"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 2007

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Atlanta Farmers’ Market Where the World Meets Daily

By Farooq A. Kperogi

I was looking for food, fresh Nigerian food, and I ended up in a “united nations.” That’s the summation of my recent experience at Atlanta’s famous Your DeKalb Farmers’ Market, reputedly the world’s largest indoor farmers’ market where fresh food from most parts of the world is sold on a daily basis.

I had become truly sick of American food in the last couple of days. I wanted to eat Nigerian food so badly. My craving for Nigerian food became especially intensified because of the constant dreams I had had about eating my favorite Nigerian dishes.

Then I would wake up and find myself in Atlanta—condemned to contend with American foods, which I frankly find unbearably insipid. (Because gastronomy is all a matter of acquired taste, I imagine that Americans and people of other nations also find our food nasty).

But, for me, deficiency in taste or flavor or tang is not even the worst nightmare about eating American food. Every visit to an American restaurant exposes you to what one might call a gastronomical inquisition: For every food item you order, you will be presented with seemingly countless choices, and every choice has even more minor choices ad infinitum. You can’t go to a restaurant and simply ask for, say, a burger; you will have to answer a litany of irritating questions about how you want the burger to be.

One day I got angry and said, “Look, just give me the damn burger! I don’t care how you make it!” The waitress looked me in the face and calmly said she won’t serve me if I didn’t choose from the interminable options on offer over every bit of item in the burger. It was frustrating for me because, first off, I was not familiar with American food, much less the names and constitutive parts of the food. Second, the variety on offer didn’t always strike me as variety in reality. As far I was concerned, it was all bland, unfamiliar stuff that I would not eat if I had a choice, I mean a real choice.

After years of living here, I am getting used to American food—and acquiring the taste to enjoy it, although I am yet to get over the catechismal rigor to which I am always subjected when I want to buy food. And I have also not got over missing my Nigerian food.

Recently, I narrated my culinary frustrations to one of my American friends. And he said to me that I could actually get Nigerian food here in Atlanta. I had heard that many times in the past, but all attempts to find a Nigerian restaurant online have not been successful. My commitments here don’t give me the luxury of being able to go round town looking for Nigerians and Nigerian restaurants. I told my friend this.

“Have you ever been to the Your DeKalb Farmers’ Market?” he asked.

“Well, it’s not far from where I live, but I’ve never been there.”

“Oh, you should definitely check it out. All your culinary frustrations will be over!”

“But what in the world is a farmers’ market? I don’t see any farmers in America.”

“A farmers’ market is a place where fresh food is sold, and in the DeKalb Farmers’ Market fresh food is brought from every part of the world.”

This sounded good to me. So three weeks ago I decided to visit the farmers’ market. And what I saw exceeded my expectations. It’s an incredibly enormous agric market located in a serene and extravagantly lush environment.

As you enter the market, the first thing that strikes you is the array of national flags of all countries of the world artistically hung on the walls. As you can imagine, the first color I looked for— and found— was “Green, White, Green”—the color of the Nigerian flag.

And under this green-white-green flag were fresh foods and fruits from Nigeria, fresher, in fact, than you can get them in Nigeria! Best of all: for the first time since I have relocated to Atlanta from Louisiana over a year ago, I met Nigerians, real living Nigerians. They were busy shopping fresh Nigerian foods and speaking their local languages as loudly as Nigerians love to speak.

I joined them and spoke Nigerian Pidgin English since I couldn’t speak their native language. Speaking Pidgin English was my own way of connecting with them emotionally.

They were excited to see me, as I was to see them. Within that little space, we recreated Nigeria. They directed me to parts of the market where I could get other uniquely Nigerian culinary treats “wrongly” located under the flags of other African countries. I bought goat meat, semolina, okro (which Americans call okra), and a whole host of other tasty Nigerian delicacies.

I have been enjoying my Nigerian food for the past three or so weeks. A faithful reader of this column wrote to say that one of my columns in the past weeks was “gushingly lyrical.” Well, perhaps, I was inebriated by morsels of pounded yam lubricated with hot egusi soup and goat meat when I wrote it!

The first person I saw in the farmer’s market was a Sierra Leonean who looked so Nigerian, so Yoruba to be precise, that the first thing I said to him was “ba wo ni!” (“how are you” in Yoruba). “I am actually Sierra Leonean, but every Nigerian I have met here has mistaken me for a Nigerian Yoruba,” he said. Well, the ancestral roots of most Sierra Leoneans are located in Nigeria. This man could very have been descended from some Odua ancestor.

Every, well most, nationalities in the world are represented in this market. I saw people from all over the world buying their national delicacies and speaking their native languages with gusto. I suspect that people come to this market not just to buy fresh food but to cure their homesickness, to meet people who speak their languages and with whom they can discuss common topics, and to nurture their nostalgia for home. This place is more than a market; it’s also a united nations, a united nations unmediated by bureaucracy.

The market's employees also come from different parts of the world, although it would appear that Ethiopians are overly represented here. Every employee speaks at least two languages—English and another national language. Some speak more than two languages. On all employees’ name tags are inscribed their name, nationality, and the languages they speak. This makes national identification easy. It also helps first timers to know whom to ask questions about the location of their national delicacies in this vast market.

Besides a massive and assorted green grocery section catering to all nations of the world, Your DeKalb Farmers’ Market also has a truly gorgeous panoply of fresh and live seafood, a cornucopia of meat, on-premises bakery, flower shops, a fruit bar, pastry, fresh coffee shops and a casual restaurant, featuring much of the exotic produce offered for sale.

Founded in 1977 as a small produce stand, the current market covers 140,000 square feet. Produce is shipped in fresh daily from every part of the world.

The Nigerians I met at the market told me that since they discovered this market, they have never eaten American food. They are having the best of both worlds. All other non-Americans I spoke to in the market said the same. They all come to this market to undertake psychological, emotional, and culinary journeys to their homelands.

Globalization has truly shrunk the world and dislocated our habitual perceptions of territorialization, deterritorialization and reterritorialization. The globe has been “villagized” as much as the village has been globalized. Globalization theorists call this phenomenon “glocalization.” It is a portmanteau word that encapsulates the fusion of the global and the local.

It is customary for people to assert that the world is now a global village. That’s no longer accurate. The world is actually now a “glocal” hamlet!

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Voyage to America’s Most Patriotic Town (III)


By Farooq A. Kperogi

I knew I was in a different part of the United States when we passed the state of Maryland and got into the “New England” states. The phrase “New England,” in case you didn’t know, is shorthand for the northeastern states of Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire.

Traditionally, the term excludes the neighboring northeastern states of New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, although in everyday speech it is usual to conflate “northeastern states,” which include all the states in northeastern United States, with “New England” states. My colleague here who is originally from Boston (the largest city in the state of Massachusetts and in New England) told me that New York (which was originally Dutch) and New Jersey are often called “Greater New England,” that is, extensions of New England.

The states are called New England perhaps because their origins are directly traceable to English migrants who consciously nourished their English ways upon arriving in the “new world.” Most of the cities, towns, and villages here are named after older cities, towns, and villages in England. Bristol, for instance, where I attended the conference, is named after a city by the same name in England. Where names of towns are not directly transplanted from England, “new” is often prefixed to them, as in “New” York, “New” Hampshire, etc. And it is often said that should the United States disintegrate, the New England states are likely to remain as a country because of their immense historical and cultural affinities.

This is clearly a distinct part of the United States by every standard. The people here are still very European or, to be sure, English in their ways—at least in more ways than is the case for the other parts of the United States. They are ruggedly individualistic, distant, brisk, even brusque. They are the people Americans call Yankees, although non-Americans apply this name to all Americans.

New England is said to be the most urban, most liberal, and most WASPish part of America. (WASP stands for “White Anglo-Saxon Protestant”). And it is in many ways the cultural and educational pacesetter of America.

It is home to four of the Ivy League universities, America’s first universities. If we consider New York and New Jersey as part of New England, it means New England is home to all but one of the Ivy League universities.

Brown University, which one of the conference organizers was kind enough to take me to, is in the state of Rhode Island; Yale University is in the state of Connecticut; Harvard University is in the state of Massachusetts; and Dartmouth College is in the state of New Hampshire. Princeton University is in the state of New Jersey, while Columbia and Cornell universities are in New York. The University of Pennsylvania, in the state of Pennsylvania, is the only Ivy League university outside of New England. I passed through and stopped over in all these states, except Pennsylvania.

The architecture of New England homes is also different from the rest of America. I used to think that the American architectural landscape was boringly homogenous. All American big cities, to me, looked alike. Same for the towns and villages. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen all—or so I thought. Until I had a chance to visit here. The architectural designs of houses in New England states strike me as closer to European patterns than they are to other parts of America I have been to.

Similarly, the demotic accent here is closer to British accent than it is to mainstream American accent. New Englanders are largely non-rhotic speakers. In English pronunciation, it is customary to distinguish between rhotic accent and non-rhotic accent. In rhotic accents, such as mainstream American accent, the “r” is often articulated in words; in non-rhotic accents, such as standard British pronunciation, the “r” is silent, except where it appears at the beginning of words.

While the rest of America is rhotic, New Englanders tend to be non-rhotic. People here don’t roll their “r” in the same way that other Americans do. For instance, they don’t articulate the “r” in “learn,” or “water” as forcefully as other Americans do. (The standard American accent used in broadcasting and in schools is derived from the accent of Midwestern Americans, perhaps because their accent reconciles the phonological extremes of southern and northern accents).

And unlike in the South, it is hard to differentiate between the accents of black and white Americans here. At least, that was the impression I came away with. They all sounded the same to me. In the South, black American accent is markedly different from white American accent. Of course, for historical reasons, they are fewer blacks in the North than there are in the South.

One man from the University of Wales, United Kingdom, who presented a paper at the conference I attended, told me that Rhode Island—and the whole of New England— felt like old England in many ways. And he was visiting here for the first time, too. “The weather is very English. The people are very English, even their buildings—except for all the dunkin’ donuts I see around,” he said.

No one smiles to strangers here. And if you are lost for directions, don’t count on anybody to be of any help. The people are as cold as their weather. And this is as true of white people as it is of black people. The bus driver who drove me from New York to Providence, the capital of Rhode Island, was the coldest, meanest creature I ever encountered. And he was black. I didn’t encounter a lot of warmth from the people here. Perhaps, the coldness of the weather has made people emotionally frigid too.

While these notions were registering in me, I was self-conscious that I was probably being impressionistic—and therefore probably wrong. You can’t judge the character of a people based on a few days’ episodic encounters with a few of them. However, a professor whom I got friendly with at the conference said to me that my impressions were largely accurate. He added, though, that when I am able to penetrate the cold surfaces of New Englanders, I will find warm, friendly and truly complaisant human beings.

Southerners, he said, smile even when they are at war. “So don’t be deceived by the smiling faces,” he said half joking and half serious. That’s not difficult to believe. The South, in spite of its legendary hospitality and mild manners, is a less racially tolerant society than the North.

One other thing: the people here are not nearly as beautiful as people in the South. New Englanders themselves don’t contest this fact. The American South has way more beautiful people than any part of the United States—well, except perhaps California, which is in the west.

New Englanders are also very formal and inflexible with time, unlike in the South. For instance, on my way back to Boston from Providence, I missed my bus by only a minute because of heavy traffic between Bristol and Providence. By the time I arrived at the station, the bus had lef. In the South, there would have been a delay of two or there, maybe even five, minutes.

Our Greyhound coaches from Atlanta to New York never left the bus station at exactly the times indicated on our tickets. There were always a few minutes’ delay. All that changed from New York. Drivers kept to the time schedule with what seemed like mechanical exactitude.

In spite of the rather cold reception I got from New Englanders generally, Rhode Island, which other Americans like to call the smallest state with the longest name, seemed a little friendlier. The people at Roger Williams University in Bristol where the conference was held were especially such a comforting contrast to the cold souls I encountered earlier.

In Bristol, I lodged at a quaintly idyllic and historic farm house called Mount Hope Farm, very close to the Roger Williams University. It was expensive, but well worth it. The landscape is rich with wildlife, handcrafted stone walls, terraces, flowers, mature shrubs and indigenous trees, with cows grazing in the background and exotic birds chirping beautifully day and night. The environment is serene with breathtakingly expansive water views and the people I met there were incredibly nice.

The place is also replete with history, having been first built in1745. The buildings are still retained from that period. That’s why it’s designated as a National Register Historic landmark. And knowing that I was passing the night in such a historic place redounded to my excitement.

Although the journey was long and hectic, I am glad I undertook it.

Concluded

Related Articles
1. Voyage to America's Most Patriotic Town (I)
2. Voyage to America's Most Patriotic Town (II)

Friday, October 26, 2007

Voyage to America’s Most Patriotic Town (II)


By Farooq A. Kperogi

In our eastward ascension to Rhode Island, the first state we passed through was South Carolina, Georgia’s immediate eastern neighbor. I had never been to South Carolina before; only read and heard about its stunning beauty and the legendary pleasantness of its people—in common with the rest of southern United States.

These qualities— that is, the proverbial amiability of South Carolinians and the breathtaking magnificence of their state— are encapsulated in the license-plate slogan the state cherishes about itself: “Smiling faces. Beautiful places.” Almost every car and truck (yes, Americans love to drive trucks, not for hauling, but for pleasure) I saw in the state had this slogan inscribed on its license plate. I thought the catchphrase was just as enamoring as the place and the people it describes.

South Carolina, which has the honor or the dubious honor—depending on which side of American politics you stand—of being the first state to secede from the United States in the 1860s, is a rattling rural state. Greenville, its biggest city where we stopped over for about an hour, is only a mid-sized city with less than one million people. But it’s a charming, entrancing, and historic city nonetheless.

It is the birthplace of Rev. Jesse Jackson, the fiery African-American civil rights activist and two-time American presidential candidate. A few of the residents of this city that I chatted with seemed proud of this fact. They also proudly told me that their city is the North American headquarters of Michelin and the sole manufacturing outfit of BMW cars outside Germany. Town pride and town loyalty run very deep here.

We also had layovers in other historic towns and villages in the state. I will bore the pants off you if I give every minuscule detail of my encounters there. But it suffices to say that in this state, like everywhere else I have been to in southern United States, most people—black and white alike— wore infectious smiles on their faces, were overly polite, called every man “sir” and every woman “ma’am,” and seemed happy, even excited, to help strangers.

Then we got to North Carolina, South Carolina’s twin—in both geographic and historic terms. North Carolina is a much more urban and progressive state than its “twin.” It has many big cities, several notable universities, and many industries. It’s probably southeast America’s most urban state. (Even in the state of Georgia, Atlanta is the only big city).

It has also produced at least three American presidents—Andrew Jackson, the 7th president of the United States; James Polk, the 11th U.S. president; and Andrew Johnson, the 17th U.S. president. This record is outrivaled, I think, only by the states of Virginia, which has produced eight American presidents; Ohio, which has produced six American presidents; and Massachusetts and New York, which each have produced four American presidents.

North Carolina, unlike—indeed in contradistinction to— its “twin,” also has the distinction of being the last southern state to secede from the United States. In a racially sensitive country like the United States, that is a feat to make a song and dance about, especially given that the immediate cause of the Civil War between the North and the South was over the abolition of slavery. The then rural and agrarian South wanted to continue the enslavement of Africans to service their plantations, while the urban, industrial—or industrializing— North saw slavery as not only immoral but also anachronistic.

Well, that’s the official line. Some people say it’s more complex than this. But I think it’s significant to note that even to this day the display of the Confederate flag in the South, that is,  the flag of the Southern secessionists,  inflicts deep emotional injury on most African Americans. It is, for them, not only a symbol of racial oppression but also an emblem of nostalgia for the return of slavery in the South. But I digress.

North Carolinians tell anybody who cares to listen that Hiram Revels, the first black person to be elected to the U.S. Senate between 1870 and 1871, was originally from their state, even though he actually represented the state of Mississippi in the U.S. Senate. To this day, Revels is one of only five black people to have served in the U.S. Senate. Does that tell you something about how much progress has been made in race relations in this country?

North Carolina is also home to the famous “Research Triangle Park,” the world’s biggest high-tech research and development center. It is the product of a collaborative endeavor of local and state governments in North Carolina, North Carolina-based private sector operators, and three well-known universities— Duke University, the University of North Carolina and the North Carolina State University, all located within close proximity to each other.

This Research Triangle is situated near the cities of Durham (where Duke University is located), Raleigh (the state capital, which is also home to the North Carolina State University) and Chapel Hill (home to the University of North Carolina). I passed through all of these cities and even had a glimpse of the Research Triangle. Thrilling experience!

We laid over for about an hour in North Carolina’s biggest city, called Charlotte, which competes with Atlanta as the southeast’s unofficial headquarters. While it is decidedly behind Atlanta in size, population, and sophistication, it is clearly a splendid and gorgeous city—and a worthy competitor to Atlanta. It is the banking capital of southeast United States, being host to the Bank of America, America’s second biggest bank, and Wachovia Bank, America’s fourth biggest bank.

The hometown of the famous Rev. Billy Graham, Charlotte is also often called the "The City of Churches" by its residents.

The next state we passed through after North Carolina was Virginia. Even though this state is geographically in the North— at least by my cartographic imagination— it is historically regarded as a Southern state and, in fact, functioned as the headquarters of the Confederate States of America, that is, the group of secessionist Southern states that wanted to break away from the United States between 1861 and 1865. (The Confederate headquarters was originally in Birmingham, in the state of Alabama, but moved to Richmond when Virginia joined the Confederate side).

Virginia is far and away America’s most historically significant state. As I said earlier, it has produced eight presidents, including the first president of the United States, George Washington— after whom the American federal capital is named. This distinction earned Virginia the epithet “Mother of Presidents.”

But that’s not all. It is also home to the historic Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the United States. It is, in other words, the birthplace of modern America. And it is customary for Americans to refer to the state as the "Mother of States and Statesmen" because the states of Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan as well as some portions of Ohio were carved from it.

I had traveled to parts of the state, precisely to Arlington, home to USA Today—America’s first and only national newspaper. This was when I first came here on a U.S. State Department-sponsored International Visitor Program.

But this journey afforded me the opportunity to see Richmond, the state capital, which I had never been to before. This city is so mesmerizing in its imaginative mix of old-fashioned grandeur and colorful art that it detained my admiration for a longer period than any place had done in recent times. It’s the only American city I have visited which lavishly honors its Native American aborigines in its architecture and arts. Call it tokenism, but I think it’s worth noticing.

I had always had some difficulty accepting Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. as parts of southern United States. But this voyage eased that difficulty. These places, far as they are from the “core” South (to borrow a Nigerian media expression), are decidedly Southern in culture, customs, and even regional accent.

They remind me of states like Kwara and Kogi which have more cultural affinities with states in the far north of Nigeria than they do with their immediate western neighbors. Sub-national regional identity is not simply about geography; it is, more importantly, about history, culture— and, well, politics.

The American south and the American north are remarkably different in culture and customs as you will see in the final installment of this series next week.

To be concluded next week

Related Article

1. Voyage to America's Most Patriotic Town (I)
2. Voyage to America's Most Patriotic Town (III)

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Voyage to America’s Most Patriotic Town (I)


By Farooq A. Kperogi

Have you ever traveled on a bus continuously for 51 hours (that is, for over two days!) with only occasional layovers? Well, I did two weeks ago. And it was an indescribably thrilling and sublime experience for me.

I traveled from Atlanta to a town called Bristol in the state of Rhode Island, America’s tiniest state located on the northeastern fringe of the country. Bristol is a charmingly picturesque, water-logged town of about 23,000 people that prides itself on being America’s “most patriotic town” on account of being host to the oldest continuous Fourth of July celebration. (Fourth of July is the fond alternative name for "American Independence Day," equivalent to our own First of October).

Atlanta and Bristol are located on almost opposite ends of the cartographic spectrum, kind of like traveling from Enugu to Maiduguri in Nigeria. If you take into account the fact that America is the world’s third largest country and that Nigeria is the world’s 32nd largest country, you can imagine the stretch of land I traveled by bus. But why didn’t I travel by air?

Well, I didn’t travel by bus on purpose. In retrospect, however, I am glad I did. I had been notified of the acceptance of my paper at the “New Media and the Global Diaspora” conference at the Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island, many months ago. And my department has dedicated funds to sponsor professors and doctoral students whose papers have been accepted for presentation in competitive, peer-reviewed academic conferences.

However, I didn’t have the presence of mind to book a flight for the conference one month in advance as is the custom here. Booking a flight a month before the actual flight reduces the cost by more than half.

A week to the conference, I approached our departmental business manager for my funds to fly to Rhode Island. But at that time, the airfare to Rhode Island had shot through the rooftop and was way above my entire travel budget for the year.

I had only two options, the business manager told me: inform the organizers that I could no longer attend the conference, or put in my personal funds to supplement the departmental travel budget to purchase the outrageously exorbitant air ticket.

The first option was not an option for me because I had given my word to the organizers that I would attend the conference several months ago. Besides, many notable academics would be at the conference and I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to socialize with and learn from such a rare assemblage of high-achieving, cutting-edge academics.

The second option was not appealing to me either. So I told the business manager that I had a third option. “What’s that?” she asked. “I will travel by Greyhound,” I said. She was overcome with amazement. “Why would you do that to yourself!” she exclaimed. I assured her that I would be well and left her office.

Greyhound Lines, for those who are not familiar with the American transportation system, is the largest inter-city common carrier of passengers by bus in North America. Americans simply call it “Greyhound.” And it is named after the tall slender dog of an ancient breed noted for swiftness and keen sight, which is used in dog racing.

I had traveled by Greyhound bus to many destinations in the United States before. But this was the first time I was traveling for this long on a bus. I became an object of pity among my American friends and colleagues when I told them of my decision.

But why should I be an object of pity? This is an excellent, well-coordinated common carrier with very well-maintained fleets of buses that are, in reality, aircraft on land. The buses are neat and equipped with state-of-the-art toilet facilities. And they are incredibly fast and almost accident-free. Since 1914 when the Greyhound Lines has been commuting people from city to city in this unbelievably vast country, it has had fewer than 10 notable accidents. Plus, it is safe to travel in; there are no armed robbers lurking in the bush to ambuscade and rob people like in Nigeria.

Road transportation in America is an absolute delight. The roads are exceedingly wide, beautifully paved, and gracefully interlocked. Speed limits are religiously enforced and observed. Where there are no police officers on the highway monitoring compliance with speed limits, there are radars installed on the road to check speed in cars, buses and trucks.

Wayfarers’ comfort on the road is also assured. After every couple of miles, there are exits to which you can drive off to find well-maintained buildings with lush green background, called “rest areas,” where you can buy food, take a shower, use the toilet, refuel you car, or simply relax.

But Americans don’t think anything of these conveniences. They take them for granted. These spoiled Americans! That’s why my colleagues had “pity” on me for choosing to travel by road from Georgia to Rhode Island.

But I wasn’t discouraged because I knew I would have a heck of a lot of thrill. And sure enough, my trip was very eventful, adventurous and enlightening. Best of all: I have added to my list of states I know in the United States. I can now boast that I have been to almost half of the states in America.

And many of my American friends are “jealous” of me for this “feat” because states here are like countries, not only because of the huge expanse of land that separates them but also because of the remarkable differences in the cultures of the people of different states. In this trip, I saw a lot of the differences— and similarities, too—between the south and the north of America, which I will discuss later.

But let me first relate my experience of traveling through American villages. I had done this in the past, but the length of my present trip heightened my consciousness of the difference between American villages and ours. Here, villages are so called only because of their size and their exquisite rusticity. They do not lack the conveniences of modern living as ours do.

As our bus passed through the road-side villages, I couldn’t help being held spellbound by their elegant simplicity, their romantic charm, their spatial uniqueness, and their well-maintained lawns and farms. I saw communities that were simultaneously in perfect harmony with nature and in touch with modernity.

The sight of cows, sheep and other domestic animals joyfully gamboling and grazing in luxuriantly green meadows and of well-looked-after children playing boisterously in the background while their apparently contented parents sat on their easy chairs in the porches of their homes savoring, and rollicking in, the idyllic simplicity and chasteness of their exquisite abodes, inspired an inexpressible wistfulness in me. Oh, how I love the American countryside!

Interestingly, even American cities are very green and in constant dialogue with nature. For instance, New York, the world’s most technologically advanced city, is also a very leafy city. Atlanta, another high-tech city, is in fact called “a city in the forest” because it is interlarded with delightfully verdant forests. The viridity of American cities, towns and villages shames me to no end.

I am saying this against the backdrop of what obtains in Nigeria. Although Africa is often associated, in the popular imagination, with being the world’s surviving link to “nature,” our cities, especially in Nigeria, are in truth denuded of nature. There is no Nigerian city I know of that has forests interspersed with houses. We cut down entire forests because we want to establish a settlement.

When I lived in Kaduna, I witnessed an old white man cry a river as former governor Makarfi’s administration ordered that the trees on Ahmadu Bello Way, planted by the late Sarduna’s government in the 1950s, be cut off. Makarfi’s idea of development was to eliminate nature. It took the wailing of the old white man to stop the madness—temporarily.

But people who even make attempts to make amends are vilified. In Nigerian universities, for instance, vice chancellors are often viciously pilloried for merely “planting flowers” and “painting walls.” What is it with us and drab, colorless, and uninspiring environments?

Why is it difficult for even academics, most of whom have studied in America and Europe, to appreciate the wisdom in “planting flowers” and “painting walls”? It renews the soul, re-energizes the spirit, reinvigorates the mind, unburdens the creative impulses and even liberates the intellect.

To be continued next week

Related Articles:

1. Voyage to America's Most Patriotic Town (II)
2. Voyage to America's Most Patriotic Town (III)

Saturday, October 13, 2007

American Secessionists Uniting to Disunite?

By Farooq A. Kperogi

This week, I am lifting a compelling news story from the Associated Press about threats of secession in the United States.

Secession in the United States? Why would this archetype of a cohesive nation be in danger of disintegration? If you are asking these questions, you have a companion in me.

Although I have always been aware of the existence of divisive regional sentiments in this country (about which I have had cause to write in the past), I had never thought that any American would want the disintegration of this fine nation.

Although the secessionists about whom you will read below are fringe elements whose views don’t resonate with the popular sentiments of a majority of ordinary Americans—at least as far as I know—it is significant that the Associated Press, America’s (and the world’s) preeminent news agency has given some notice to their meeting and agenda.

But it is not so much the unusualness of a group of people agitating for the dissolution of an obviously working union that piqued my interest; it is the lesson that a complex, multi-ethnic and multi-religious country like Nigeria can learn from this that interests me the most. It shows that nation-building is a perpetual project. There is no end to the search for national cohesion. It has to be permanently and consciously nourished.

The United States is over 200 years old as a nation. It is the world’s strongest and most prosperous nation. It survived a bitter and sanguinary Civil War and emerged a more virile nation from this experience. Yet it still has groups of people who are so dissatisfied with the state of affairs of the union that they want to dissolve it.

There is a lesson in this for us.

Last week, I traveled to the state of Rhode Island to present a paper at an international conference on New Media and Global Diaspora. Rhode Island is in northeast United States near New York. I traveled for over two days from Atlanta, which is in the southeast, to Bristol, which is in the northeast. It was a journey that broadened my knowledge of this incredibly diverse country in more ways than one. I will share my experiences with you from next week.

Enjoy the article below and see you next week. Barka da Sallah!

Secessionists meeting in Tennessee
By BILL POOVEY, Associated Press Writer
Wed Oct 3, 3:15 AM ET
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. - In an unlikely marriage of desire to secede from the United States, two advocacy groups from opposite political traditions — New England and the South — are sitting down to talk.

Tired of foreign wars and what they consider right-wing courts, the Middlebury Institute wants liberal states like Vermont to be able to secede peacefully.

That sounds just fine to the League of the South, a conservative group that refuses to give up on Southern independence.

"We believe that an independent South, or Hawaii, Alaska, or Vermont would be better able to serve the interest of everybody, regardless of race or ethnicity," said Michael Hill of Killen, Ala., president of the League of the South.

Separated by hundreds of miles and divergent political philosophies, the Middlebury Institute and the League of the South are hosting a two-day Secessionist Convention starting Wednesday in Chattanooga.

They expect to attract supporters from California, Alaska and Hawaii, inviting anyone who wants to dissolve the Union so states can save themselves from an overbearing federal government.

If allowed to go their own way, New Englanders "probably would allow abortion and have gun control," Hill said, while Southerners "would probably crack down on illegal immigration harder than it is being now."

The U.S. Constitution does not explicitly prohibit secession, but few people think it is politically viable.

Vermont, one of the nation's most liberal states, has become a hotbed for liberal secessionists, a fringe movement that gained new traction because of the Iraq war, rising oil prices and the formation of several pro-secession groups.

Thomas Naylor, the founder of one of those groups, the Second Vermont Republic, said the friendly relationship with the League of the South doesn't mean everyone shares all the same beliefs.

But Naylor, a retired Duke University professor, said the League of the South shares his group's opposition to the federal government and the need to pursue secession.

"It doesn't matter if our next president is Condoleeza (Rice) or Hillary (Clinton), it is going to be grim," said Naylor, adding that there are secessionist movements in more than 25 states, including Hawaii, Alaska, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Texas.

The Middlebury Institute, based in Cold Spring, N.Y., was started in 2005. Its followers, disillusioned by the Iraq war and federal imperialism, share the idea of states becoming independent republics. They contend their movement is growing.

The first North American Separatist Convention was held last fall in Vermont, which, unlike most Southern states, supports civil unions. Voters there elected a socialist to the U.S. Senate.

Middlebury director Kirpatrick Sale said Hill offered to sponsor the second secessionist convention, but the co-sponsor arrangement was intended to show that "the folks up north regard you as legitimate colleagues."

"It bothers me that people have wrongly declared them to be racists," Sale said.

The League of the South says it is not racist, but proudly displays a Confederate Battle Flag on its banner.

Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, which monitors hate groups, said the League of the South "has been on our list close to a decade."

"What is remarkable and really astounding about this situation is we see people and institutions who are supposedly on the progressive left rubbing shoulders with bona fide white supremacists," Potok said.

Sale said the League of the South "has not done or said anything racist in its 14 years of existence," and that the Southern Poverty Law Center is not credible.

"They call everybody racists," Sale said. "There are, no doubt, racists in the League of the South, and there are, no doubt, racists everywhere."

Harry Watson, director of the Center For the Study of the American South and a history professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said it was a surprise to see The Middlebury Institute conferring with the League of the South, "an organization that's associated with a cause that many of us associate with the preservation of slavery."

He said the unlikely partnering "represents the far left and far right of American politics coming together."
Source:http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20071003/ap_on_re_us/secessionist_movement;_ylt=AtlT0vYi72FdS9t.vVQom25H2ocA

Monday, October 8, 2007

Debt Culture in America: Some Clarifications




By Farooq A. Kperogi
After reading a couple of email responses to my last two articles on the debt culture in America, I realize that I probably overstated—or understated—a few facts. I hope I am able to clarify them in this piece.

A reader was concerned that I had given in to the debt culture here. He was particularly disquieted by the fact that I would be compelled to mortgage the future of my wife and daughter! I initially thought it was some light-hearted banter until I read the whole email. I wonder what I wrote to create this impression.

Another reader wanted to know if everybody in America—including tourists, visitors, etc—is “forced” to get a credit card or take out loans. He was troubled that if he gets a chance to visit here, he might be forced to get a credit card. Huh? I had not the wispiest clue that I said anything that remotely suggested that.

Yet another reader was worried that Muslims in America are surrendering to usury without any resistance. But I thought I mentioned some Somali immigrants who have resisted credit cards and mortgage loans at the cost of being pushed to the margins of the American society.

If these responses are representative of the sentiments that my pieces have evoked, then I must have “miscommunicated.” And that’s not a light self-indictment for someone who has been studying, practicing and teaching communication all his adult life. But perhaps the blame belongs elsewhere.

The constraint of space that I habitually have to grapple with when I write, as all newspaper writers know, compels me to abbreviate—sometimes even omit—certain thought processes. So, perhaps, I occasionally relapse into elliptical writing, and a lot of information is implied without being explicitly stated.

Now, let me restate and clarify some facts that I may have muddled in my first two pieces. First, nobody is forced to own a credit card here. It is entirely voluntary. And it is only available to American citizens and legal residents here.

Tourists and visitors—and certainly tourists and visitors from Nigeria—are unlikely to get credit cards even if they apply for one precisely because there is no assurance that they will pay back their debts since they have no bank accounts here and will only be here temporarily.

Tourists from other Western nations probably already have credit cards from their own countries, which are accepted here. But most visitors and tourists who come here and don’t want to use cash to transact businesses often use what’s called the traveler’s check. It operates just like ordinary checks (that’s the American spelling for cheques!).

Additionally, you can, at any time, opt out of a credit card after you acquire it—provided you have paid up all your balances. And when I said most people don’t pay up the mortgages for their homes in their lifetimes, I ignored an equally large number of people who do. They do this by saving and paying substantially more than the minimum monthly payment. In this category are a lot of immigrants from deprived backgrounds who appreciate, and make very good use of, the opportunities here.

The whole point of my series was to show how Western economies, as people who travel internationally know all too well, are becoming increasingly cashless, paperless and debt dependent. And it seems to me that this is the path most other national economies are now treading.

A loyal reader of this column wrote to tell me that what I’ve written about the debt culture in America is gradually emerging even in Nigeria. Banks, he said, are now targeting people who have regular, fairly well-paying jobs and are offering such people loans and mortgages. It’s only a matter of time before credit cards will be introduced too—if that has not already happened.

When that happens, I only hope the government will strictly regulate the banks in the same way that lending institutions are regulated in the United States. Lending institutions here can’t charge just any interest rate; they have to operate within the limits predetermined by government regulation, which are usually reasonable and take into account the interest of the borrowers--well, to some extent.

Now, is this debt culture bad? You bet. But it also has many redeeming features, as I will show from my personal experiences shortly. And I bet that many Nigerians would gladly jump at the opportunities the debt culture offers.

But more than that, the global economy itself has been run on debt since at least the 19th century. Nigeria, like all countries in the world, is an indebted country. Our national infrastructure, our universities, etc are built with money borrowed from other nations or from international lending institutions. You can’t be thoroughly immersed in a global debt culture and be worried about its manifestation only in personal and national economies. That seems to me like a misdirected worry.

Apart from the nagging guilt that gnaws at me for being “indebted,” which is a holdover from my background, I have no bad experiences with credit cards. I am in absolute control of my spending habits and of my debt profile. And when I am ready to leave this country, I will simply repay all my debts and close my credit cards.

Thankfully, I don’t incur more debts than I can repay in a month, and the interests I pay are so small as to be almost unnoticeable. So I am not in danger of mortgaging anybody’s future!

When I relocated to Atlanta over a year ago, I found myself staying in a hotel for a longer period than I had anticipated because I had difficulties getting an apartment that was affordable and close to my school.(And hotels in Atlanta are incredibly pricey). After staying in a hotel for a month, I ran out of money.

And I have no family here. I was in real danger of starving to death because my salary would not be paid until the end of the month since I hadn’t done any work for the school yet. My saviors were my credit cards.

But my credit cards were to save me on an even bigger occasion. When I finally got an apartment that was decent, affordable and fairly close to my school, the management of the apartment complex had to run a “credit check” on me. Fortunately, they found that I had a “good credit history.” And so I didn’t have to pay any “security deposit” to get into my new apartment.

My Russian colleague was not as lucky. He had just come from Amsterdam, had never lived in America, had no credit card and therefore had no credit history. So all the apartment complexes required him to pay a hefty security deposit worth thousands of dollars before leasing an apartment to him.

He couldn’t afford it. And he was so disillusioned that he wanted to go back either to Russia to Amsterdam. Then we met.

I offered to let him stay in one of my rooms, and we shared the cost of the apartment. After one year of staying here, he wasted no time in “building his credit history,” as we say it here, and now lives in his own apartment. How did he do it? He applied for and got a credit card, then paid his debts and bills on time, etc.

The whole point of the credit check, as I said elsewhere, is to demonstrate that you have the capacity to pay your rent, your debt, etc without defaulting. If the data from the credit bureaus shows that you have never defaulted in the payment of your bills and your credit card debts, you inspire confidence in a prospective lender or an apartment complex owner, etc that you’re trustworthy enough to do business with.

Of course, this should not obscure the fact that this debt culture is naked capitalist acquisitiveness. Credit card companies and lenders make a hell of a lot of money from the interests they charge on credit cards and mortgages. They are not some altruistic, benevolent people who are concerned about you. But every cloud, as they say, has a silver lining.

It should be mentioned, too, that there is a curious outgrowth from this debt culture. There are many marginal businesses that now appeal to people who have been pushed to the fringes by the dominant debt culture. I have seen many commercials directed at people with “bad credit or no credit.”

So people actually have more choices than my two previous articles probably portrayed.

Friday, September 28, 2007

A Country Where Everyone is a Debtor (II)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

The reason my friend was not allowed to buy the cell phone was because he had no credit history. The cell phone company couldn’t determine if he was trustworthy enough to do business with. And this is true of most of other things people buy here.

If you want to buy a car, a house, or even rent an apartment, etc companies will first require that your credit history be reviewed. You can’t be trusted until it can be shown that you’re a creditworthy debtor. It seems to me like a grand corporate conspiracy to hang debts around the necks of people who live in this country.

Corporate America has succeeded in instituting the credit card as the ultimate measure of people’s honesty, reliability, and fitness for business. This is done through what is called credit rating. It is the measure of how regularly you repay your debt and the interests that accrue to those debts.

Information about people’s credit history is collected by, and preserved in the databases of, “credit bureaus,” and is often available within seconds to all businesses that need it— for a fee. But every credit card holder is entitled to a free credit report at least once every year.

A person who pays his debt and finance charges every month consistently is adjudged to have a good credit rating and is entitled to further increases in his credit line, i.e., more debt.

There is even a more worrying phenomenon called “predatory lending.” By this is meant the practice of credit card companies targeting young, cash-trapped university students with exploitative offers that ensnare these inexperienced teenagers into debts that they must repay for the rest of their lives. The U.S. Congress is currently trying to legislate against this corporate predation.

Do people run away without paying the credit card companies? Maybe sometimes. But it is indeed rare. This is a highly organized society where the law is truly supreme. Before you’re given a credit card, you must be a citizen or a legal resident, and must have a social security card, which contains all your personal data. You must also have a regular job.

So, in a way, when I say everybody here is a debtor, I exaggerate a bit. There are at least three categories of people who can—and do—escape the debt trap. The first are the stupendously rich. I can’t imagine that Bill Gates and people in his class have credit cards. But I may be wrong. After all, the founders of Google were reported to have set up the search engine from credit card funds. They were too poor to finance the venture from their personal finances. Today, they are multi-billionaires and probably still have credit cards, even though they really don’t need one.

The second category is people who have no history of regular income over a considerable period of time. Credit card companies don’t issue credit cards to such people. And they reject their applications when they apply for one. However, jobless people with no steady income constitute only a fraction of the American population. I think the latest data says they are six percent of the U.S. population.

The third category is people who have deliberately refused to accept credit card solicitations for personal or religious reasons. Such people simply damn the consequences of their action. I know of a few conservative Americans who have refused to own a credit card. They build their credit history, if they care for one, from other sources, such as paying their bills on time, etc.

I include U.S.-based Somali Muslims in this category. A recent study found that Somali Muslims— most of whom have resolutely resisted integration into the American debt culture—are the poorest and most unsuccessful immigrants in the United States. I was not surprised in the least when I read this. In this country, you cannot get anything if you don’t have a good credit history, and the surest way to build your credit history is to have a credit card.

