Saturday, November 24, 2012

My Last Encounter With Saraki

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

I was distraught with shock and grief when I read of the death of Dr. Olusola Saraki who was known to the nation as the unquestionable patriarch of Kwara State’s politics, as the quintessential bridge builder whose distinctive multicultural identity bestowed him with the symbolic capital to bring northern and southern Nigeria into a productive cultural conversation.

For those of us from Kwara State, the late Saraki was all that—and more. He was also this ever-present, larger-than-life fixture not just in our politics but also in our everyday lives. Not everybody agreed with his politics, but not many would dispute that he was a genuinely compassionate and freehearted individual who uplifted the people he came in contact with. 

I first met the late Saraki in the early 1980s when he came to my hometown to campaign for Chief Cornelius Olatunji Adebayo who ran for governor of Kwara State as a candidate of the defunct Unity Party of Nigeria. He visited my family house during his campaign tour; my late uncle, Mr. J.B. Kperogi, was his close political associate and point man in what was then Borgu Local Government Area of Kwara State. 

So, as a youngster in primary school, I had the distinct honor of seeing the legendary, staggeringly magnanimous “Oloye” at close quarters. Even as a child, he struck me as humble, jovial, kindhearted, and down-to-earth.

My last encounter with him was in early 2002 when I was news editor of the Weekly Trust. My editor, Alhaji Garba Deen Muhammad, had arranged for us to interview him in Abuja. We wanted to know, among other things, if it was true that his troubles with the late Mohammed Lawal, Kwara State’s governor between 1999 and 2003, was because he had designs to make his first son the next governor of the state. That was the reigning rumor in Kwara State then. I will come back to this point shortly.
Me, Garba and the late Saraki during the interview. Saraki was Nigeria's Senate Majority Leader in the Second Republic
Garba and I sent our business cards to his personal assistant and requested that he inform the “Oloye” that we were waiting for him in his living room. I was pleasantly surprised when he remembered my late uncle after he saw the last name on my business card. “Are you by any chance related to someone called J.B. Kperogi from Borgu?” he asked me. I answered in the affirmative and told him the man was, in fact, my dad’s immediate younger brother. “Where is he now? I’ve been looking for him for years!” 

When I told Saraki that my uncle had died on November 17, 2001, he was noticeably shaken. His face fell and he became infectiously downcast and crestfallen. He asked for the contact details of my uncle’s wife and children, which I gave him. When he returned to Ilorin the following week, he looked for them and gave them a large sum of money. I was touched. 

This personal encounter exposed me to the other side of Saraki that tended to get concealed by the divisiveness and rancor of partisan politics. I saw a man who had a deep reverence for old friendships and alliances; a man who had an admirably tenacious memory; a man who was thoroughly charitable, compassionate, and empathetic; a man who had a genuinely deep passion to elevate people who were less fortunate than he was; in short, a man with a deeper, richer, more ennobling humanity than many people could be persuaded to believe.

During our interview, Garba asked him to respond to the rumors circulating in Ilorin at the time that his intense political battle with the late Governor Lawal was inspired in part by his desire to make his son the governor of the state. He passionately and persuasively denied the rumors. He said it was intentional propaganda by Governor Lawal and his spin doctors to make him seem like a nepotistic despot.

Two weeks after the encounter, he called to ask if the interview had been published. I said it was slated for publication the following week. “My son,” he said in his soothingly paternal voice, “I’m glad it hasn’t been published yet. Please step it down.” He told me in confidence that forces beyond his control had decided against his wishes that his son, Dr. Bukola Saraki, be not fielded as PDP’s candidate for the governorship election, not because his son was unqualified but because he didn’t want to play into the propaganda of political enemies who had alleged that his whole project all along had been to make his son governor.

 He said he cried like a baby when party officials and Ilorin elders overruled him and insisted on fielding Bukola Saraki as governorship candidate. I have no reason to doubt his story. He was genuine and earnest.
So Bukola Saraki became governor of Kwara State not because of his father, but in spite of his father.  But as the late Saraki himself told me, few people would believe that, especially because the Lawal camp had preemptively orchestrated the rumors that he had always wanted to make his son governor from day one. But that is now history.

