Identity

This talks about the importance of identifying with one's native language even as a learned person.

I was much younger the last time I visited my home town. It was during one of the festive holidays. My dad had agreed to show my siblings and me around our village. We arrived on the 26th day of December, five days away from the last day of the year. We had just three days to spare before going back to the normal city life routine. I was told that I looked like my grandmother. It made me long to see her, to confirm the hearsay. My tender eye was not careful to pick features of her looks that I reflected. Perhaps, if I had met her while she was yet younger, I would have been convinced that there is a patch of truth in the words of those who made such remarks. I kept stealing a gaze at her while she was curled up on her bamboo stick bed. She did not notice that I was standing by the door. But there is a dividend of experience that nature delivers to us as we wax old. Her eyes had grown dim; all her teeth were gone save a few that stood tall to keep her company while she bites her share of festive meat each year. Her humped back when she stands makes me wonder if she was not taught like I was by my class teacher, Mrs. Idung, the implications of maintaining a bad standing posture.

Mrs. Idung had, at some points during our Health Education lesson, engaged us to practice good sitting, standing, and walking posture. Her elegant gait whenever she walks was enough to convince me that good posture pays. At least, she would command a tonne of masculine attention, even if confidence decides to bid her goodbye. I once heard the stories of how she met her husband. I was not expected to know anything about love since I was just a little girl, who could not spell emotion, and was not expected to understand or at the very least talk about it. I would always see the tall, light-skinned Mr. Idung drop off his stunning-looking wife every morning and pick her up almost immediately after the dismissal bell rang. He did this like it was for a living. They were a perfect picture of what some would refer to as the best couple. But my naive mind was not expected to conceive this at such a young age. I was expected to pay attention to those lessons she taught us in class alone. Though she also taught us about family. But it was basically about its types: Nuclear and Extended, and those that make up each type.

My Grandpa, Akunna, had three wives. Those days, polygamy was one of the measures of true masculinity. His two older wives had long kissed mother earth goodbye. The reason behind their demise was not one he would want to talk about. Even if he did, it wouldn't excuse death from being cruel. My Grandma, Akwaugo, was the youngest of his wives. My dad is her only surviving child. Others were lost during the turmoil of the civil war. At least my extended family can boast about paying with the lives of its members if Biafra eventually comes. I had listened to grandpa narrate his experiences during those periods of war. Some of those experiences were either unimaginable or incredible. My frail heart had no choice but to believe them all. At least, it agreed with what my class teacher taught us about the Nigerian Civil War.

Ifesinachi, bia kwunye m mmiri onunu, my grandma muttered in our local dialect. The only thing I understood was my name. I had to convince myself that the rest of the line was introductory to her usual chants. But the first word in that line suggested that the statement was directed to me. My class teacher had taught us that 'bia' means 'come.' Even though I was not well versed in my local dialect, that word was something that could not escape my memory, even if my ancestors summoned it for deliberation. I stood by the door, not knowing what I was expected to do. My older siblings were not in sight; my dad was chatting with his old friend somewhere in the compound over a keg of palm wine placed on the stool in between them. My mum was definitely in the kitchen. We were expecting a visitor later in the evening. I was just the only one in sight for grandma to make her request known to. I left hurriedly as though I knew what I was expected to do. I ran to my mum in the kitchen, muttering incoherent words that made her laugh at intervals. I couldn't remember that line exactly as grandma used it. At least mum would have helped. After many attempts to ask questions that I did not know, I had to drag mum along to my grandma's room. The conversation between grandma and mum fell on the drum of my ear like the chirping of birds. "Ifesinachi...Ifesinachi...," was all that I understood. Seconds later, mum relayed grandma's message to me. I hurriedly got grandma a cup of water from the earthen pot placed in a corner in her room, inches away from the door where I stood earlier.

Uncle Ochemba's compound was a stone's throw away from ours. He is my mum's elder brother. He came around to give us a warm welcome. Both my parents happened to be from the same town, so I was not privileged to have a maternal side distant from my paternal side, or rather in different states. Maybe this is one privilege I should let my children enjoy; visiting different states during festive periods would be a spice to their childhood. Uncle Ochemba was seated on the sofa in our living room, chatting with mum. They conversed in our local dialect and laughed at intervals. I couldn't relate to the reason behind their laughter but laughed anyway. The sound of their voices played a different rhythm on the drum of my ear: one that evoked laughter. Uncle Ochemba would never finish any food served him, no matter how little. I noticed it when he visited our house in the city. He would just eat a slice of bread if you served him three. His attitude modeled contentment to me.

Looking through the window, I was certain that those trees on both sides of the road were following us home. The faster we moved, the faster they followed. It seemed as though I was the only one living in the reality of the picture my naive mind had painted.

"Ifesinachi, they are not following us," Ndubuisi retorted.

"But that is what I can see," I responded.

"Maybe we need to tell dad to stop the car so that we can judge this correctly," replied Ndubuisi. Ndubuisi is my eldest sibling. My dad always said that he took after my grandpa in his physique. Ndubuisi had a lanky frame, bearing his slightly big head. The head is the envy of his class. The head that houses the brain that tops the class at the end of each term right from the inception of his primary education. He had just passed a scholarship exam. He was in the first year of his secondary education on scholarship. It was a reason for my dad to be proud of him.

"Ifesinachi, I would remind you of this day later in the future," my dad cut in. "And by then, it would be hard for you to believe you once thought this way." I kept quiet, pondering over my dad's words. Maybe I can talk to my class teacher about this when school resumes. She would take sides with me even if I was wrong. She knows how to inspire me to keep being inquisitive. I could remember asking a question in class that threw everyone off balance. They could not help but laugh. Yet she found a way to endorse my curiosity, even though my curiosity was out of the box.

The beautiful memories of my tour around my hometown, though for just a few days, remained evergreen. I could remember how dad gave my siblings and me an orientation about the village masquerade and how to be in their good books whenever we were headed for the village square to watch a football match. The adventure along the path to the stream was a major thrill. The sight of wild games struggling to escape their trap was thought evoking. It made me appreciate the beauty of a helping hand. Indeed, it does not take that long for beautiful memories to be created. My experience with not understanding what grandma said in my dialect gave me concern. Many years have gone by, and the thought of seeing my hometown again still warmed my heart.

"You, stand up," thundered the voice of Mr. Ike, "why are you lost in your stare?" 

"Sir...," "Meet me after this class," he cut in shortly. I was not ready for that kind of experience at that moment. I prayed within me for that cup to pass me by. Shortly after the lecture, he signaled me to follow him. It was like a nevertheless-not-my-will kind of situation. I had no option--no, I had an option of staying back--but to follow. Mr. Ike was a well-respected lecturer in my department, well versed in his area of specialization. He stood out amongst other lecturers, who derived joy from making empty threats. Sometimes, I trace their unending rage to the frustration from their meager pay. Maybe I would have to write them an anonymous letter. At least, it would inform them of their unhealthy manifestations of rage towards students whose future and character they ought to shape. Even if I do not get credit for doing that, I would be delighted to note that a difference was made afterward. I knocked three times, then pushed the door open.

"Good afternoon Sir," I greeted.

"You may have a seat," he replied. I was a bit surprised that I was asked to sit. Mr. Ike quickly dismissed the Course Rep who had followed him to his office after the lecture. I was just alone with him; I cautioned my mind not to travel too far. My seat was close to the exit door. I convinced myself that it was a bit safe to remain seated alone with him.

"What's your name?" he asked.

"Ifesinachi Udeh," I replied.

"You must be from...". The rest of the conversation was something I never imagined could be possible. We talked about virtually everything. My locality, family, interest, local cuisines, and culinary skills. The memories of years back flashed to me when He made a sentence in my dialect that I did not understand. I wished we could skip the dialect part and move to a different subject. Mr. Ike seemed to be more interested in knowing why I could neither speak nor understand my dialect. He hails from the same town as me. If I had chosen to call him a language activist at that moment, I wouldn't be wrong. His emphasis on language and how it builds a bridge between people who share a common language spurred my interest a bit. Though he sounded like he was speaking in tongues when he made some sentences in my dialect, the fluency was a great thrill to me. He narrated how his proficiency in his local dialect opened doors for him even in foreign countries. 

"You never can tell who will be in a position to help you simply because you can identify with your dialect." I was not privileged to learn my dialect while I was much younger. I visited my home town last when I was just three. My siblings and I had only spoken English right from life's first call.

While I read through the content of an e-mail I received, my eyes caught a portion of it that reminded me of my favorite lecturer during my undergraduate days. Mr. Ike was a huge influence in my life. However, he was paid to teach us Engineering. He was not constrained to just that. He also emphasized the Igbo identity. He taught me to be proud of being Igbo. "If you do not accept you, no one will accept you," was one of his lines. He inspired me to love for my tribe--I didn't hate myself either. Despite his academic prowess and exposure, he never lost touch with where he came from. He loved to be identified with his locality. His dialect was one thing he was unapologetic about speaking about, especially when he spots someone from his locality. I aspired to his inspiration back then and learned how to speak my dialect from him. It did not make sense to me that I was asked during an interview to answer a particular question in my dialect. Unknown to me, a member of the panel was from my locality. I couldn't just believe the reality that was before me. In a no man's land, I was singled out for a job with handsome pay. The last line of the e-mail read, "...we chose you because you have a touch of Igbo.

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