But more than that, because this is a truly cashless society, credit cards have become the chief instruments with which people transact business. The debt culture has been so thoroughly ingrained in the consumer behavior of Americans that paying lots of cash for a purchase can even attract needless attention to you from law enforcement agents.

Since most people don’t buy houses cash down like we do in Nigeria, a good credit history is crucial to getting a mortgage to buy a house. As you probably know, a mortgage is a loan from a bank to buy a house. Technically, the bank owns the house until you repay the loan—and the interest— in full. However, since they are only paying rent to the bank, people cherish the illusion that they own the homes.

A friend of mine in Louisiana who is in his late 40s bought a huge, palatial house worth several thousands of dollars with a loan from a bank. When we calculated his monthly payments and interest to the bank, we realized that it would take him another 45 years before he can truly own the house. I told him to stop deluding himself that he can ever own the house since the average life expectancy of white American males is 78 years.

His response was as insightful as it was unnerving. “As long as I am alive,” he said “I have a house with all its comforts. I don’t care what happens when I die. The bank will either take back the house or my children will continue paying the debt when I die. I, like many Americans, have literally mortgaged the future of my children. But who cares?”

Maybe he is right. Maybe not. While the debt culture gives people a sense of financial security, this security comes with a price because it is false. It perpetually holds you prisoner. Perhaps, I am yet to outgrow my cultural socialization.

Well, in most cases, if the children are able to repay the loan, they would almost always sell the house, get a bigger mortgage and buy an even bigger house whose loan they too cannot repay in their lifetimes. And the cycle continues.

So when people say they own their own homes here, they are actually merely saying that they no longer pay their monthly rent to landlords or landladies; instead, they now pay their rent to banks or mortgage institutions.

Well, perhaps, paying their rent to the bank rather than to the landlady is different, even better. At least they can sell their house when its value increases, repay the bank in full, purchase a less expensive house, and in the process make some profit.

I got my first unsolicited credit card from my bank here after a year of being a customer of the bank. For six months after I received the card, I was undecided what to do with it. But I was well-advised against returning it, and, in retrospect, I am thankful for the advice.

I got my second credit card from the bank of my alumni association. With two credit cards, I think I have more than enough. But I receive at least 15 credit card solicitations every month. All the credit card companies share information with each other, and I am a good target because I pay off all my debt.

The best way to survive the credit card culture, from my experience, is never to spend more money than you can afford to repay at the end of the month. When you pay off all your debt at the end of every month (not just the 10 cent of what youb have spent in the month), you pay no finance charges. And your credit rating soars. More importantly, don’t have more than two credit cards.

We are all debtors here—in my case an unwilling debtor. As you can imagine, it’s not a great feeling for someone who has been brought up to have ice-cold distaste for debt. But when you’re in Rome and you want to behave like a Siberian you’d better go back to Siberia—or remain miserable in Rome!

Nevertheless, this borrow-and-spend mentality is not just limited to individuals. The American government is the biggest debtor nation in the world. It owes China and Japan trillions of dollars. Yet one of Obasanjo’s greatest “achievements” was that he paid off our national debts. Some achievement!
Concluded

Saturday, September 22, 2007

A Country Where Everyone is a Debtor (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi

On April 5 this year, I read a Nigerian newspaper editorial bewailing the piteous savings culture among Nigerians. The editorial was actuated by a World Bank report that claims that only 15 percent of Nigerians operate a savings account in commercial banks. It quoted the World Bank as saying that our poor savings culture is the reason we are ranked the 10th poorest nation in the world. Really?

Well, on April 11, six days after the Nigerian newspaper editorial, CNN reported a survey conducted by two American research agencies— Employee Benefit Research Institute and Mathew Greenwald & Associates— which showed that 40 percent of Americans have no savings for retirement. A full 25 percent, the report added, have no savings of any kind whatsoever.

The Christian Science Monitor, a paper whose title belies its largely secular, general-interest orientation, did a more detailed reporting on the collapse of savings culture in America. The paper showed that in June 2004, the personal savings of Americans fell to an absolute zero. It quoted Dallas Salisbury, president and chief executive officer of the Employee Benefit Research Institute in Washington, as saying, “That's largely a function of income . . . They're just barely managing to survive as it is, and they don't have enough income to save.”

Isn’t it interesting that this man could very well be talking about Nigerians or citizens of some other so-called Third World country? Let’s not be deceived, however. The lowest paid person in America receives about $6 per hour, or about $660 a month. That adds up to about 85,000 naira a month—more than the salary of a university graduate. So there is no basis to compare the standard of living in America with that of Nigeria.

Nevertheless, Americans, as we have seen earlier, have an almost zero savings culture. But if America’s savings culture is this desperately abysmal, why is it not a candidate for ranking among the world’s poorest nations, according to World Bank standards?

I think it’s because the loss of savings culture in America has been compensated for by the gain in the adoption of a debt culture. Nancy Register of the Consumer Federation of America captured this trend well when she said, "In two generations it seems that we've lost the culture and habit of savings. There's so much marketing pressure to spend and buy and have instant gratification. And if you can't buy it now, put it on your credit card."

The debt culture in America is sustained by credit-card and mortgage institutions. I have no space to explain these financial instruments in as much detail as I would have liked, but a brief sketch will suffice.

A credit card is a plastic card the size of an ID card which contains money lent to a holder by a bank for which interest will be paid at the end of every month. It operates like this: A bank, say UBA, convinced that you’re reliable and are capable of repaying debt, will lend you, say, 100,000 naira in credit.

You can spend the money as you wish. But at the end of every month, you’re required to pay a minimum of 10 percent of what you have spent from the money. You will also pay other fees called finance charges. And at the end of the year, you will be charged what’s called the APR (that is, annual percentage rate), which ranges from 20 to 40 percent of your total credit limit of 100,000 naira. If you default in your payment or spend above your credit line of 100,000 naira, you will be charged hefty penalty fees.

Credit cards, as you can imagine, give people a false sense of financial security. But more than that, they have made the American society socially unreadable: you cannot easily judge people’s real economic status by their material possessions. Everybody—or almost everybody— rides more expensive cars than they can ordinarily afford, and live in bigger and more expensive houses than their salaries can typically manage to pay for.

When I first came to this country, I was frankly confused by the unimaginably stupendous opulence I saw everywhere. My undergraduate students, mostly in their teens, were riding brand new, expensive SUVs (what we prefer to call jeeps in Nigeria). Well, more than half of the cars Americans drive are fuel-guzzling SUVs. Don’t even talk about their sartorial elegance that bespoke boundless prosperity—at least to my Nigerian eyes.

Then I realized that most people I related with “own” their homes; they are not renting. I said to myself, this country must truly be the place where honey and milk flow in the streets. Little kids ride brand new SUVs, most people own their houses, and not many people seemed to lack anything they wanted. But when I asked what the annual incomes of some of my friends were, I couldn’t reconcile their lavish affluence with their earnings.

Before long, I learned that it’s all credit-card-induced wealth. Almost everything that most people own here is on credit. Some people, in fact, cannot repay their debts in their entire lifetime. I found that scary.

So in my first year of living here, I swore that I would never get a credit card. For one, I hate to be indebted to anyone—when I can help it. Debt oppresses me like an incubus and sucks my equanimity in ways that defy expression. That is why I like live within my means, even if this means I have to endure a lot of self-denial. The credit card culture makes people live substantially above their real means. And I didn’t want to fall into the huge ocean of debt that I saw many of my American friends swimming in.

The second reason for my reluctance, which is related to the first, is cultural or, if you like, religious. I was brought up by a fastidious Muslim cleric of a father who socialized me from my formative years to develop a strong distaste for—and indeed fear of—debt, especially usurious debt. I didn’t think I would overgrow that socialization.

But after only one year of consciously resisting the lure of “free” money, my resolve was finally broken. The truth is that it’s practically impossible to avoid debt or, to be sure, credit cards if you live in this country. You can only do so at the expense of a hell of a lot of self-abnegation. As I will show later, the credit card has become the measuring rod for people’s trustworthiness.

For instance one day in Louisiana my friend from Portugal who was studying for a mater’s degree in engineering asked me to accompany him to buy a cell phone. He was excited at the thought that he would finally have his cell phone and be able stay constantly in touch with his family back home. What happened shocked us.

When he wanted to pay, the sales representative of the phone company asked for his credit card. “I have no credit card, but I have cash,” he said, thinking he would impress the sales representative with his “cash liquidity.” But the sales rep said her company would not accept cash. “We only accept credit cards,” she said.

We exchanged bewildered glances. My friend then said he had a debit card, which is like a credit card, except that the money is drawn from your actual income in a current account (what Americans call “checking account”) with a bank. The sales reps insisted that she would only accept credit cards. We went to two other cell phone companies. The story was the same.

To be concluded next week

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Uzor Kalu's Forged Letter from America


By Farooq A. Kperogi

This article is a sequel to my piece on Oprah Winfrey’s alleged condemnation of Nigerians. If you recall, a letter to the editor in a Nigerian newspaper accused Oprah of saying that all Nigerians, irrespective of their social status, are criminals. This sequel did not come immediately after my Oprah piece because I was distracted by other issues.

I showed in my previous piece that the statement attributed to Oprah was a cheap fabrication by a Nigerian resident in the United States who was probably discomfited by the negative attention that Oprah’s show on 419 scams drew to Nigerians.

So what has this got to do with Orji Uzor Kalu, the boisterous former governor of Abia State who is standing trial (or is he?) for allegedly laundering 3.1 billion naira belonging to his state? Everything, if you ask me.

In what seemed like an uncanny self-fulfilling prophecy, about the time Oprah allegedly said all Nigerians are criminals irrespective of their education and social status, news filtered through that the former governor forged a letter from the Brigham Women’s Hospital in the state of Massachusetts in northeastern United States. The letter, purportedly written by a Dr. Black to Orji Kalu, requested the former governor’s presence in America for his wife’s surgery.

The letter reads in part:
“Dear Kalu,
“The Brain Tumour Programme at Brigham and Women‘s Hospital and Dana Farber Cancer Institute provides a multi-disciplinary brain tumour clinics in radiation therapy, chemotherapy and neurosurgery, a tumour board and radio surgery evaluation and is a closely-coordinated effort between Dana Farber Cancer Institute and Brigham and Women‘s Hospital.

“A comprehensive evaluation and long-time management of your spouse‘s present health condition… necessitates a repeat of neurosurgery of the nervous system….
“This decision was reached at our board meeting on Friday, July 27, 2007.
“At present, based on our evaluation, Ifeoma‘s basic cognition is inadequate to offer consent for this surgery to proceed.

“We, therefore, as required by Massachusetts General Law, request your presence to offer your consent as next-of-kin for this immediate needed care to proceed.
“Please be advised that your immediate attention is required as the surgery is scheduled for Wednesday, August 8, 2007 at 6.30 a.m. ....”

On the basis of this fraudulent letter, Kalu asked the Federal High Court in Abuja to grant him permission to travel to the United States. “I have just received information through Victor Onochie (by fax) to the effect that my wife is due for a major surgery on 8th August in Brigham and Women‘s Hospital in Massachusetts, USA,” he has been quoted to have said in many Nigerian newspapers.

But a U.S.-based, Nigerian-owned muckraking online news outlet called pointblanknews.com found out that the letter from the Brigham and Women’s Hospital was, in fact, a forgery. “When Pointblanknews.com confronted the Hospital with the letter,” the online news outlet said, “Dr. Kwan said, ‘that is not Dr. Peter Black’s signature. It is obviously forged. This hospital does not issue such letters.’” It further quoted the doctor to have said, “This is strange and we are not taking it lightly. We are looking into it and we might require the police to come in.”

The Punch newspaper, apparently instigated by the pointblanknews.com scoop, did a follow-up and found exactly the same information: that the letter was forged. (The Punch story can be found here: (
http://www.punchontheweb.com/Articl.aspx?theartic=Art2007081323505068
).

It was, of course, easy to tell straight away that the letter was counterfeit. The spellings in the letter are decidedly British. Tumor is spelled as “tumour” and program is spelled as “programme.” From my experience, most Americans are not even familiar with these alternative British spellings, much less use them even in error.

What is more, there is a lot in the language of the letter that reminds one of the ubiquitous 419 email propositions that promise people unimaginable fortunes if only they can part with a little “advance fee.” I have done a rhetorical and linguistic analysis of Nigerian 419 email scams elsewhere, and I am not about to bore you with that here.

So, about the same time that a US-based Nigerian letter writer alleged that Oprah said all Nigerians are fraudulent regardless of their social status, a former Nigerian state governor was caught pants down in a sensationally criminal falsification of the documents of another country’s hospital. Supposing Oprah actually said what she was falsely accused to have said, would Kalu’s embarrassing forgery not be an eloquent vulgar empiricist endorsement of that statement?

Interestingly, it is a Nigerian who has been circulating and giving wider significance to this stereotype by falsely ascribing it to Oprah Winfrey. As psychologists have known for ages, the potential for self-fulfilling stereotyping is often great. The influential American eugenicist Arthur Jensen characterizes this as the "stereotype threat" by which he means that people who feel stereotyped, who have been stereotyped all their lives, tend to act according to that stereotype, or inadvertently authorize it, often despite themselves.


