At the dawn of every New Year, I try to acquaint myself on what the United Nations in their status as a leading development agency prioritizes to guide development programme in the world’s third sector. Its exciting that 2019 is proclaimed as the International year of Indigenous Languages. To set it rolling, I sought literature that best captures the challenges faced by indigenous languages across the world.
As if anticipating 2019 as the year for language rights, The Extinction of Menai by Chuma Nwokolo arrived in our bookstores and shelves not just as a novel but a cultural bible that demonstrates how language and culture are inseparable, how a viable culture and language could gradually become extinct. The replacement of a culture or language by another either forcefully or mildly, by human or natural activities, to the extent that the original culture is eclipsed is a dreaded phenomenon, and mitigating it has become of global concern, addressed by UNESCO.
Through the character of Dr. Ehi Fowoka, we learn of the Menai Ethnic Nation right beneath their piece of sky in Kreektown. Set across the continents of Africa and Europe, these descendants of the historic Meroe civilization had through ancient migration become the Menai’s in Kreektown, sited somewhere in Nigeria’s Niger-Delta. In the character of Foreign Aid, the rogue drug trial by the Multinational Trevi provokes the unfolding apocalypse looming over the Menai . The people, their language and culture are left with genocidal consequences with the death of each member; Wuida the daughter of a seafarer and herbalist of the first water dies with all knowledge of herbal remedies gone with her, Weaver Kakandu Menai’s last weaver no longer weaved beautiful marriage clothes, weaving burial shrouds had killed the Menai Weave. The older Menai’s knew the Mata’s rendition that went on for a stretch five hours, they knew the power of the Singateya, the sound of the Mananga, the singing Jamayas. By the day, there is no one to play the Tanda ma, no one is left to sing their calamity. And through Mata Nimito’s journey, we find that the heart of the Menai’s remain planted in the places they lost.
Ehi Fowoka is commissioned to research the psychiatric fate of a doomed ethnic nation by frightened politicians who fear the potentials of Menai becoming another Ogoni, and the Menai society becoming another Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. But what bites most is not their psychiatric fate but the imminent extinction of the sophisticated Menai Language and deeply rooted culture.
‘The Menai are facing a double whammy, of course: they will die out with their language… I shall be recommending a symbolic state funeral when the last ethnic nation dies. For them and the dozens of other languages on the brink of extinction.’
‘And if the extinction of Menai is such a tragedy, we should all go and plait nooses! None of the children of my Urhobo, Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa and Efik colleagues can ask for water in any language besides English. If the instructions of Life were written in our ancestral languages, our next generation would be doomed. It will take a few years, but even our bigger languages are heading for extinction with a psychedelic accent.’
Ehi Fowoka who is acclaimed the most important academic authority worldwide on the Menai takes time to reflect introspectively bearing on what he knows of the Menai and how his parenting of his daughter has poorly appreciated the state of intergenerational language transmission and preservation of the indigenous language.
“I mean, in most parts of Nigeria, all a five year-old will know of his ancestry is that his father is called Papa and his Mother, Mama. The average Menai five year-old will name five or six generations of his maternal and paternal ancestry without breaking a sweat. And I have seen Menai gatherings with forty, fifty adults reciting hour-long, word perfect historysongs in tandem.”
“With my own daughters, I have tried to change things, addressing the odd comment to them in our language, but they just give me this pitying look, and I have to admit, at ages thirteen and fourteen, I may have left it too late…”
Fowoka’s reflections are consistent with the fact that African children born three or four generations before as younger characters like Zanda, can only see their world through the lens of English Language and not the indigenous languages like the Menai language. The Menai’s owned a sophisticated language grown from their ancient civilization, which enables them to store history and is represented textually, however the Menai language like many indigenous language is not a language of choice. The domain of language rights may recognize all languages as equal, but in practice, the colonizer’s languages; English and French are more equal than others.
Chuma Nwokolo’s poignant narratives further calls to question what happens to a language in the transition of societies from being under-developed to developed. Through the struggles of Fowoka, it challenges the role of development practitioners in reinforcing language loss through programming interventions in languages that diminish the pre-existing mother-tongue and cultures of the indigenous people we desire to protect. Does our poor utilization of a people’s languages in working with them contribute to extinction or preservation of such indigenous languages?
Bell Viliami in the work,”The only way for minority cultural survival” notes that the domains of human life serves as the battlegrounds by which we witness the immense cultural and language losses of recent. For eclipsing indigenous languages, restoration can also happen in the domains of human life;through collective human action. The characters of Sheesti Kruma and Mata Nimoto the philosopher guide shows us how giving indigenous languages an identity function, vehicularity and enabling inter-generational language transmission and documentation can in effect raise its societal profile. In my most favorite part of this book, they began with a re-naming ceremony which acknowledged and re-positioned their indigenous experiences to a priority place. They showed symbolically how healing and restoration happens for language and culture; how healing our dying culture can heal our identity
Mata Nimito named all Menai. He was an old man that the town mostly forgot, until there was a need to remember him: burials, naming, disputes… Nobody would ever consider him a friend…But he did have that playful way with my name.
‘Eniemute?’ A warm glow started in me. The love for a husband comes from a region of the mind. The love for a father comes from another. There is no crossover. I felt a glow building from a hearth I had thought was terminally broken. I told him of my children, their names…
With a dry mouth I described Moses: the long limbs he owed to his father, his quick temper…
Amezi, he said.
I described Cynthia, who looked so much like my baby photograph…
Anosso, he said.
…And then I described my baby, Patricia, who had the nurses pledging their sons in marriage
Ogazi, he said.
The naming was complete.
Then he began to sing my torqwa! I that was dead to Menai! I fell on my knees, enthralled again by the antiquity of my lineage. I knelt there streaming in tears as the poetry of my identity bore me from the caravan of the exiled crown prince through the dunes and deserts and the savannahs and the forests and creeks of their sojourns. I listened to the descendants of young Auta, trumpeter in the court of the crown prince, Xera and his wife, Aila, daughter of Numisa, until
Rumieta Kroma the trader of cloth
Married Teacher Gaius from Igarra
To birth Sheesti, little mother
Who, with Denle, son of Alanta, scion of Esie, built pillars for Menai:
Three pillars of Ameizi, fierce athlete,
Anosso her mother’s cunning vomitimage
And Ogazi the fair, for Menai without end…
For the first time since the arrival of my children, I felt they were not stillborn. They were named, properly named from the font of all Menai…in the land of my ancestorsMenai, my children were known.”
Many academic research are in tandem with this. In difference to many academic writings telling about culture and language extinction, Chuma Nwokolo does not tell us, he shows us how languages and cultural extinction are not inseparable from human actions and inaction. His work reminds us further on the need to check our language status and the role the daily choices we make plays in its extinction.
Moons will wax and wane, but the Extinction of Menai by Chuma Nwokolo shall never depart from my shelf. My review does no justice to this powerful book, and no single review can. We can only do justice by reading it and taking from it our own spiritual and cultural awakening just like I have.
~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye