"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: March 2011

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Re: Patience Jonathan’s Peculiar Grammar

In line with my tradition, which I haven’t observed in a long while, I am sharing a sample of the several comments I received on the above article ( Read: Patience Jonathan's Peculiar Grammar). I will share the responses to previous articles, which are always as witty as they insightful, in due course. Enjoy:

Thank you for your very interesting article. We have to give it to her, though: she is extremely confident and totally without shame. Anyway, I am writing because I was struck by the degree you said she has. I have never known Nigerian universities to offer combined degrees across faculties, so Patience's degree in psychology and biology needs to be further investigated. It seems quite unlikely.
Chichi Okoye 
Let's call a spade a spade. Nigeria's First Lady does not sound like someone who sat in any English Language class— primary, secondary, or university. She also does not look like someone with a keen interest in being "assisted" to overcome her appalling deficiency. If not, she would have seized the opportunity of being second and first lady, respectively, of Bayelsa State to "assist" herself by getting someone to teach her these elementary things. What she should do in this circumstance is to keep quiet in public while she studies Brighter Grammar in private.
'Tunji Azeez, Ph.D.
Patience Jonathan and Michelle Obama...what language did Patience  speak to Michelle?
Well written. I thought she should read prepared speeches to avoid stage-fright-induced flip-flops. Do you know we have Nigerian professors who use English language wrongly? And shamelessly? Language failure is a good research topic.
Ikechukwu Onyebuchi Igbokwe

Excellent piece. I think Nigerians do not care much to criticize these types of blunders by high-profile Nigerians and hence they don't feel challenged to improve their grammatical imperfections.
Dr. Abdullahi Dahiru
I had a really good laugh when I read your column. It made my day. The 2011 elections and the Jonathan family involvement have brought a lot of issues to the fore. Nigerians have to decide on the place they want to occupy in the comity of nations. We have to ask our selves some hard questions, knowing that the world looks to Nigeria for direction in terms of West African issues (I am careful not to say African). On a more serious note, we all know how busy these first ladies get with national, regional and international conferences. Can you imagine watching your first lady on CNN talking about her "pet" project? I advise the first lady's handlers to take your 3 option advice seriously. I see nothing wrong in her speaking in her mother tongue (after all leaders and representatives of some countries insist on speaking in their dialects, even at the UN). I believe it will be an opportunity to bring her native language to prominence. I bet you, some one from the South -South will turn your factual piece into a North-South issue. You wait and see!!!
Tina Hanis
Patience and Michelle
Great piece. The First Lady deserves all the whipping she's getting. But I couldn't help but notice a hypocritical tendency of most Nigerian Muslims in the question you posed asking if she didn't have an Ijaw equivalent for her name Patience. Why do Nigerian Muslims always have issues with Nigerian non-Muslims whose names are in English when their own names such as Farooq is neither Igbira or whatever other ethnic language they may hail from? Or are they saying a Muslim Yoruba, for instance, must bear an Arabian name to be legitimately Muslim? I demand an answer.
Anonymous writer

My response

I wonder why the writer chose to hide his/her identity even when he/she “demands an answer.” Well, I thought it was obvious that there is a difference between an English name, a Christian name, and an English word as a name. For instance, William is an English name; it’s not in the Bible. But Joseph is a Christian name because it is derived from the Christian Bible. “Patience” and “Goodluck,” on the other hand, are neither English names nor Christian names; they are English words that even the English don’t bear as names!

But I have no problems with what names people choose to bear. My only point was that people who love the English so much that they bear English words as names (which is OK with me, frankly) should have no qualms about being expected to obey the most elementary rules of English grammar. If being expected to speak acceptable levels of English constitutes “colonial mentality,” as the Dame’s defenders are wont to argue, bearing English words as names when local variations exist for such names is no less “colonial.” Of course, Patience and Jonathan didn’t choose their names; the names were given to them by their parents— in much the same way that English was handed down to us by our former colonial overlords, which we found useful to retain as the official language in our fractious, linguistically diverse federation.