If the American news media get hold of this story, they will certainly have a field day with it, and this will only fertilize the misleading stereotype that Nigerians, irrespective of their social status, are corrupt. And it’s only a matter of time before this happens. Our international reputational capital is up for another diminution.

It is truly a tragedy that someone with Orji Kalu’s antecedents and quality of mind can rise to become governor of a state. The rumor mills in Nigeria have been rife with stories of how Orji Kalu became rich, and I am not about to repeat them here lest I should be sued for libel.

But what kind of human being will childishly forge a letter from America in this age of dizzying cross-border data flow on the information superhighway that makes it exceedingly possible for just about everything to be confirmed or disconfirmed with the mere click of the mouse? If this man gives a clue to the quality of minds of the people who govern us, it is little wonder that we are stuck in perpetual infancy as a nation.

Sadly, I have not read a lot of editorial commentaries in the Nigerian media on this truly disturbing development. And, worse, our government appears to be either unaware of or simply insouciant about this ponderous transnational crime by a Nigerian as politically consequential as a former state governor. What does this say about us as a country?

How can we convince anyone that we are not a nation of scammers when a former state governor willfully forges a letter from another country’s institutions and tenders it to a court of law without any consequences? This is an embarrassing international relations fiasco that the Yar’Adua administration cannot afford to ignore. It is at the core of any effort to recoup our fast depleting international reputation.

The truth is that most human beings are vulgar empiricists. They form inferences and conclusions on the basis of few, unrepresentative instances. The stereotype of Indians as miserly bums, of southeast Asians as smart people, of Germans as cold, of Britons as humorless, of Americans as ignorant of the world outside their domestic confines, etc are based on inaccurate generalizations to whole populations on the basis of the actions of a few prominent people. It is unrealistic to expect people not think the way they do about us given the notoriety of a few prominent people among us in scams and high-profile forgeries.

But we can do something about it: confront the problem frontally. The EFCC, in spite of its severe limitations which I have had cause to point out in the past, did a great job of giving hell to fraudsters who defile our image abroad. But we now have an exuberant and apparently ignorant and power-drunk attorney-general who is determined to hamstring the EFCC and reverse the modest gains it has recorded over the past couple of years. Where does that leave us?

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Divided by a Common Language: Comparing Nigerian, American and British English

By Farooq A. Kperogi 

This piece was originally serialized for eight weeks in my weekly column called "Notes from Atlanta" in the Abuja-based Weekly Trust newspaper. I am making it available to a wider audience because of the enthusiastic responses I received from Nigerians and non-Nigerians alike who followed the series in both the print and online editions of Weekly Trust. The discontinuities and awkward transitions you may notice in reading the piece are the result of the episodic nature of writing the column.

We all know that there is such a thing as British English; it is the progenitor of all subsequent "Englishes" (as professional linguists awkwardly call national and sub-regional varieties of the English language) in the world. And we do, of course, know that there is American English, not only because it is the earliest national variety to rebel against some of the quirky conventions of British English (a fact that prompted the celebrated Irish writer George Bernard Shaw to famously remark that "England and America are two countries divided by a common language"), but also because America's current preeminent position in the world ensures that its variety of English is now relentlessly universalized through an imperceptible but nonetheless powerful process of pop-culture-induced linguistic osmosis.

What of Nigerian English? Is there such a thing as Nigerian English? If there is, how is it different from and similar to British and American English? If there isn't why do we have such radically idiosyncratic usage patterns that set us apart from other users of the English language? And why should we care?

Let me start with the last question. We should care because English is not just another language; it is our national language—sadly. But more than that, it is now practically the lingua franca of the world. It is the primary international language in communications, information technology, entertainment, science, business and diplomacy. It is also, by international treaty, the official language for aerial and maritime communications, as well as one of the official languages of the United Nations, the European Union, and most international athletic organizations, including the International Olympic Committee.

That's not all. It is also the language of scholarship. Recently, for instance, the Science Citation Index reported that 95 percent of its articles were written in English, even though only half of these scientific articles came from authors in English-speaking countries. It has also been said that over 80 percent of information stored in the world's computers is in English.

That is why English is spoken by hundreds of millions of non-native speakers in the world today. If you take into account the fact that almost every educated Chinese person now speaks and writes some English, the number should be close to a billion. So trying to ignore the English language in today's world is like trying to avoid daylight: you can do it, but with an effort so demanding it reaches the point of absurdity.

I think it is not out of place for us to reflect on how we write and speak our own variety of English and in so doing develop a self-conscious knowledge of how our usage of the language in relation to its two dominant varieties converge and diverge. This may provide a springboard to start a process of codifying and taking pride in our idiosyncratic use of this foreign, eccentric language that we are forced to deal with both because of the peculiarities of our socio-historical experiences and because of the reality of the architecture of the current world setup, which privileges the English language over all other languages in the world—at least for now.

Before I explore the differences and similarities between Nigerian, American and British English based on my experiences, I think it's appropriate to briefly mention what motivates me to undertake this. First, right from an early stage in my educational career, I have often had an enduring obsession with language.

Perhaps, it is the compensation, in the psychiatric sense of the word, for my rather embarrassingly awful knowledge of the numerate disciplines, especially mathematics. (In Freudian psychoanalysis, compensation is an ego defense mechanism that conceals your undesirable shortcomings by exaggerating your desirable behavioral strengths).

Second, when I enrolled at the Bayero University, Kano for my bachelor's degree, I was originally in the English department. It was in my third year that I changed my major to Mass Communication. However, English was still my minor (or "subsidiary," as we called it in BUK) up to the end of my third year. And in my final year I sat in on almost all the fourth-year English classes that didn't conflict with my mass communication classes. My friends and classmates in English then, including the present acting editor of Daily Trust, Abdulazeez Abdullahi, used to wonder why I left the English department but couldn't sever my umbilical cord from it.

Well, it's because of my abiding, almost compulsive, interest in language. What's more, Bayero University's English department is one of Nigeria's leading universities in the systematic study of Nigerian English, thanks largely to the praiseworthy efforts of Professor David Roger Jowitt and his intellectual protégés. Jowitt, for those who don't know him, is a Cambridge-educated native speaker of English who has been a professor of English at BUK since 1987 and who has been teaching English in Nigerian tertiary institutions since the early 1960s. His 1991 book titled Nigerian English Usage: An Introduction is arguably the most perceptive books to date on the subject.

It was at BUK that I first became self-conscious of the deviations of Nigerian English, especially after taking a course called "Media English," which was essentially a survey of how English is used (and misused) in the Nigerian mass media. So some of the examples I will use to discuss the distinctiveness of Nigerian English in this article will be drawn from my recollections of that class—and from my reading of Professor Jowitt's richly insightful book. But a more robust corpus of idiosyncratic Nigerian English usage has emerged over the last couple of years since Jowitt's book came out, which nobody, at least to my knowledge, has captured in a systematic and self-conscious way. I hope to do that in the piece.

It seems to me that there are four fundamental sources of Nigerian English. The first source is what I call linguistic improvisation. There are many unique Nigerian socio-cultural thoughts that simply cannot be expressed in the "standard" form of the English language. So we either translate our local languages to take care of this lack, or we appropriate existing English words and phrases and imbue them with meanings that serve our communicative purposes. When Chinua Achebe wrote in Things Fall Apart, for instance, that "proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten," he was consciously appropriating English lexical items to express a uniquely Igbo cultural thought, which doesn't make any sense to a native English speaker. (Thank God it is Achebe. They have been forced to learn what his distinctively Nigerian expressions mean).

A second source of Nigerian English is drawn from innocent grammatical errors initially committed by our media and political elite. These errors were repeated several times in the media and, in time, got fossilized and incorporated into our linguistic repertoire. This mode of language change, of course, takes place in all other varieties of English, including British and American English.

A third source is old-fashioned British English idioms and expressions that have lost currency in Britain since the 1960s. Idioms such as "bad eggs" and expressions such as "more power to your elbow" (usually rendered as "more grease to your elbow" in Nigeria) are intelligible only to older British people. (During my master's program in Louisiana, I took my minor again from English and was fortunate to be taught by a British professor of English with whom I discussed this issue a lot. So some of the examples I will give in the following weeks will also be drawn from my encounter with her.)

The fourth source is derived from Americanisms interspersed with British English to create a unique identity that is both American and British and, in a sense, neither American nor British.

It is important to stress that Nigerian English is not bad or substandard English. It is a legitimate national variety that has evolved, over several decades, out of our unique experiences as a post-colonial, polyglot nation.

However hard we might try, we can't help writing and speaking English in ways that reflect our socio-linguistic singularities. Even our own Wole Soyinka who thinks he speaks and writes better English than the Queen of England habitually betrays "Nigerianisms" in his writings. Or at least that's what the native speakers of the language think. For instance, when he was admitted into the Royal Society of Arts, the citation on his award read something like: "Mr. Soyinka is a prolific writer in the vernacular English of his own country."

I learned that Soyinka's pride was badly hurt when he read the citation. But it needn't be. It was Chinua Achebe who once said, in defense of his creative semantic and lexical contortions of the English language to express uniquely Nigerian thoughts that have no equivalents in English, that any language that has the cheek to leave its primordial shores and encroach on the territory of other people should learn to come to terms with the inevitable reality that it would be domesticated.

Conceptualizing Nigerian English
While I do not want to get caught up in the definitional and conceptual squabbles among professional linguists over the meaning, scope and content of Nigerian English, I think it is useful that I briefly operationalize my conception of it. By Nigerian English I do not mean Nigerian Pidgin English. Nor do I mean the English spoken by uneducated and barely educated Nigerians. I mean the variety of English that is broadly spoken and written by Nigeria's literary, intellectual, political, and media elite across the regional and ethnic spectra of Nigeria.

I know this definition is barefacedly elitist. But this is true of all "standard" varieties of all "modern" languages in the world. What is called British Standard English, for instance, is no more than the idiosyncratic usage of the language by the English royalty—and by the political, intellectual, literary, and media elite of the country. The social and intellectual snobbery of the French language is even more blatant. There is a French language academy that not only consciously privileges the elite dialect of the language but also polices its usage all over the world.

An additional problem with my definition is that Nigerian English has not yet been purposively standardized. Our English teachers still dismiss it as mere "bad English." I remember that when I served as an English language examiner for the West African Examinations Council (WAEC) in 1997, our team leader instructed us to penalize students who wrote "Nigerian English." The irony, however, is that no Nigerian who was educated at home, including those who deride Nigerian English, can avoid speaking or writing it either consciously or unconsciously.

Take as an example one cocky friend of mine who is so self-assured about his English language skills that he dismissed my attempt at chronicling and systematizing Nigerian English usage as a glorification of "bad English." For him, there is no such thing as Nigerian English. There is only uneducated English, which overzealous, starry-eyed idealists like me want to intellectualize, he said. Fair enough.

After he told me that, I asked him what he does on the seventh day of the birth of his children. "I do the naming ceremony, of course," he said. I asked him again what he says to people when he meets them working. "I say 'well done' to them," he said. I told him that these are uniquely Nigerian expressions, as I will show shortly. He was stunned, even embarrassed. But as I said last week, he needn't be.

Well, perhaps, it is not altogether unreasonable to aspire to write and speak English that closely approximates the way it is written and spoken in America and Britain, especially because of concerns for mutual intelligibility. However, when the existing semantic and syntactic resources of the English language are miserably incapable of serving our communicative needs, we are left with only two options: neologism (that is, invention of new words or phrases) and semantic extension (that is, encoding existing English words and phrases with meanings that are absent in the original, but which encapsulate our unique socio-linguistic experiences).

Having made these prefatory remarks, let me proceed to compare Nigerian English with American and British English. In doing this, I will be guided by the four main fountains of Nigerian English that I identified last week: linguistic improvisation, old-fashioned British expressions, initial usage errors fossilized over time and incorporated into our linguistic repertory, and a mishmash of British and American English.

Linguistic improvisation
Perhaps the most contemporary example of our linguistic creativity is the appropriation and contortion of the word "flash"— and its inflections "flashing" and "flasher"—in our mobile telephonic vocabulary. Neither American English nor British English—nor, for that matter, any other variety of English in the world— uses these words the way we do. The closest semantic equivalent in both British and American English to what we call "flashing" is "buzz." If you tell an American or a Briton that you have "flashed" their phone, they will probably have no earthly clue what you're talking about.

What of "flasher"? Well, in both British and American English, a flasher is someone, mostly a man, who has a compulsive desire to expose his genitals in public! The last time I was in Nigeria, a friend of mine who had "buzzed" my phone incessantly jokingly told me that he was a "professional flasher"! He had no idea what a "flasher"— or, even worse, a "professional flasher"— means in standard American and British English until I told him. He was, of course, shocked. He asked if he could use the word "buzzer" since I said "buzz" is the closest word that describes the sense we convey when we say we "flash" someone's phone. But buzzer is just another word for a doorbell.

Similarly, our use of the phrase "well done" as a form of salutation for someone who is working is peculiarly Nigerian. We use it to approximate such expressions as "sannu da aiki" in Hausa, "eku ise" in Yoruba, "ka soburu" in Batonu (my language), which have no parallels in American and British English. In both American and British English, "well done" either functions as an adjective to describe thoroughly cooked food or meat (Example: I like my food well done), or as an exclamation expressive of applause— synonymous with "bravo." It is also used as an adjective to describe something that has been executed with diligence and skill. It is not part of the cultural repertoire of people in the West to reserve a special form of salutation for people who are working.