The late Saraki told me his desire was to have my part of Kwara State produce the next governor after Mohammed Lawal. It is the only part of Kwara State that has never produced a governor. He said part of the reasons my uncle’s death depressed him so much was that he thought my uncle was an incredibly brilliant, farsighted, and dedicated politician who “would make a great governor.”

I lost touch with Saraki after I left active journalism in September 2002, but I still cherished fond memories of my last encounter with him. Saraki had his foibles—like all of us do—but he was certainly far and away one of the most tenderhearted and public-spirited human beings to ever walk the surface of this earth. May his soul rest in peace.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Top 10 Peculiar Salutations in Nigerian English (II)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Read the part one of this article by clicking on this link

5. “Thank God!” Nigerians like to say “thank God” as a polite response to a “thank you.” Example:

Mr. A: “Thank you so much for your help.”

Mr. B: “Thank God.”

The sense that Nigerian English speakers hope to convey when they say “thank God” in response to an expression of gratitude is that the honor for the favor they bestow on others belongs to God, not them. It’s a socio-linguistic evidence of the deep religiosity—or pretense to piety— of Nigerians. However, native English speakers don’t use “thank God” that way. They use it mostly as an exclamation of relief. Example: “Thank God he is alive!” It’s also used in the idiom “thank God/Heaven for small mercies/favors,” which is said when something bright happens in an otherwise hopeless situation. Example:

Mr. A: My brother was run over by a truck, but he survived it. The doctor said he has a 99 percent chance to be well again.

Mr. B: Thank God for small mercies!

Native English speakers also use “thank God” in mildly satirical contexts to call attention to people’s deficiencies, such as saying “thank God he remembers my name this time around” about someone who perpetually forgets your name but remembers it now. So, if a Nigerian were to say “thank God” in response to an expression of gratitude from a native English speaker, the Nigerian speaker might be misunderstood as implying that the native speaker hardly ever shows gratitude. In other words, the Nigerian might be understood as saying, “thank God you have the good sense to say ‘thank you’ now!”

In sum, “thank God” hardly appears as a stand-alone phrase in native-speaker varieties of the English language; it always depends on another phrase or clause to make a complete sense, as the examples above illustrate. Most importantly, it’s never used as a response to an expression of gratitude.

6. “It is well.” This peculiarly Nigerian English salutation for people in grief is distilled—perhaps I should say distorted— from a popular hymn (as Christians call a song that praises God) written by an emotionally distraught American Christian lawyer by the name of  Horatio G. Spafford who lived in Chicago in the 1800s and was hit by a string of personal tragedies. As a mechanism to cope with his grief, he penned a thoughtful hymn titled “It is well with my soul” that some Christians consider the “closest to heart for one undergoing grief.”

Although the context in which Nigerian Christians use “it is well” is consistent with the intent of the hymn, native speakers don’t say “it is well” to a grieving person. That would come across as stilted and detached. Besides, the full expression is, “it is well with my soul.” Perhaps it would make more grammatical sense to say “it is well with your soul” to a grieving person than to simply say “it is well.”

7. “I wish you long life and prosperity.” Nigerians use this expression when they send congratulatory messages on people’s birthdays and anniversaries. There is even an acronym for the expression: LLNP. The acronym has been popularized in Nigerian cyber circles by Facebook and Twitter.

There is nothing grammatically wrong with the expression. It’s just peculiarly Nigerian. I’ve never heard any native English speaker say “I wish you long life and prosperity” to people on their birthdays or wedding anniversaries. That doesn’t make the expression wrong, though; in fact, many native English speakers I spoke with found it quaintly charming. When I searched the phrase on Google, I found that it appeared only on Nigeria-centered websites.

However, there is a 2002 Canadian movie titled “Long Life, Happiness and Prosperity.” Since Nigerians have used the expression “long life and prosperity” long before 2002, it is almost certain that the movie is not the source of the expression among Nigerians. 

It seems highly probable that it is derived from the phrase “live long and prosper,” which “The Phrase Finder,” a British grammar website, says is “an abbreviated version of a traditional Jewish religious blessing [that] came to a wider public in the Star Trek TV series.” The site adds that the phrase is translated “from the Vulcan language phrase 'dif-tor heh smusma'….” 

Based on the phrase “live long and prosper,” native speakers developed an expression for a toast (that is, drink in honor of a person or an event) that goes something like: “To long life and prosperity.” It is uttered before clicking glasses. I guess that’s where the Nigerian salutation comes from. However, in native-speaker environments, the phrase is never used as part of birthday or other anniversary greetings.