A masterpiece. I was shocked to learn of Madam Jonathan's educational qualifications. It is very obvious that she didn't earn those certificates-she must have bought them. The irony of it all is that instead of showcasing her husband to the voting public, her grammatical blunders will have a counter-productive effect.
Tanimu Umar

Nice piece, but my advice to you is to stay away from Nigeria for now because our leaders do not value criticism. God save us.
Abdulhameed Abubakar

Pidgin English has got one rule and it is "no rules." Just mess up. And I think if she decides to speak only that she will still find a way to mess up, so the best is just for her to SHUT UP!!!!!
Muktar Saeed

Related Article:

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Patience Jonathan's Peculiar Grammar

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Nigeria’s First Lady “Dame” Patience Jonathan has by now securely established well-deserved notoriety for herself as someone who is compulsively incapable of stringing together a single sentence that is not a comical ridicule of the English language.

There is probably no public figure in Nigeria’s recent history who has publicly and mindlessly murdered basic English syntax with as much recklessness and regularity as “Dame” Patience Jonathan, whose middle name is now “umblera” on account of her widely publicized, laughably consistent mispronunciation of “umbrella” (the People's Democratic Party’s icon) when she stumped for her husband recently. (Watch the "umblera" video below).

Although I have been greatly entertained by the First Lady’s hilariously uneducated speech mannerisms and solecisms, I used to be one of her greatest defenders during informal conversations with my friends. I had frankly thought that she had not had the privilege of getting a formal education, and so I had attributed her rib-tickling gaffes to illiteracy. I had challenged some of my friends to tell me if any of their illiterate sisters, suddenly thrust to the limelight, could do better than “Dame” Patience Jonathan in public oral delivery and grammatical correctness.

You can imagine my outrage when I discovered that the First Lady actually earned a National Certificate in Education (NCE) from the Rivers State College of Arts and Science in 1989 and a bachelor’s degree in biology and psychology from the University of Port Harcourt, her husband’s alma mater, in 1994. But what is even more scandalous is that she was a high school teacher for many years. Hmm. What did she teach her students? And in what language did she teach them?
Nigerian First Lady "Dame" Patience Jonathan
The Nigerian cyberspace—what I christened “Cyberia” in one of my academic writings—has lately been agog over the First Lady’s humorously embarrassing grammatical and pronunciational somersaults. That’s how I got to know about this. Her “umblera” (mis)pronunciational salvo is undoubtedly her most popular. It has drawn tens of thousands of eyeballs on YouTube, inspired several creative spoofs and remixes, and is, I am reliably told, a hit ringtone among Nigerian mobile phone users. (I wonder how the “Dame” sings Rihanna’s hit single “Umbrella,” especially the “ella, ella” hook; I can’t wait for someone to do a spoof of that!)

Other hilariously egregious errors attributed to the First Lady include the following:

“My husband and Sambo IS A GOOD PEOPLE”

“The president was once a child and the SENATORS WERE ONCE A CHILDREN”

“My fellow widows” [she reportedly said this while addressing widows. We know whom to hold responsible if President Jonathan drops dead!]

 “The people sitting before you here were ONCE A CHILDREN”

 "It is not easy to CARRY SECOND in an international competition like this one”

“The bombers, who BORN them? WASN’T it not a woman? They were ONCE A CHILDREN, now A ADULT, now they are bombing women and children making SOME CHILDREN A WIDOW”

 “My heart feels sorry for these CHILDREN WHO HAVE BECOME WIDOWS by losing their parents for one reason or another”

 “We should have love for our fellow Nigerians irrespective of their NATIONALITY.”