Another distinctively Nigerian expression is "naming ceremony." Since the native speakers of the English language do not celebrate the christening of their children the way we do in Nigeria, they have no need for a "naming ceremony." But we do. So we creatively coined it.

What of the expression, "quite an age!" to mean "long time, no see"? (The phrase "long time no see," by the way, was originally an exclusively Chinese English expression before it was accepted into Standard British English. Perhaps some of our Nigerian coinages will also be incorporated into standard American and British English). Well, it is also a Nigerian improvisation. Interestingly, I learned that expression from my secondary school English teacher who was such a fastidious semantic purist that he wanted us to write and speak English in ways that would make the Queen of England envious! I actually only realized that the expression is distinctly Nigerian when neither my American friends nor my British professor could decipher it.

The way we use the word "sorry" is also a good example of linguistic creativity. We have expanded the word's original native English meaning from a mere exclamation to indicate an apology to an exclamation to express concern for a misfortune (such as when someone skips a step and falls). We use it whether or not we are responsible for the misfortune. This usage of the word, which is completely absent in American and British English, is an approximation of such expressions as "sannu fa" in Hausa, "pele o" in Yoruba, "ndo" in Igbo, "kpure kpure" in Batonu, etc. The American and British equivalents seem very distant and lacking in empathy and warmth.

We also have a whole host of euphemisms, especially for excretory activities, that absolutely make no sense in American and British English. For instance, we use the expression "spoil the air" (or its other variations such as "pollute the air" or simply "pollute") to mean fart. Most Nigerian cultures are prudish and resent directness in discussing excretory activities.

Another interesting euphemism, which I too didn't know was uniquely Nigerian until I came to the United States, is the expression "to ease oneself," which we use to cover a multitude of sins in the toilet! Where we would say "I want to ease myself," Americans would say "I need to go to the bathroom" or, if it's a public building, "I need to go to the restroom." One day I told a friend in Louisiana that I wanted to "ease myself." He was completely lost. When I had occasion to meet with my British professor of English, I told her about this. (We used to spend our spare time ridiculing American English since Nigerian English is a close cousin—or, if you like, a child—of British English.) I told her Americans had no clue what I meant when I said I wanted to "ease myself."

She was silent for an uncomfortably long time. Then she said, "I am afraid I too have no idea what that means." I knew then I was alone.

However, my least favorite of our linguistic improvisations is the word "detribalized" as an adjective to describe someone who transcends narrow ethnic allegiances. This usage of the word derives from our wrong-headed and ignorant use of the word "tribe" to describe our ethnicities. In its modern usage, tribe is a condescending, even derogatory, word that Europeans and people of European descent reserve only for people they consider inferior. You will never hear of the English tribe or the German tribe or, in fact, the Japanese or Chinese tribes.

In American and British English, "detribalize" is a verb used condescendingly to imply that "culturally superior" Europeans have caused a people to lose their "savage" cultural identities. In other words, to detribalize a person or a people is to Europeanize or westernize them. It is to make them lose their language, their customs, their mores—generally things that make them "primitive" by European standards. In Australia, for example, Europeans forcefully adopted Aboriginal children and "detribalized" them by taking them to white foster homes so that they would lose all connections with their original culture and thereby become "civilized."

Only Nigerians use "detribalized" as an adjective. I once read an interview that the late Bola Ige granted to a newspaper where he resented being described as "detribalized." I was happy that a prominent Nigerian finally saw through the stupidity of the word. But then he said he preferred to be described as "untribalized." Well, no such word exists in any dictionary, and it is just as self-denigrating as "detribalized."

Another example of linguistic improvisation in Nigerian English is the use of the expression "co-wife" or "co-wives" to refer to female partners in polygamous marriages. Americans and Britons do not have an equivalent lexical notation for this since polygamy (derisively called bigamy here) is, in fact, a crime for which people go to prison. I am curious to know, though, how Mormons (members of a heretical Christian sect that practices polygamy in the state of Utah here in the U.S.) refer to "co-wives."

We have also expanded the meaning of "playmates" or "joking partners" to refer to people in traditionally and historically sanctioned, semi-ritualized joking relationships, which permit the kind of privileged familiarity that leads us to tolerate and even laugh at the abusive teasing that goes on between specified ethnic groups, trades, families, etc.

For instance, members of my ethnic group, the Batonu (also called Bariba by Yoruba people), have a "joking relationship" with Kanuri, Fulani, and Zarma people. (The Zarma are the second most populous but most politically powerful ethnic group in Niger Republic). Nupe people have a "joking relationship" with Katsina people. Zaria and Suleja people have a "joking relationship." The examples are legion. Well, this tradition has no parallel in Western cultures. So they have no name for it. However, these terms are now firmly established in the literature of anthropology and are well on their way to being incorporated into British and American English—if that has not already happened.

In the last 10 years or so, it has become customary for us to arrange "send-forth parties" as an organized expression of goodwill for people who are about to leave us for a new place or for a new venture. This expression, which seems to have originated as a coinage by Nigerian born-again Christians, would certainly make no sense to many Americans and Britons. Its equivalent in standard British and American English is "send-off" (note that it is NOT "send-off party" because "send-off" is a noun, not an adjective) or "farewell celebration" or, rarely, "bon voyage." Americans also call it a "leaving party."

I guess Nigerians coined the expression "send-forth party" because "send-off" seems distant, even hostile. The adverb "forth" appears to us to convey a connotation of forward motion, of advancement, while "off" strikes us as suggesting departure with no expectation of return. So we think that to say we send people off creates the impression that we derive perverse pleasure in their departure from us. But linguists would call this reasoning naïve, if not downright ignorant, because the definition of an idiom—which is what this phrase is— is that it is an expression "whose meaning cannot be inferred from the meanings of the individual words that make it up."

Other examples of neologisms that are exclusively Nigerian are "chewing stick," "pounded yam," "K-legged" (called "knock-kneed" in British and American English), "next tomorrow" to mean the day after tomorrow, "take in" meaning to become pregnant, "put to bed" meaning to give birth to a child, "not on seat" to mean not in the office, etc.

Most of these expressions are utterly incomprehensible to native speakers of the English language. But I think that's no reason to stop using them when we communicate with each other. However, we need to know that these expressions are distinctly Nigerian so that when we have cause to tell a non-Nigerian interlocutor that we've not been "on seat" because our first wife has just "put to bed" and her "co-wife" has just "taken in," we will not be surprised when he is perfectly clueless! As I cannot exhaust all the examples of Nigerian linguistic improvisation in this series, let me turn to the next subsection.

Old-fashioned British English
Old-fashioned British English is a robust resource for Nigerian English. Such expressions as "bad eggs" to mean bad people, "men of the underworld" to refer to criminals, "harlot" as a synonym for a prostitute, "parastatal," to denote an autonomous sub-unit of a government ministry, "trafficator" to mean indicator or blinker (what Americans also call turn indicator or turn signal), "trafficate" to mean "use the indicator," "vulcanise" to mean repair a puncture—and "vulcaniser to mean someone who "vulcanises"— "issues" to mean children, (as in "she has two issues for him") etc have lost currency in Britain since the 1960s. So is the pejorative word "kinsmen" still used in our newspapers to mean townsfolk or townspeople or, sometimes, members of one's ethnic group.

These expressions sound quaintly outmoded to many Britons—the same way that a modern Hausa speaker feels when someone uses the word "bisa" instead of "sama" to refer to the sky. Only British citizens who are at least 50 years old have any inkling what some of these words mean.

And as I mentioned earlier, the Irish English expression "more power to your elbow" (often distorted to "more grease to your elbow" in Nigerian English) is a British archaism. But why do we render it as "more grease to your elbow"? It seems to me that it is because of the false attraction of the unrelated idiom "elbow grease," which simply means hard work, that is, the use of physical energy. (Example: the job of a carpenter requires a lot of elbow grease.)

Usage errors normalized over time This is where Nigerian grammarians argue intensely. Should we treat clear cases of usage errors as legitimate deviations that deserve to be dignified and incorporated into the corpus of Nigerian English? Are we not rewarding sloppiness and intellectual laziness—and ridiculing ourselves in the process— if we do that? I don't have a straightforward answer to this legitimate concern.

But the normalization of usage errors that are repeated by the educated elite is not exclusive to Nigerian English. There is a surfeit of such examples in British and American Standard English, the most prominent being the misuse of the phrase "due to" by Queen Elizabeth II. In traditional grammar, "due" is an adjective, and when it is followed by the preposition "to" it should be attached to a noun (example: the cancellation of the event was due to the rain). The use of "due to" at the beginning of a sentence in the sense of "because of" or "owing to" was considered uneducated. But when the Queen, in a Speech from the Throne, said "Due to inability to market their grain, prairie farmers have been faced for some time with a serious shortage," this "uneducated" usage gained respectability.

A more recent example is the use of the word "illegals" by the American media to refer to illegal immigrants. The word initially met with hostility from grammarians here because "illegal" is said to be an adjective and should not be used as a noun. But this usage is now gradually being accepted.

Similarly, the use of the pronouns "them" and "their" as gender-neutral, generic forms (as in, "everybody should bring THEIR book") now enjoys wide currency in both British and American English, even though it was once considered an unpardonable solecism. The time-honored admonition against the use of conjunctions (such as "and" and "but") to start a sentence is also no longer obeyed anywhere. And that's why this sentence begins with "and"!

Another example is "one another" and "each other." It used to be the rule that "each other" referred to two people or things and "one another" referred to three or more people or things. Today, native speakers of the English language no longer recognize this distinction. In fact, the phrase "one another" seems to have fallen into disuse.

Similarly, the expression "both the two of them," which is now perfectly acceptable in American English, was initially greeted with hostility by syntacticians who thought (rightly, I think) that it was gratuitously tautological since "both" expresses "two-ness." I have heard at least five American professors say "both the two of them." So let's not feel inadequate because we have also congealed and normalized our own usage errors.

Let me begin this sub-section with a front-page headline in the Weekly Trust that reads: "Guard defiles neighbour's daughter." In British and American Standard English, to defile is to make dirty—literally and metaphorically. For instance, you can defile a river or a holy place, but "defile" is never used in British and American English to mean rape, which was the sense that headline intended to convey. This usage error is now very common in the Nigerian media.

In a related case, we also use the word "disvirgin" to mean "deprive of virginity." But there is no word like "disvirgin" in ANY English dictionary. Americans and Britons use "deflower" to express the sense we convey when we use the word "disvirgin" (example: "this dirty old man deflowered many young girls in the village"). Curiously, "deflower" is not part of our active idiolect. How did we miss it?

Contemporary Nigerian usage has even extended the original sense of deflowering in the use of the word "disvirgin." Now when people use their passports (which we also uniquely call "international passports") for the first time, they say they have "disvirgined" their "international passport"! I heard this extension of the word for the first time in 2004 when I boarded the same plane to Dublin, Ireland, with young, first-time Nigerian travelers. They told me they were excited that they had "disvirgined" their "international passports."

Another rich wellspring of this strand of Nigerian English comes from the confusion of parts of speech. An example of this kind of usage error that has gained currency—and respectability—is the way we use the word "opportune." We use this word as if it were a verb when, in reality, it's an adjective in British and American English. It's common to hear our politicians say "I have been opportuned to serve my people"—or suchlike expression. Opportune, which simply means "well-timed" (example: "the opportune arrival of the policeman saved him") cannot have a past tense because it is not a verb; it's an adjective. The error arises, perhaps, from thinking that "opportune" is a derivative of "opportunity." It is not.

To make ourselves comprehensible to non-Nigerians, we should replace all expressions that have the phrase "been opportuned" with "have the opportunity." Instead of saying "I have been opportuned to serve my country," we should say "I have the opportunity to serve my country." An even neater alternative is to replace "opportuned" with "privileged" so that the sentence above will read: "I have been privileged to serve my country."

The widespread usage of the phrase "barbing salon" to mean hairdressing salon or barber's shop— and "barb" to mean have a haircut— belong to this category of usage error. We use "barb" as a back formation from barber—a hairdresser who cuts hair and shaves beards as a trade. But in American and British English, "barb" denotes, among several meanings, the pointed part of a type of wire.

It is also used metaphorically to refer to an aggressive remark directed at a person. When it is used as a verb, it usually means to "provide with barbs," that is, to put barbs in a fence. The use of "barb" to mean have a haircut is entirely meaningless to native speakers of the English language. So is the phrase "barbing salon."

Another usage error that enjoys wide currency in Nigerian English is the addition of the "-ly" forms to words that are already adverbs. Prominent examples are "outrightly" and "downrightly"--words that do not exist in any English dictionary. In British and American Standard English, "outright" and "downright" are both adjectives and adverbs, and do not take the "-ly" form in the sense of "beautifully," "utterly," etc.

I have also heard and read of people being referred to as "mediocres" in the Nigerian media and in demotic speech. In British and America English, mediocre (meaning "moderate to inferior in quality" if applied to things, or "lacking exceptional quality or ability" if applied to human beings) is not a noun; it's an adjective. So, you can say "he is a mediocre lawyer," but not "the lawyer is a mediocre." It is the same with "talkative." It is also an adjective, not a noun. So, instead of saying, "he is a talkative," Americans and Britons would say, "he is talkative" or "he is a talkative person."