8. “Two days! /Quite and age!”  “Two days” is limited to the Hausa-speaking parts of northern Nigeria. It’s a direct translation of the Hausa expression “kwana biu,” which is used to indicate that you haven’t seen someone in a long while. In Yoruba, it is rendered as “ekujo meta,” which translates as “it’s been three days.” In Batonu, it is rendered as “bese ka so yiru,” which translates as “it’s been two days.” The reference to the number of days is merely synecdochic, that is, it’s using a part (in this case a few days) to stand for a whole (in this case, long absence that has taken several days, perhaps years).

 Other parts of Nigeria tend to use the expression “quite an age,” which is completely meaningless outside Nigeria, to express the sense that Hausa-speaking northern Nigerians convey when they say “two days.”

Native English speakers either say “hey stranger!” or “long time no see!” when they meet friends or acquaintances they haven’t seen in a long while.  

9. “Well-seated.” This is a literal translation from many languages in central and southern Nigeria. It's a special form of greeting to acknowledge that a group of people are having fun sitting in a place. Native English speakers have no equivalent for this form of greeting. I had never heard of it in Nigeria until a reader brought my attention to it on Facebook last week.

Yoruba people, for instance, say "eku joko" as a polite greeting to people who are seated in a place—and who’re possibly having a conversation. In Hausa, that would translate as "sannu da zauna," which makes no sense in the language. The Hausa idiomatic equivalent of the Yoruba “eku joko” would be “sannu da hutawa,” which would translate literally into English as “well-resting.” Well-resting is, of course, meaningless in English—just like several salutations in our native languages for a whole host of activities. 

Interestingly, in Batonu, the Yoruba “eku joko,” which would translate as “beka sindu,” is a salutation for people who are mourning. It implies that they have been so grounded by their grief that they can’t go anywhere.

10. “More grease to your elbows.” The correct rendering of this archaic British English expression, as I’ve pointed out several times here, is “more power to your elbow.” It is rarely used in contemporary British English and has never been used in American English at any time. The modern version of this expression in both British and American English is “More power to you!” It means “bravo!” “well done,” “good job!”


“How far?”—This is a clipped expression that seems to derive from Nigerian Pidgin English. So is “How now?” Both expressions are used where native speakers would say “hi,” “hello,” or “How do you do?”

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5. Sambawa and "Peasant Attitude to Governance"
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Saturday, November 17, 2012

What Obama’s Reelection Means for Africa

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

In the heat of the just concluded American presidential elections, a few of my Nigerian friends on Facebook were peeved that Nigerians  invested more emotional energy in the American elections than they ever did in the affairs of their own country. “What has Obama done for Africa?” one of them asked. I think that’s a legitimate question.

Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney thought Africa was important enough to deserve a mention during their foreign policy presidential debate. Only Obama managed to mention “Africa” once—and in passing. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, was so ignorant of the geography of the African continent that he thought Mali, a West African country, was in the Middle East.  He repeatedly mentioned it during policy debates on the Middle East. I guess he thought the country must be a Middle Eastern country since it has been overrun by “Islamists.”  If he knew of our Boko Haram problems, he would probably think Nigeria, too, is a Middle Eastern country.

Africa is clearly low on the totem pole of America’s foreign policy. The continent has limited strategic importance for American policymakers. That fact has become even more apparent during Obama’s administration. Ironically, George W. Bush, whom many Africans love to hate, did more for Africa when he was president than Obama has done so far. Was Obama too busy cleaning the domestic mess Bush created for America to have time for the continent of his father’s birth? Maybe.

But now that Obama has been reelected for a second term, should we expect something different? Probably not. And this isn’t because Obama nurses any animus toward the continent. It’s because, given the enormity of the economic crisis America is still grappling with, Africa’s low strategic importance for America would ensure that he has his gaze fixed elsewhere.  Plus, being part African has its own burden; his policies toward Africa, especially if those policies were to be as benevolent as we all hope for, would invite more critical attention from his compatriots than they would for a white president. I can almost bet my bottom dollar that were Obama to give half the attention Bush gave to Africa, he would be called out by a motley crowd of bigots here.
Obama and his paternal step grandmother in his dad's Kenyan village
The dominant emotions and imageries that Africa evokes in the minds of the average American are still those of hunger, poverty, war, disease, and hopelessness. Just the other day, one of my students reminded me of this stereotype. Students in my news writing and reporting class were having a heated, animated discussion on an issue that another student thought was trivial. And her way of making that point was to say “look, stop arguing over non-issues. People are starving in Africa!”

