The Igbo child and mother tongue

By Chimamanda Adichie

My father is from Abba in Nchikoka Local Government Area and my mother from Munachi in Dunukofia Local Government Area, both in Anambra, and I grew up in Nsukka in Enugu state.  All of those towns are important in my sense of Identity and so I am thrilled to be here speaking in Igbo land.

I am proud to be a product of Igbo land; Igbo land produced that great political and cultural colossus, Nnamdi Azikwe. Igboland produced that mathematics genius, Professor James Esielo; Nkem Dora Akuyili (RIP). Igbo land produced Nigeria’s first professor of statistics, a man I also happen to call daddy, Professor James Adichie. Igbo land produced the first woman to be the registrar of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, a woman I also happened to call mummy.

Igbo land produced great writers, if Chinua Achebe, Flora Nwapa and Chi Emecheta and Chukwuemeka Nkem had not written the books they did, when and how they did, I would not have had the emotional courage to write my own books and so today I honor them and I stand respectfully in their shadow.

I also stand in great pride in the shadow of so many other daughters and sons of Igbo land. We have much to be proud of in Igbo land, we have many from whom we can take inspiration so I want to start today with a message for all the young people here.

Message to the young people

“Consider yourself a life-long student; never stop learning”. I have a post-graduate degree, but I consider myself a student, a person who will always be eager to learn. I want to ask you to get much formal education you can and also I want to say to you: stay in school.

Even, if you want to start a business, you will be a better businessman or woman if you are literate, if you can think critically and these are all things one gets from education, and I say this, particularly because there are many of us in Igbo land who think that what matters is business.

And, then, Education is not just what somebody teaches you in school; education is also about the effort you make. Reading is essential, and not just reading for school exams, I mean, reading outside what you are asked to.

When I was growing up, I read everything I could find, and, of course, I grew up at a time when the internet was not at its ubiquitous presence as it is now. I know that the internet is here to stay, and I think the internet can be good or bad depending on how we use it.

So, you can use the internet to waste your time, read stupid gossips online, and you can get into meaningless arguments on Facebook, or you can use your data to educate yourself. You can read quality newspapers online, watch a video that teaches you something. The internet is full of free classes that you can access easily. Learn: think of each new day as an opportunity to learn something new.

One of my interests is pre-colonial Africa; I am very curious about whom and what we were before colonialism came. Now, most of recorded history about Igbo people and about many other ethnic groups in Africa came from foreigners.

Men and women who did not speak the language and do not understand the nuances of the culture, which means we have to read everything they write with a certain level of skepticism, but what is consistent about all of the books I have read about pre-colonial Igbo land is that the Igbo people valued integrity; they were known to be frank, known to be people who do not pretend and people who valued open communication between the old and the young, parents and their children and to be people who believed in individual achievements but also felt that consensus is the best way to govern a community.

Value of the Igbo people

Thinking about communication as a value of the Igbo people, I thought about a young woman I know in Lagos. She is twenty-five years old, and she’s from Anambra, and she said to me that she did not want to come back to her home town for Christmas.  When I asked why? She said she was under so much pressure from her parents to get married, and she said they didn’t just want me to marry; “they wanted me to marry a rich man.”

Recently as two years ago, she said, if she mentioned a boy’s name to her parents, they would shout at her, because she wasn’t supposed to have a boyfriend.  And, of course, one wonders how she’s supposed to meet the man that will be her husband today. Most of all, what touched me while talking to her was when she said; I cannot talk to my parents.

Message to parents

So I want to tell parents here today, particularly parents of teenagers, please, keep communication open between you and your children. Many parents today teach their children how to fear them but not to respect them. Fear is not respect, you can beat fear into a child but respect is what a parent earns.

Don’t shut your children up; listen to them. Give them advice without shouting. Actually, if you don’t shout they are likely to hear you better and as you give advice, remember the fallings of your own youth, nobody is perfect.

I want to suggest today that we all take up the name, Ekweme. Let us not only talk, but let’s also act and let us do as we say. Some years ago, I ran into a woman in Enugu, an old family friend. She was with her little son. I said, “Kedu?” to the boy, and the woman said very quickly, “No,” he doesn’t speak Igbo; he speaks only English. What struck me was not just that this child barely speak Igbo but the mother said it with so much pride. She was proud that her child did not speak Igbo. “Why?” I asked her, and her reply was that speaking Igbo would confuse him, and I wanted him to learn to speak English well.

So later, when we mentioned her son’s school, she said that he was taking piano lessons and French lesson.  And, so, I asked her, “If learning Igbo will confuse him, would learning French also confuse him?” The woman’s reason that two languages would confuse her child sounds reasonable on the surface, but is it true? It is simply not true.

We know children have the ability to learn different languages, and, in fact, we know being bi-lingual or multi-lingual help children in areas outside languages. I don’t really need to read studies about this; I am proof. I grew up speaking Igbo and English at the same time, and considered them both as my first languages, and I can assure you in my forty-one years on earth, I am yet to be confused by that.

I’m actually learning to improve my French and learn Swahili and Hausa –maybe, then, I would be confused.  My sister, my parent’s first child, was born in the US when my father was a doctoral student. My parents made the decision to speak only Igbo to her, because they knew she would learn English, they were determined that she would speak Igbo, and they did and I can assure you that my sister is also not confused.

When I had my daughter three years ago, my husband and I decided we would only speak Igbo to her. She now speaks Igbo and people are always shocked particularly the Igbo people when they hear her speak.

Being excerpts of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech at the just held Face of Okija Thought Leadership and Beauty Pageant.

The post The Igbo child and mother tongue appeared first on The Sun Nigeria.

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