It is also a universal error in Nigeria to use the non-existent word "upliftment" as an equivalent word for improvement. We invented it as a forward-formation from "uplift." But in American and British Standard English, "uplift" is both a verb and a noun. For instance, where we would say, "this administration is committed to the moral upliftment of the society," American and British speakers would say, "this administration is committed to the moral uplift of the society."

Still on the confusion of parts of speech, we sometimes use expressions like "off the light," "on the light," etc as if "off" and "on" were verbs. Put/switch off/on the light would be the preferred alternatives in American and British English. When "off" is used as a verb in informal American English, it means to murder.

Does the word "smoothen" exist? Well, only in informal, nonstandard American English. In standard American and British English, "smooth" is both an adjective and a verb." For instance, where we would say, "the ministerial nominee bribed the senators to smoothen the way toward his confirmation," educated American and British speakers would replace "smoothen" with "smooth."

What of the expressions "free-for-all fight" and "reprisal attacks"? In American and British English, they would be considered superfluous. A "free-for-all" means a noisy fight in a crowd. To add "fight" to "free-for-all" is overkill! Similarly, "reprisal" is a noun, which means a retaliatory attack against an enemy. To add "attack" to "reprisal" is also pleonastic, as grammarians describe the act of using more words than are necessary. The phrase "electioneering campaign" is also a distinctly Nigerian tautology. Electioneering is NOT an adjective; it's a noun, which means "political campaign." So the phrase "electioneering campaign" will translate into "political campaign campaign"!

Other words that we have invented based on false analogies are"godfatherism," "patronizers" ("patrons" in American and British English, as in: "patrons of a brothel" instead of "patronizers of a brothel"), "mannerless" ("ill-mannered" in American and British English; this seems more like an archaism than a Nigerian coinage), "mannered" (instead of "well-behaved" or "well-mannered"; "mannered" actually means having unnatural mannerisms).

Still on this topic, last week, the Nigerian Tribune wrote something to the effect that Yar'Adua had "upturned most of the decisions of Obasanjo." During the same week, another senior journalist wrote about logic being "upturned." It seems that we are mistaking "overturn" for "upturn." They are two different, unrelated words.

When "upturn" is used as a noun in British and American English (Americans prefer the word "uptrend" when it is used in this sense), it usually means an upward movement or improvement in business activity, etc (example: Since Yar'Adua became president, there has been an upturn in the economy). When the word is used as an adjective (that is, when it is rendered as "upturned"), it is traditionally used in two senses. The first is as a synonym for "turned upside down" and the second to describe the position of a person's nose. When a nose is described as upturned, it means it is turned up at the end. In American and British English, "upturned" is never used as a verb in the sense of "reverse" or "overturn."

Before I say the last word on this subsection, let me quickly point out that the words "letter-headed paper" (simply "letterhead" in British and American English), "vandalisation" ("vandalism" in American and British English) "insultive" ("insulting" in American and British English) and "overspeed" ("full speed" or "speeding" in American and British English, as in: "I got a ticket for speeding"), are usage errors that are peculiarly Nigerian.

Another province of usage errors from which Nigerian English has emerged and continues to emerge is the misuse (or, in some cases, lack of use) of prepositions. For instance, we are fond of saying that a place is "conducive" without adding the preposition "to" to make a complete sense—that is, by the standards of American and British English where "conducive" ALWAYS co-occurs with the preposition "to." For instance, instead of saying, "our universities are not conducive," Britons and Americans would say "our universities are not conducive TO learning."

Also look at these sentences: "I hereby apply for a loan to enable me buy a car," "Atiku contested the 2007 presidential election," "he replied my letter." What's wrong with these sentences? Well, they are all missing in prepositions by the standards of American and British English. In the first sentence the preposition "to" is missing. That is, it should have been "… to enable me TO buy a car." "Enable" and "to" are indissolubly "married" in American and British English.

The second sentence is wrong (in American and British English, that is) if we mean that Atiku vied for an election in 2007. To contest something is to dispute it or to make it the subject of litigation. But to contest FOR something is to struggle to gain power or control. So the first sentence should read "Atiku contested FOR the 2007 presidential election" if we mean that he competed with Yar'Adua for the position of president. Without "FOR" in the sentence, we would mean that he is in court to dispute the outcome of the election. This distinction is important for mutual intelligibility in international communication in English. In the third sentence the preposition "to" is also missing. "Reply" ALWAYS co-occurs with "to" in British and American English. (Example: he replied TO my letter).

However, while we gleefully omit these pesky prepositions when we use "enable," "contest," "reply," etc, we gladly pluck some from the air and insert them where they are normally not used in American and British English. An example is the phrase "request FOR." In American and British English "request" is never followed by a preposition (example: "I requested a loan from my boss" instead of "I requested for a loan from my boss"). Of course, when "request" is used as a noun, it can co-occur with the preposition "to."

Before I say the last word on prepositions, I should mention that Americans are probably as careless with prepositions as we are. I mentioned this when I wrote about my baptism of fire in American English on this page about two years ago. For instance, it is typical to hear Americans—educated and uneducated alike— say, "I am waiting on the bus" when they actually mean "I am waiting for the bus." To wait on somebody or something is to work for, or be a servant to, somebody or something. At first, I thought Americans in their usual "rebellion" had subverted British English prepositions (in the fashion of "different than," "in behalf of," etc). But I found out that it is actually a usage error even by the standards of American English.

One day, in 2005, an American journalism professor friend mine in Louisiana who is notoriously finicky about correct grammar (to the annoyance of his students) told me he was "waiting on" the chair of our department. (I was on very friendly terms with him and we often joked about grammar, especially about the occasionally humorous differences between American and British English). When he returned to his office, I said to him: "Doc, I didn't know you are now a servant to the chair of our department." He knew I was up to some mischief, but he couldn't immediately figure out what it was.

When I explained to him why I called him a servant, I thought he would say I was wrong by the standards of American English. But he didn't. He instead said, "Good catch, Farooq. You got me there!"

But I have heard this mistake repeated by many educated Americans with such regularity that I think the rule will soon change. Well, excuse the digression.

I want to call attention to the phrase "complimentary card," which we use to denote what Americans and Britons call "business card." This phrase has to be the most senseless usage error we have normalized, one that will leave even the most perceptive non-Nigerian English speaker irredeemably clueless.

The word "complimentary" simply means "free," that is, costing nothing (example: "the author gave me a complimentary copy of his new book"). So a "complimentary card" simply means a "free card." There is nothing in the phrase to suggest that we are talking of a card on which are printed a person's name, contact details and business affiliation. When I thought about this sometime ago, I concluded that the phrase emerged probably out of a shortening of "complimentary business card." But this doesn't seem like a reasonable assumption to make because the phrase will be superfluous since no one ever sells business cards in the first place. It only makes sense to describe something as complimentary if it is normally sold.

Another usage error is the use of "bag" where "earn" or "receive" would be the appropriate word in British and American English. In our newspapers, it is usual to read that someone has "bagged" a degree or an award or a chieftaincy title. I have not the faintest idea how we came about this usage. But it is neither American nor British. And I confirmed this from my colleagues here last week. I struck up a conversation about education and told them that I "bagged" my bachelor's degree in mass communication from Bayero University in Nigeria. One of them said, "Sorry, what did you say you did to your bachelor's degree in Nigeria?"


"I bagged it," I insisted, amusing myself in the process.

"Is that the British English way to say that you, er, failed—sorry passed— your degree?"

"No, that's the Nigerian English expression to say I EARNED it."

"Oh, I see. I would never have guessed."

So there you have it. To Americans—and Britons—to bag something is simply to put it into a bag—literally. The expression is also used informally to mean kill or capture an animal during hunting (example: "I bagged an antelope when I went hunting yesterday"). In slangy British speech, it can also mean to score a goal, point, etc (example: "Nigeria bagged two goals yesterday in the African Cup of Nations in Algiers") or to quit or skip or abandon something (example: "I bagged my English class today").

Other widespread usage errors are the use of the phrase "hot drink" to mean "hard drink," that is, alcoholic beverage or liquor; "talk less of" to mean "let alone" or "much less"; "of recent" to mean "recently" on the model of "of late"; "plate-number" instead of "number-plate"; "instalmentally" (a non-existent word) instead of "in instalments"—or "installments," if you're enamored of American spellings like I am!— "spent horse" instead of "spent force" (example: "that politician is now a spent force"); "wash a film" instead of "develop a film;" "beer parlor," instead of "bar"; "rentage" instead of "rent."

There is another category of usage errors in Nigeria that I like to call bad grammar about grammar. By this I mean our tendency to misuse and encipher the terminologies of grammarians with our unique meanings. For instance, we use "grammar" to mean unfamiliar words, what George Orwell once elegantly called "exaggerated Latinisms." Grammar merely means the branch of linguistics that is concerned with syntax (arrangement of words in sentences), morphology (rules for forming words) and, sometimes, semantics (study of meaning).

What of "jargon"? I grew up thinking that "jargon" meant grammatically incorrect, nonsensical English. While memorizing the dictionary in my teens, I remember being concerned that the meaning of "jargon" that I encountered in the dictionary completely displaced what I initially thought it meant. I thought my dictionary was probably not advanced enough to capture the whole range of significations of the word.

The word only means the specialized technical vocabulary of a group or a discipline, usually not accessible to the general populace, as in, the jargon of the legal/medical/journalistic profession. But it is not unusual to hear many educated Nigerians tell people, in a state of anger, that they are "speaking jargons" even when the accused are speaking plain English! I guess it's because the word almost sounds like " jagajaga"— a Nigerian Pidgin English word that encapsulates everything that we deem objectionable.

Then you have "colloquial English," which we use to mean bad, old-fashioned English. In truth, however, colloquial English simply means conversational English, that is, informal spoken English as opposed to formal written English. Everybody—from Britain to America to Nigeria—speaks colloquial English when they speak in casual, everyday settings. Perhaps, we have such a negative view of the word "colloquial" because it almost sounds like "colonial," a word that now has a pejorative connotation in Nigeria and elsewhere.

In the same category, you have "Queen's English." We often say people speak—and, rather oddly, write— the Queen's English when we are impressed with their command of the English language. However, the Queen's English, also called Received Pronunciation (or just RP), now simply means English as SPOKEN (not written) by educated people in southeastern England. It is also the accent taught in British public schools and, until recently, it was the only pronunciation used in British broadcasting. There is no way a Nigerian who did not grow up in southern England—or who didn't attend a British public school— can speak the Queen's English. To use the expression as a synonym for "Standard English" is obsolete even in British English.

Another major obtrusive usage error that we have thoroughly internalized is the use of the phrase "secret cults" to refer to semi- ritualized sodalities of university students. The phrase "secret cults" will certainly be utterly indecipherable, even mystifying, to the average American or Briton for a number of reasons.

First, in the popular imagination, "cult" is often primarily associated with fanatical and unorthodox religious groups under the guidance of a charismatic and authoritarian leader. Our "secret cults" don't conform to this conception.

Second, the combination of "secret" and "cult" is decidedly superfluous because cults would not be cults if they weren't secret in the first place. It's more logical to say "secret society" than to say "secret cult."

Third, Americans have similar, although less violence-prone, semi-ritualized sodalities in their universities, which they call "fraternities" (when they are composed of male undergraduates) or "sororities" (when they are composed of female undergraduates).

Like our "secret cults," fraternities (which students here simply call "frats") and sororities are local or national organizations of undergraduates, primarily for social purposes, but usually with secret initiation and rites, and a name composed of two or three Greek letters. Our "secret cults," except for the gang violence often associated with them, are basically similar to fraternities in American universities in almost every sense.

For instance, here too, like in Nigeria, fraternity members are periodically expelled from school for "hazing," that is, the offense of initiation of new members into fraternities by exacting humiliating performances from or playing rough practical jokes upon them. Examples include forcing new members to perform belittling baptismal rites, etc. However, hazing is rare among sororities, as far as I know. So are instances of violence between rival fraternities, although intense rivalry does exist among them, too.

There is also this interesting reversal of meaning in the way we use the words "managing" and "surviving" in Nigerian English and British/American English. When we say we are "managing" in Nigeria we usually mean that we are not doing well, that we are almost on the edge of existence (example: My brother, the country is hard. I am just managing). In American and British English, however, to be managing is to be successful, to achieve one's goals. So where we would say we are "managing," Americans and Britons would say they are "just surviving." To us, however, to be surviving is to overcome, to be in control.

An American researcher called Rachel Reynolds who wrote about the Nigerian immigrant experience in America for an academic journal was struck by this intriguing dissimilarity in our usage of these words. She interviewed Nigerian immigrants in Chicago in the course of her research. Even though her interviewees didn't seem content with their material lot in America, they said they were "not surviving," that they were just "managing." She was initially dumb-stricken. When she finally figured out that we use "managing" to mean "surviving" and "surviving" to mean "managing," she entitled her article: "'We Are Not Surviving, We Are Managing': the Constitution of a Nigerian Diaspora along the Contours of the Global Economy."

Another Nigerian English expression that appears in British English but with an entirely unrelated meaning is "go-slow." We use "go-slow" to mean traffic jam—what Americans also call "snarl-up." In British English, however, "go-slow" is a form of industrial protest where workers, instead of going on an out-and-out strike, deliberately slow down work in order to win demands from their employers. (Americans call this a "slowdown"). So if you are in Britain and you tell your employer that you were late to work because of a "go-slow," he would probably think you're on some kind of a one-man strike! It's also important to note that in informal American English, "go-slow" is used as an adjective to mean "deliberate and careful" (example: Yar'Adua's go-slow effort to maintain a sense of continuity and order).