I wasn’t miffed. I’ve heard this numberless times. It’s a standard refrain in American popular discourse to say “people are starving in Africa” to underscore how fortunate and over-pampered Americans are. But I didn’t let the comment go unanswered. I calmly said to her—and to the class—that while there is certainly starvation in many parts of Africa, as there is everywhere else in the world, that is not the only story of the continent. “Did you know, for instance,” I asked, “that Africa is not only the world’s biggest mobile phone market but also one of its fastest growing economies?” I mentioned other “stories” about Africa that don’t make it to the dominant media narratives here.

My interventions prodded some self-reflection in a few of them. One student met me after class and said, after giving a thought to my challenge that they learn to rise superior to “sound bite” versions people’s lived realities, he realized that Africa isn’t the only region that Americans stereotype. He said Latin Americans are often associated with “illegal immigration, drugs and poverty,” Middle Easterners with “terrorism and Islamic extremism,” Asians with “meekness and intelligence” and Europeans with “multilingualism, socialism, and advancement.”

America’s foreign policy tends to reflect the popular perceptions of its people toward other nations. Or maybe it’s the other way round: America’s foreign policy toward other nations tends to shape the popular perceptions of their citizens toward those nations. That is why Africa has been treated not as a continent to be traded with, but as a continent to be pitied and helped.

My sense is that many Africans who are overly exuberant over Obama’s victory know this. The vicarious joy they feel over his groundbreaking electoral triumphs in the world’s most powerful country is founded more on the symbolic significance of the victory than on its substantive import. It is the feeling that someone who looks like them—or  who almost  looks like them—and whose paternal ancestral roots are located in their continent has become the most visible political figure in the world. I guess such people should be allowed to exult in the afterglow of this symbolic, if hollow, victory.

But Obama is first and foremost an American. In spite of the African genes flowing in his veins, he is as American as an apple pie. Maybe, just maybe, Obama may roll out an African foreign policy plan that humanizes the people that live in the continent, but don’t hold your breath.

My vision for our continent is one that does not perpetually look up to the benevolence of superpowers to survive. That means we should look more inward than outward.

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Sunday, November 11, 2012

Top 10 Peculiar Salutations in Nigerian English (I)

By Farooq A. Kperogi, Ph.D.

Nigerian English has a whole host of what I call stereotyped phrases of salutations that would strike most native English speakers as curious at best and incomprehensible at worst. While some of these phrases are creative coinages or semantic extensions based on the socio-cultural uniqueness of Nigerian cultural expressions which the English language hasn’t lexicalized, others are the products of an insufficient familiarity with the conventions and idioms of the English language.

In the list that follows, I identify top 10 salutations that regularly appear in popular Nigerian speech and writing.

1. “Say me well to him/her/your family," etc. Nigerians use this ungainly verbalism when they want to send expressions of good will to someone through another person. This uniquely Nigerian English expression would be puzzling to native speakers of the English language because it is structurally awkward, grammatically incorrect, and unidiomatic. I have no earthly idea how it emerged in Nigerian English. But it certainly isn’t a British English archaism or a literal translation from native Nigerian languages, nor is it Biblical English or a distortion of contemporary British or American English—four of the dominant sources of Nigerian English that I have identified in earlier write-ups here.  

Whatever it is, the expression has attained idiomatic status in Nigerian English and should probably be patented and exported to other parts of the English-speaking world as Nigerian linguistic invention in English. 

Some examples of fixed phrases that native English speakers use to express the same sense Nigerian English speakers convey when they say “say me well to…” are “give my hello to him/her,” “tell him/her I said hi,” “give him/her/your family my (warm) regards,” “give him/her my best wishes,” “say hello to him/her for me,” etc.