Four things are clear from these statements. First, the First Lady has clearly no sense of subject-verb agreement—much like her husband. Second, she doesn’t know the difference between “child” and “children.” She evidently never listened when her teacher taught “singular and plural” in her primary school. Third, she obviously has no clue that “fellow” is used to refer to people who share a commonality with you, so  she doesn’t realize that by calling the widows “my fellow widows” she means that her husband is dead, too. Fourth, she has not the vaguest idea that “widow” is not an all-purpose word for people who have lost their loved ones. That’s why she (correctly) uses it for women whose husbands are dead AND (incorrectly) for orphans, i.e., children whose parents are dead.

I can forgive her use of the Nigerian Pidgin English expressions “carry second” [place second] and “born” [gave birth to]—and her misuse of the word “nationality” when talking about Nigerians who actually all share the same nationality. After all, her husband, who claims to have a Ph.D. in zoology, recently said at a political rally that we are “diverse in terms of different human species.” If a putative Ph.D. in zoology (the branch of biology that studies animals, including humans) doesn’t know enough to know that all humans belong to the same species, why should we expect a less educated, grammatically challenged “Dame” to know that all Nigerians belong to the same nationality?

But, seriously, the stupefying ignorance of Nigeria’s First Family provokes many troubling queries. If the president and his wife, who should be our role models, can’t even obey the most basic rules of our national language (which, by the way, they, like all of us who went to school, learned from elementary school to university) why do we express phony outrage in the national media every year when we are confronted with data of mass failure in English in school certificate exams?

We expect our kids to pass “O” level English in high school, and we collectively wail hypocritically when mass failure is recorded in school certificate exams. We also, as an official policy, expect our kids to pass “O” level English as a precondition to even read Nigerian languages in our universities. But we lower the standards—and expectations— when we assess the performance of our political and public leaders. Suddenly, we remember that English isn’t native to us. What galling double standard!

I recently had an argument with a passionate defender of the Dame’s habitually unenviable grammatical and speech aberrations. My interlocutor advanced the sadly familiar infantile argument that the First Lady's foibles should be excused because English isn’t our native language. But a single question I posed to her shut her up. I asked her if she would honestly want her daughters to imitate the Dame’s speech mannerisms and indefensible grammatical imperfections. She was quiet. When I pressed her further, she shamefacedly said “no.”
Credit: www.Nairaland.com
But a First Lady is supposed to be a role model for young girls. So I wondered aloud: if you don’t want your girls to grow up to be like “Dame” Patience Jonathan, why should you defend her consistently embarrassing slips? You got it: hypocrisy!

The excuse that English isn’t our native language and therefore shouldn’t be the basis for judging the public address of public figures is just downright silly and duplicitous, especially for a woman whose first name is an English word (is there no word for “Patience”—and, for that matter, “Good Luck”!— in Ikwerre or Ijaw?), who bears the English title “Dame” even though she has never been conferred that title by the Queen of England (whose language she has formed a habit of murdering), and whose people’s “traditional” sartorial symbol is a colonial felt hat handed down to them by English colonialists!

(For the record, I have no problems with the Niger Delta's symbolic fedora; I only have a problem with people who ignore its obvious colonial origins but rail at people who insist on a basic proficiency in the English language, another hold-over of our colonial encounter with England).

The First Lady has three options. One option is to speak to us in Ikwerre (which I am told is her native language) and get an English interpreter. The second option is to address her audiences in Nigerian Pidgin English, which she speaks quite proficiently and which most Nigerians understand. The third, and perhaps best, option is for her to remain silent. She doesn’t have to speak in public. A popular aphorism says, “It’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

Related Articles:
Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, that was embarrassing!
Jonathan's Embarrassing U.S. Visit: A Response to Critics


Below are the latest howlers from Nigerian First Lady Dame Patience Jonathan. They were uttered at various fora after this article was published. Call them "Patiencisms" if you like.

1. "I will rather kill myself than commit suicide." She said this while condemning suicide bombings in Nigeria.

2. "At least we all have HIV/AIDs except that some of us are negative and some of us are positive." (From her World AIDS Day speech).

3. "I donate my family on behalf of 20 million."

4. "History will not be completely without Ojukwu..."