In a related sense, some Nigerians use the expression "traffic holdup" as an alternative to "go-slow," which they probably recognize as inappropriate by the standards of British English. This expression will certainly be graspable (although it will sound a little quaint) to British speakers. But it will be entirely confusing to the average American. Although Britons sometimes use "holdup" as an alternative to traffic jam, they do not prefix "traffic" to "holdup"; they simply say "holdup." And in both American and British English (especially in American English), a holdup can mean an armed robbery. So if you tell an American that you had a "traffic holdup," he might think that you were robbed at gunpoint in a traffic jam.

Something else. An American who has lived in Nigeria for a number of years once told me that she used to be confused when people said to her: "you are (highly) welcome, madam!" For us Nigerians, that phrase is simply a grand way of saying "welcome," but for Americans—and Britons—the phrase "you're welcome" is only used as a polite response to "thank you." So it used to confuse her a great deal that people would say "you are welcome, madam" to her even when she didn't say "thank you" to them.

And in our curriculum vitas (what Americans call résumés; in America, unlike in Nigeria and Britain, "CV" is used only to mean the summary of the academic and work history of university teachers) we have a section we call "working experience." The equivalent of that phrase in American and British English is "work experience."

And this is no nitpicking. When "working" is used as an adjective, it can mean "just adequate for practical use" (example: I am not an IT expert; I just have a working knowledge of the computer). It can also mean "adopted on a temporary basis for further work" (example: This is just a working draft. The final paper will be issued tomorrow). So, to describe your job experience—which you probably accumulated over several years—as a "working experience" is to do a great disservice to yourself in America and Britain. Maybe I am being overdramatic here; they will probably understand that you mean "work experience." But it doesn't hurt to know the difference.

Again, in our written English, it is common to find the idiom "over and above" used as if it were an intensifier. (An intensifier is a word or expression that has little meaning except to make stronger the meaning it modifies). For instance, it's usual to come across expressions like, "He was promoted over and above me," where "over and above" merely intensifies the sense that someone was favored to our disadvantage in a promotion exercise. But in both American and British English, "over and above" only means "in addition to" or "besides" (example: they made a profit over and above the goodwill they got). Anytime you replace "in addition to" with "over and above" and it doesn't add up, you're probably misusing the idiom "over and above"— by the standards of American and British English.

Then we use the phrase "sequel to" in ways that appear to detach the word "sequel" from its original meaning in British and American English. A sequel means a continuation—or a part added to a book that continues and extends it. But you find sentences like this in our newspapers: "sequel to his commitment to tackle the problems of the Niger Delta, President Yar'Adua has commissioned…." Replace "continuation" with "sequel" and see what sense the sentence makes. Perhaps, if the sentence had started like this: "as a sequel to…," it would have made more sense because it would be synonymous with "as a continuation of…."

We also use expressions like "you can be rest assured that…," instead of "you can rest assured that…"; "he has long legs" instead of "he is well-connected"; "one hell of trouble" instead of "one hell of a lot of trouble"; "oil bunkering" instead of "oil theft"— when "bunker" is used as a verb, it simply means "to fill with oil." The word "bunkerer" is non-existent in British and American English.

I want to call attention to another source of Nigerian English: the distortion of popular phrases and expressions. For instance, we say "he is in soup" instead of "he is in THE soup" to mean that someone is in trouble. This error emerged primarily, I think, from Nigerian journalese, that is, because of the need for our newspaper subeditors to dispense with definite and indefinite articles in casting headlines in view of the constraints of space in newspapers.

For instance, a recent headline in the Nigerian Tribune read something like "Tony Aninie in soup," which is perfectly acceptable in headline writing because, as a rule, headlines dispense with articles and conjunctions. But from being headline language, "in soup" has made its way to popular speech.

Then you have expressions like "you cannot eat your cake and have it" instead of the rather illogical but nonetheless correct "you cannot have your cake and eat it." Evi Edna Ogoli's 1980s hit song titled, "You can never eat your cake and have it" especially popularized and conferred respectability on this usage error. 

But we are not alone in the practice of distorting the structure and content of popular expressions. All speakers of the English language—from Britain to America— have been "complicit" with some form of distortion of popular sayings and aphorisms.

For instance, the popular expression "blood, sweat and tears" is actually a distortion of Winston Churchill's famous wartime speech to the British nation. His exact words were: "blood, toil, tears, and sweat." The expression "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" is a distortion of "a little learning is a dangerous thing." The expression "there is method in my madness" is a misquotation of a passage from Shakespeare's Hamlet where Polonius observed, "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't." Likewise, the expression "Water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink" is a misquotation of British Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge's line in Ancient Mariner. In it he wrote: "Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink."

The examples are numerous. But we have all got used to these misquotations—or are not even conscious of them in the first place—because they are committed by the most educated people in the English-speaking world and have been passed down to us. So we in Nigeria are only adding to a list that is already too long.

Such expressions as "could you remember…," "if you could remember…,"etc, which are very popular in Nigeria, sound odd in American and British English. "Could" is merely the past tense of the auxiliary verb "can." The only occasion that "could" is appropriate in the present tense in American and British English is when it is used to request polite permission (example: could I have the bag, please?).

And there are words that started as student slang in southern universities which have now been incorporated into mainstream educated usage in the whole of Nigeria. An example I can think of now is "gist." We now use this word both as a noun and as a verb to mean chitchat or gossip (examples: he gisted me about his affairs with that girl. I have juicy gist for you). This is completely meaningless in American and British English where "gist" is used only as a noun to mean "the central meaning or theme of a speech or literary work" or "the choicest or most essential or most vital part of some idea or experience" (example: the gist of Atiku's petition is that Yar'Adua's election should be invalidated). The synonyms for gist in American and British English are nitty-gritty, kernel, substance, etc.

We also impose the plural forms on words and expressions that don't normally have them in British and American English. Examples are: "cutleries," "an advice" (instead of "a piece of advice"), " a good news" (instead of simply "good news"), "luggages," "baggages," "informations" (instead of "bits/pieces of information") "invectives," "equipments," "slangs" (slang words) "faithfuls," "elites" (although American English accepts this), "offsprings," "personnels," "furnitures," "legislations" (instead of "pieces of legislation), "a beehive of activities" (instead of "a beehive of activity"), etc.

Some spelling errors are also widespread in our newspapers and in the writings of even some educated people. Some them are: "alot" instead of "a lot," "infact," instead of "in fact," "inspite" instead of "in spite," "nonchallant," instead of "nonchalant," "pronounciation," instead of "pronunciation," strenght," instead of "strength," "emanciated" instead of "emaciated," etc.

A ragbag of American and British English
The trouble with labeling anything American English these days is that American English is now actually international English, which is unrelentingly diluting even British English at an alarming rate. I once read the story of a starry-eyed British linguist who came to America to study how American English deviates from British English. Between the period of his research and the time of the publication of his book, the expressions he identified as uniquely American, which he hoped would amuse and amaze British speakers, had become so commonplace that many British readers wondered what the point of his book was.

Today, British English has become so thoroughly Americanized that one has to be really careful when differentiating between the two varieties of English. Perhaps, we can rephrase George Bernard Shaw and say America and England have now become two countries that are increasingly being united by a common language. That is why it no longer makes any sense to learn British English these days since the British are themselves relentlessly Americanizing their English.

Having said that, it is still possible to isolate expressions that are peculiarly American and British. And there are instances when Nigerian English brings these two old varieties in a creative, if improper, linguistic conversation. Perhaps the best example I can think of is the word "torchlight," which we use to denote a small portable battery-powered electric lamp.

The British word for the same object is simply "torch" and the American name for it is "flashlight." So we took the British "torch" and combined it with the American "light" to produce a unique word that is both British and American—and neither British nor American! Of course, "torchlight" also exists as a separate word in both British and American English, but it only refers to the light produced by a flashlight—or a torch, if you will.

The word "short-knicker" belongs to this category, too. It is also derived from mixing American and British English. "Shorts" is the preferred American word for trousers that end at or above the knee. The British prefer "knickers," although as I said earlier, American English usage is now so widely spread in Britain that these distinctions are sometimes meaningless. But the important point to note is that we formed this word when it still made sense to talk of distinct American and British English.

I have also found out that our use of the phrase "international passport" to refer to "passport" is traceable to America. By "passport" I am referring to the document issued by a country to its citizens, which allows them to travel abroad and reenter their home countries; I am not referring to "passport photos," which we like to call "passports"— against the conventions of British and American English. In American bureaucratic circles, "international passport" is commonly used to denote non-American passports.

There is, for instance, the "International Passport Act" and an "International Passport Office Program" here in the United States. The act and the program address the passport issues of people from other countries who travel to the United States for various reasons. So "international passport" in America simply means foreign passports. Ordinary Americans do not prefix the adjective "international" when referring to their own passports. Perhaps the first Nigerians who traveled to the United States were confused by this nomenclature and passed down the confusion to us.

And the Nigerian English idiom "off head" seems to be traceable to the American "off the top of my head," which is now also common in Britain. Both expressions describe the sense of doing something with little or no preparation or forethought.

There are several expressions I was taught to avoid when I was in secondary school that I find widely used here. Some examples are: "tight friend" (instead of "close friend"), "point accusing fingers" (instead of "point fingers"), "senior/junior brother" (instead of "elder/younger brother"), "re-occur" (instead of "recur"), "oftentimes" (instead of "often"), etc. I first noticed these expressions in my students' essays and almost felt as if I was reading essays written by Nigerians. But it is my personal philosophy never to assume any expression to be wrong until I actually confirm this through inquiry. And, sure enough, what I thought were usage errors in my students' essays turned out to be respectable usage patterns in American English.

On many occasions, I can't help being amused by the conflict between what Bayo Oguntuase, the language activist who wrote for the defunct Sunday Concord, identified as usage errors unique to Nigeria and what I encounter here. For instance, he one wrote that the expression "(the) same to you" as a response to an expression of goodwill is wrong. He said the correct response should be "I wish you the same." Well, "same to you" is perfectly legitimate in American English.

Oguntuase also once wrote that the word "congrats" was a Nigerian invention. That, too, is wrong. The word is the American short form of "congratulations"; Nigerians merely adopted it. Even the British now use it widely. But the biggest surprise for me is the discovery that Americans also use the expression "I am coming" to indicate that they will be returning soon, although this usage is nonstandard even here. But I had been socialized into thinking that the expression is merely the literal translation of our Nigerian languages: na we in Batonu, ina zuwa in Hausa, mon bowa in Yoruba, etc.

I also discovered that the expression "to rub minds," which a language columnist once described as uniquely Nigerian, is actually an old-fashioned American expression. Americans now use the word "brainstorm," which sounds rather formal, even pretentious, in Nigerian English.

Concluding thoughts
In spite of what I have been writing in the past seven weeks, the truth is that Nigerian, American, and British English are, in reality, more alike than unlike. And my prognosis is that with the phenomenal explosion of the Internet all over the world, mutual intelligibility between these varieties of English will continue to increase. This contribution is intended to aid this process.

I have received emails from native speakers of the English language who do business in Nigeria. They said reading my column has given them better insights into patterns of Nigerian English usage that had remained a puzzle for them. Needless to say, many Nigerians, both at home and in the diaspora, have written to tell me that my column has exposed them to differences in English usage patterns that they had never consciously thought of before now. That's the whole point of this series.

But one of my most pleasant moments was when I received an email from someone who said he would have fallen prey to a potentially devastating 419 scam if he hadn't read my column. He received an email that purports to be from the U.S. State Department telling him that he had won the Green Card lottery. He said he had no reason to doubt the authenticity of the email for three reasons: first, he applied for the lottery last year and was expecting a positive outcome. Second, the email originated from a U.S. State Department email address, not a free Yahoo email address. Third, it was sent with a professional electronic letterhead of the US State Department.

But he said the first red flag was this phrase: "please send us your credentials immediately to enable us process your…" When he saw "to enable us," he said, he recalled reading in my column that in Standard American and British English, "enable" always co-occurs with the preposition "to." He confirmed his suspicion when he called the State Department.

My most unpleasant moment, however, was when one of my readers told me that he almost had a falling out with his best friend when he asked him to not keep "buzzing" him. The friend, not having read my column, mistook "buzzing" for "bugging," that is, to annoy persistently.

My attitude is that there is no reason to stop using the words "flashing" or "flasher"—and many such linguistic improvisations— when we speak to each other in Nigeria. We only need to be careful not to use the words "flasher" or "flashing" outside Nigeria because flashing, that is, the public display of nudity, is an offense for which people go to prison in America and Britain.

But it is not impossible that Nigerians can cause the original meaning of these words to be expanded to accommodate their unique usage in Nigeria. After all, the people Hong Kong contributed the expression "long time, no see" into the English language, an expression which not only subverts the traditional structure of the English language but was originally meaningless in English because it is a direct translation of Chinese into English.

It is time for us, too, to insist on our peculiar usage patterns until they are incorporated into mainstream international English. Hong Kong has done it. India has done it many times. Several other nations have done it. There is no reason why Nigeria can't do it.

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