Fiction, International Development

The Extinction of Menai

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.

The Extinction of Menai by Chuma Nwokolo

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

 

Fiction

An Ebola Tale…

The memories began to flow, breaking through the discouragement that was silting up his love for Ma’Kanu. He remembered the Ebola fever outbreak at the end of a state-organised student’s excursion into a wild game reserve. Four of the twenty-four children on the excursion had already died before the Hospital Extension Team from Enugu came for Somto. The Health Officer was a demi-god in those days.
Quarantine! He had screamed.
Odozi may have been located in the lower ranges of Milken Hill, but the sixty-seven kilometres that separated the village from Enugu may as well have been sixty seven years in the past. There were no facilities to retreat anything as virulent as Ebola. It was either the Otawon Infectious Diseases Hospital or nothing.
Ma’Kanu visited Otawon, a desolate place. She found that the IDH was run in the interests of the outside society, rather than the inmates who often came in with one and were buried with a cocktail of infections. A referral there was a deferred death sentence.
She took his antibiotics placebos and went AWOL, returning to Odozi and moving the other children to Dada’s. She lived alone with the dying Somto until she nursed him back to health, to the grudging admiration of a stymied Health Officer…
Ma’Kanu battled the haemorrhagic fever into remission. And her faith was too strong even for the mildest muscle cramp to afflict her.
Slowly he (Somto) pledged, goose bumps breaking out over him: For Ma, I’ll tell my best tale tonight.

Somto’s reflection of his foster-mother’s love is provoked by her request for a last tale as she answers death’s call. IMG_6761Reading this excerpt in One More Tale for the Road by Chuma Nwokolo was a pleasant coincidence. I have almost given up my search for a novel that aptly captures the reality of the virulent Ebola which the world is struggling to contain. I almost gave up thinking that there was no accessible work of fiction that dealt with this comprehensively enough to serve as a discussion starter. Published in 2003, One More Tale for the Road was far-sighted, with characters and scenes that fit today’s reality.
The growing epidemic has indeed sent a shrill wake-up call globally. The above excerpt highlights the isolation of Ebola patients with the scary word QUARANTINE! The lack of structures for responding to treating this scale of disease especially in Africa is stressed.  It draws attention to the risk and helplessness that families and loved ones of patients face in desiring to support their beloved through their illness. ‘Maintain the ABC Rule’ they are told, avoid body contact. This land of vigorous handshakes and hearty hugs has lost its essence, now you certainly can’t hug or hold anyone. This is totally against human nature and unrealistic.
The stigma and discrimination is however not as painful as the lonely and un-dignifying death faced by patients, more so children as was mentioned above.
This book helps in situating strongly, the family as an important institution in the present day discussions on care and support for victims of all violent epidemics. More than any war, Ebola is potentially anti-family; the destruction of families is the fundamental tragedy of this epidemic as can be seen in the Liberian story of Kaizer Dour’s family .

19-ebola-fight
photo culled from Indialive.today http://tiny.cc/1pv3px

Beyond highlighting the Ebola issue, this novel brought to bear the subject of adoption and foster care which is often seen as an anathema in the African society. It questioned the concept of family, challenging the social constructs by deconstructing each character’s root to help them embrace the life they have.  One lesson I take away from engaging this book is that there are no ideals; each person’s reality is indeed their ideal.
I put down One More Tale for the Road praying that like the characters therein, may we all find grace to embrace new realities. There are times we must express love and kindness from a distance, there are times we must stay away from people we love and be with ourselves.  This is it.
 
Written by ~ Adaobi Nkeokelonye