5. " Ojukwu is a great man. He died but his manhood lives on." OK, that is creepy. Is she a necrophilist (a person who has sex with dead bodies)? Or how does she know that Ojukwu's "manhood" (the informal word for a man's private parts) "lives on"?

6 . The Nigerian Television Authority on March 3, 2013 reported the First Lady to have said "Congratulations to your elbows" in Abidjan. Apparently, she was attempting to use the outdated English idiom "more power to your elbows" (which Nigerians render as "more grease to your elbow").

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Is America “God’s own country”?

By Farooq A. Kperogi

The status update of one of my Facebook friends simultaneously enchanted and piqued my curiosity. The friend was commenting on the vast disconnect between the slogans countries cherish about themselves and the material realities that abide in those countries. In the course of his rumination, he repeated a popular Nigerian fictional representation of America that I feel obliged to respond to and rupture.

“The US is not the most religious country in the world but everyone knows it as ‘God’s Own Country,’” he wrote. “Even Italy, on whose soil sits the Vatican City, does not contest the God’s-own-country tag with the US, neither does Israel or Saudi Arabia both of which have holy sites visited en masse all-year-round. Any day any country starts calling itself ‘the real God’s own country,’ that country will be seen as trying to ridicule the US. Even American atheists and agnostics would protest.”

The idea that America calls itself—or is called by “everyone”—as “God’s own country” is pervasive in Nigeria. But is there any truth to this notion? Well, in the more than half a decade that I have lived here, I have never come across a single American who is even faintly familiar with the idea that America is called “God’s own country”!

And I have traveled to more than 30 of America’s 50 states. I have traveled to northern, southern, western, and eastern states of this country, and have actually taken the trouble to ask most of the people I have interacted with if they recognize the phrase “God’s own country” as their national slogan. Almost always, my question elicited quizzical looks. “God’s own what? Never heard of that!” That’s the standard response I often get.

But what is even more perplexing, for me, is the fact that only Nigerians think— and say—that America’s national motto is “God’s own country.” I have asked many of my Caribbean, South American, Middle Eastern, and Asian friends here if they know America to be “God’s own country.” None of them has ever heard America identified with that slogan.

So why are Nigerians the only people on earth who call America “God’s own country”? How did Nigerians come to associate that term exclusively with the United States? Well, before we get to these questions, it will help to trace the roots, evolution, and usage of the phrase.

Actually, many countries have staked claims to being “God’s own country.” But there is a consensus among scholars that New Zealand is the first country in the world to officially refer to itself as “God’s own country.” The phrase was introduced to the country by Thomas Bracken, one of New Zealand’s most influential poets and journalists who also had the distinction of being the sole author of his country’s national anthem. According to the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, “God’s own country” first appeared in Bracken’s last major book entitled Lays and lyrics: God's own country and other poems, which was published in 1893, six years before his death.

New Zealand’s longest-serving and most influential Prime Minister, Richard John Seddon, who ruled the country from April 1893 to June 1906, was intrigued by the phrase “God’s own country” in the title of Bracken’s book. So, in 1893, he adopted it and gave it governmental imprimatur as New Zealand’s motto. Years later, Australia, New Zealand’s closest neighbor to the southeast, “stole” the slogan.

In the 1970s, Rhodesia, as Zimbabwe was then called, also called itself “God’s own country” in acknowledgement of its stunning scenic splendor. But after independence in 1980, the motto was dropped. Other places that used to or still call themselves “God’s own country” are Ireland and England’s Yorkshire County (which sometimes renders the phrase as “God’s own county”).

But the part of the world that is now more popularly known by the “God’s own country” tagline than even New Zealand is India’s Kerala State, located in the southern part of the country. It adopted the tagline “Kerala—God’s own country” in the 1990s in its bid to attract and boost international tourism. The National Geographic Traveler, a well-regarded US-based international tourism magazine published by the National Geographic Society, named Kerala one of the “ten paradises of the world” and “50 places of a lifetime.”