2. “Well done!” This is a special form of greeting in Nigerian English. It is reserved specifically for a person who is working or doing something worthwhile. It is an example of the appropriation (or linguistic “hijacking”) of an existing English lexical item to give expression to a peculiar Nigerian socio-linguistic habit. The way “well done” is used in Nigerian English approximates such expressions as “sannu da aiki” in Hausa, “eku ise” in Yoruba, “daalu olu” in Igbo, “ka soburu” in Batonu (my native language), etc., which have no parallels in native varieties of the English language. That is why there is usually a communication breakdown when Nigerians use the expression “well done” in native-speaker English environments. The usual retort among native speakers is, “Well done for what?” Or “what have I done well?”

As I’ve written here many times, in native varieties of English, “well done” either functions as an adjective to describe thoroughly cooked food or meat (Example: That piece of meat is tough because it is not well done), or as an exclamation of applause— synonymous with "bravo." It is also used as an adjective to describe something that has been done well (e.g. "Thank you for a job well done"). It is never used as a special form of salutation for people who are working. 

An American friend of mine who is faintly familiar with Nigerian English once asked me why Nigerians reserve a special form of salutation to acknowledge people who are doing something. My response was that it is analogous to the greetings reserved for special times of the day in the English language. We say “good morning” when we meet people in the early hours of the day and say “good afternoon” when we meet them during the midpoint of the day, etc. There may really be nothing “good” about the time we greet them. Heck, we even say “good morning” or “good evening” or “good day,” etc. to people on their sick beds! Nigerians use and understand “well done” in the same socio-linguistic context. The people we say “well done” to in Nigerian English don’t need to be doing anything well; they just need to be doing something.

3. “Sorry!” Nigerian English has extended this word’s original native English meaning. The word’s dictionary meaning is that it is an exclamation to indicate an apology or to ask an interlocutor to repeat or clarify something you don’t understand during a conversation. In Nigerian English, however, it is used as an exclamation not just to express apology but to express concern or sympathy for a person who has had a freak accident (such as when someone skips a step and falls) or a person who has suffered a personal tragedy (such as when a person loses a loved one).

 Nigerians say “sorry” whether or not they are personally responsible for the accident or the misfortune of the person to whom they say “sorry” to. This usage of the word, which is completely absent in native varieties of English, is an approximation of such expressions as “sannu fa” in Hausa, “pele” in Yoruba, “ndo” in Igbo, “kpure kpure” in Batonu, etc. 

The closest that native English speakers come to saying “sorry” in ways Nigerians say it is when they say something like “I’m sorry to hear that (you lost your dad!)” to a person who is bereaved, etc. But note that “sorry” in this context is synonymous with “sad,” not to “sannu” or “pele” or “ndo,” etc. in native Nigerian languages. The real linguistic equivalents in native varieties of English to the Nigerian English usage of “sorry” seem very distant and lacking in empathy and warmth.

 In America, for instance, if someone misses a step, falls on the ground and breaks an ankle, the usual expression to show concern would be to say something like “Oh my God, are you OK?” I wish someone would tell them: “Of course, I am NOT OK! Can’t you see I’m bleeding and have a broken ankle?” As Elizabeth Pryse, author of the hugely popular English without Tears, once noted, the expressions that native English speakers use to show concern for other people’s personal tragedies and misfortunes come across to Nigerians as unfeeling and cold and detached. Most Nigerians feel offended when native English speakers say “take care,” “watch out,” “are you all right?” etc. when they have freak accidents.

4. “Happy birthday/Christmas/New Year/Sallah, etc. in arrears.” Nigerian English speakers use the words “in advance” and “in arrears” in relation to salutations where native English speakers normally use “early” and “belated.”  Where Nigerian English speakers would say “happy Christmas in advance,” for instance, native English speakers say “happy early Christmas.” 

OK, I need to make a caveat here. The use of the phrase “in advance” in anticipatory seasonal or anniversary greetings isn’t peculiarly Nigerian. I have seen it used by other users of the English language, including among some native British, Australian, and New Zealand speakers, although it is rarely used in American English. “Early” seems to be preferred to “in advance” in American English. 

However, the use of “in arrears” in salutations about recently passed seasonal or anniversary events seems to be a peculiarly Nigerian English invention. Native speakers certainly don’t use that expression; they use “belated” instead, as in: “happy belated birthday,” happy belated Christmas,” etc. “In arrears” is confined to financial transactions in native-speaker linguistic climes. It’s often used, for instance, to say someone is behind in their debt, as in: “he is in arrears with his utility bills.”

To be concluded next week

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