern people who speak in a non-Nigerian accent as a result of a childhood abroad.  However, FAD explains why a person returns home speaking in a different accent after a two-week holiday overseas, and why someone who has never left their state speaks phonè (short for phonetics; meaning fake foreign accent).  FAD sufferers seem to be under the impression that anyone who doesn’t speak with a foreign accent must be beneath them.

The degree of FAD manifestation varies from person to person.  Some individuals speak phonè all the time.  In some others, FAD is only observed in public speaking.  Yet there are sufferers that are only symptomatic when in the presence of a foreigner, particularly a Caucasian.

All cases of FAD stem from a deadly psychological state called colonial mentality – also referred to as colomentality by the country’s finest ever psychologist, Fela Kuti.  Colomentality first hinders an individual’s thinking faculty, creating an inferiority complex, thereby paving the way for the development of FAD.  Thus, FAD simply expresses a desire to be regarded as sophisticated and intelligent as the Great White Man.

In most cases, FAD is completely voluntary and can be managed; however, in some individuals, where colomentality is at its most severe, the sufferer has no control.  This is most often observed in people who speak with an atrocious and unidentifiable accent in the presence of foreigners.

The people we are trying to imitate all speak with their native accents so what’s wrong with our own pronunciation?  Is our accent really that grotesque?  Does an American or British person ever change their accent for us?  They may slow the speed of their speech but their intonation and pronunciation remain the same.  Their accent does not change.

So, flaunt your h-factor.  Let h-everyone see how h-exceptional your h-accent h-is.  If they don’t understand, repeat yourself and slow down.  Take full pride in all the varieties of the Nigerian accent.  Speak it everywhere with confidence.


Speaking “Nigerian”

Of course there is no such language as Nigerian but one cannot deny that as a people we have a unique manner of communication.  That’s what these 500 words discuss here and in the next few posts.

Nigerians know how to add spice and colour to everything including the English language.  With our “vacate this place” (leave), “let us come and be going” (let’s go) and “go-slow” (traffic), we make English more mesmerising.  Even archaic and rather extreme words like ‘vex’ and ‘provoke’ are given a youthful appeal when used in everyday conversation here.  The few times one ever hears the word ‘vex’ in Britain is during  Jane Austen or Shakespeare readings.  However, in Nigeria it’s almost a slang.  The sharp retort, “don’t vex me”, definitely sounds a lot cooler than “you’ve made me upset”.

English, the language of our colonial masters, is our lingua franca given that no one knows how many hundreds of languages there are in Nigeria and where to draw the line between distinct languages and dialects.  Over time, pidgin English has emerged as a more potent form of communication.  It’s a somewhat bold and snappy hybrid of English and local languages.  “It is a boy”, for example, becomes “na boy”.  We should take pride in pidgin instead of suppressing it like we are sadly doing to other Nigerian languages.  It is our invention.  Parents tend to harbour a dislike for pidgin in their children in favour of ‘proper’ English; but what is English if not pidgin German?

Furthermore, there seems to be no consensus on what ‘proper’ English really is in Nigeria. Officially we speak British English but school textbooks may be in American English or a mixture of the two.  The majority of newspaper and television advertisements read ‘center’ rather than ‘centre’ and ‘favorite’ in place of ‘favourite’.  If we are to use this English by force, please do tell us which one.

Just a side thought, why is it that many politicians – the people for whom good communication is crucial – seem to be incapable of formulating coherent speeches?  It makes one wonder how they were voted into office.  Watch a speech delivered in pristine clarity by the first Prime Minister to see that speaking well is possible.  Maybe our leaders don’t want us to listen but focus on their empty pomp and circumstance because politicians themselves know that they stand for nothing.

Sarcasm is genetic.  We resort to sarcasm as the best way of getting our point across and for the most painful of insults.  Nigerians are experts at giving abuses.  We don’t even need to speak words to do so.  Our DNA is programmed to transcribe a sequence that codes for the most malign of evil eyes.  Just one look from a well-formed evil eye will paralyse a person with fear.  The heaving of shoulders and hissing, the drawing downwards of the corners of the lips in disapproval, the pulled back horizontal lips accompanied by raised eyebrows that say “I told you so”, all are also essential expressions that make a dry and uneventful language like English sweeter and almost alive.