So, what about the United States? How did it get to be associated with the slogan “God’s own country” by Nigerians? I have two theories. The first theory is rooted in America’s history. During America’s Civil War between 1861 and 1865, the northern army (often called the Union troops in American history books) who were fighting southern secessionists usually arrogantly called their homeland, that is, the American north, “God’s country.”  This was apparently intended to slight the south.

This means, in effect, that the phrase was at best a self-important regional label; at no time did it refer to the whole of the United States. It is not clear if New Zealand’s Bracken “stole” it from the Union troops since they used it earlier than he did. From my point of view, however, this seems improbable given the vast geographic distance between America and New Zealand, not to talk of the sluggish pace of informational flows at the time.

But it suffices to state that many contemporary Americans have no memories of this Civil War-era reference to the American north as “God’s own country,” and never ever refer to their whole country as such, contrary to what many Nigerians believe.

Interestingly, in American English, the phrase “God’s country” now simply means “one’s own homeland,” that is, the place where one was born and raised, as in: “Welcome to God’s own country, and we hope you will enjoy your stay among us.” It can also mean “an isolated rural area,” or a naturally beautiful area, especially in the countryside.

My guess is that early Nigerian visitors to America mistook the American idiomatic expression “welcome to God’s own country,” which they probably encountered in many parts of the country, as evidence that the country called itself “God’s own country” and brought back that mistaken notion to Nigeria. But this begs the question why only Nigerians understood—and still understand—that expression literally.

My second theory is that Nigerians associate the phrase with America because of the false attraction of the similar-sounding phrase “In God we trust,” which has been inscribed on American coin currencies since the 1860s and on its paper currencies since 1957. It was also adopted as America’s official motto in 1956.  And, contrary to my friend’s claims, “In God we trust,” America’s official motto, has been (unsuccessfully) challenged by American secularists and atheists, although a 2003 Gallup poll found that 90 percent of Americans approve of it.

All said, America is NOT “God’s own country.” At no time in its history has it ever identified itself by that motto. Only Nigerians, to my knowledge, call America “God’s own country.” 

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Now You Can Call Me a Doctor

Farooq A. Kperogi

When, in 2009, Weekly Trust reported that I won the top Ph.D. student award here at Georgia State University in Atlanta, a number of my readers started to address me as Dr. Farooq Kperogi. But I hadn’t fulfilled all the requirements to deserve bearing the title of doctor; I had only just completed my doctoral coursework and passed my written and oral comprehensive examinations. In order to forestall any misconception, I felt compelled to quickly write an addendum to my column sometime in 2009, which I titled “Not yet a doctor.”

I wrote then that I had two more hurdles to cross before I could legitimately be called a doctor: I had to write and orally defend my prospectus (a formal, extensive written outline of the doctoral dissertation) before a committee of five professors. I also had to research and write a 300-plus-page dissertation and orally defend it before the same committee. On February 23, 2011, I fulfilled all those requirements, and I can now officially be called a doctor.

But this crowning accomplishment of my graduate studies in America has stirred mixed emotions in me. Strangely, I felt no sensation of elation when my advisor, Professor Michael Bruner, shook my hands on February 23 and excitedly said, “Congratulations Dr. Farooq Kperogi! That was a brilliant and masterful defense. The committee was very impressed and has approved your dissertation without any amendments!”

The anticipation of an accomplishment, it would seem, is more exhilarating than its actual attainment.

Well, perhaps, my excitement was tempered by the overpoweringly wistful memories of my late wife that welled up in me. She had looked forward to this moment with an eagerness that was rivaled only by my dad’s consuming desire for me to obtain the highest possible attainable educational qualification. But more than any anybody, Zainab gave her all to make this dream come through. Without her encouragement and blessing, it would certainly have been impossible for me to achieve this. That is why I had no second thoughts in dedicating my dissertation to her.

 As my adviser told me that my doctoral dissertation committee had accepted my dissertation and my oral defense without even a single suggestion for revision or improvement, I immediately thought of Zainab. I visualized how she would have jumped in wondrous elation and sung that cryptic yet mellifluous song she often sang each time I relayed news of my triumphs and accomplishments to her.

 Zainab’s absence made the attainment of the Ph.D. seem utterly empty and purposeless. For many years, the pride and joy she derived from my accomplishments, however insignificant they were, was the biggest motive force in my life. She would have thrown a party in my honor, as she did when I completed my master’s degree atop my class and when I got the top Ph.D. student award.

So I didn’t think there was anything to make a song and dance about—well, until my Facebook inbox and wall were suffused with a profusion of impassioned and delicately phrased congratulatory messages from scores of my friends and fans after I casually wrote that I had successfully defended my doctoral dissertation. Since 2005 when I signed up for Facebook, none of my status updates has elicited as many contagiously enthusiastic responses as this one.

 The gush of goodwill messages that spontaneously overflowed on my Facebook page in the wake of my two-sentence status update, which I’d thought would attract only a few “likes” and comments, made me realize that I had other reasons to appreciate what I had just achieved.

Plus, Sinani, my daughter who lives with me here in Atlanta, was incredibly ecstatic when I told her that I had now become a doctor. She sort of knows what this means because, two weeks earlier, my adviser had explained to her, using the American grade system, what a Ph.D. means. He asked her what grade she was in. She said she was in First Grade, which is the equivalent of our Primary One in Nigeria. Then he said, “Well, your dad would be completing his 23rd grade, and that is the last grade ever.” It made sense to her. “Wow! 23rd grade? That’s a lot of grades!” she exclaimed and looked at me admiringly.

When I came home after my defense and told her that I had just completed my 23rd grade, she hugged me passionately and said she was proud of me—repeating what I say to her when she does well in school. Then after reading the cornucopia of congratulatory messages on my Facebook page, she turned to me in excitement and said, “Daddy, since everyone is saying doctor before your name, and I can’t call your name, can I now call you doctor daddy?” I can’t tell you the intensity of warmth and good cheer that that charming, child-like question radiated in me. It at once reminded me of her mom and the fact that I, after all, had a reason to cherish my accomplishment.

 Now, because she knows that calling me “doctor daddy” provokes hysterical laughter in me, whenever she entreats me to pamper her and senses reluctance in me, she never fails to add, “Pretty please, doctor daddy!” It’s her new way to weaken my resistance!

What is more, this is what my dad had always wanted me to become. He has only a diploma in Arabic from Kumasi in Ghana, which the Kwara State government didn’t recognize when he presented it for employment eons ago. It was only after passing a Western adult education certificate that he was employed to teach Arabic and Islamic Studies at a primary school from where he retired a few years back after nearly four decades.

Right from my primary school, my dad (who is one of only two of my grandfather’s male children who have no post-secondary Western qualifications) chose to vicariously pursue all the qualifications he could not obtain through me. Each time I came tops in my class, he would always boast that I would never stop until I got a Ph.D. At that time, I had no earthly clue what he was talking about. When I understood what a Ph.D. meant in my secondary school, I was often afraid that I might let him down. And my anxieties appeared to materialize when, after my bachelor’s degree, I worked for a fairly extended period.

But he never stopped to remind me that he wanted me to get the Ph.D. — for him. So when I called to tell him that I was now a doctor, he was predictably overcome with incommunicable joy. He said he would be a fulfilled man were he to die that day. That reaction filled me with both delight and trepidation. How could a simple act of getting a mere degree—whatever the worth or social prestige of the degree—inspire such passion, such strong emotion?

Well, although Zainab is not here physically to celebrate with me in ways only she could have done, I am consoled that this accomplishment has given my daughter a new fun way to address me, has imbued my dad with such inexpressibly vicarious fulfillment that I could almost “touch” his excitement millions of miles away and, above all, it has shown me the capacity of fellow humans, whom I might never physically meet till I die, to be genuinely happy over another person’s success. I am at once wistful, delighted, and humbled. Alhamdulillah.