Eriata Oribhabor is a poet and frontline promoter of the new standardised Pidgin English autography called Naija languej. Writing in the language, he authored Abuja na Kpangba and Oda Puem-dem (2011), edited If Yu Hie Se A de Prizin (poems-2012) and Amebo Yad (collection of plays, 2013).
A former chairman, Association of Nigerian Authors (ANA), Abuja Branch, Oribhabor is the author of two poetry volumes, Beautiful Poisons and Crossroads & the Rubicon. He is the editor, WUSHAPA – Beating the Drums of Peace (poems, 2015) and Who Shall I Make My Wife? (a collection of food-related poems, 2015). Also a publisher, he is sedulous in the promotion of poetry and literature in Nigeria. Oribhabor spoke to HENRY AKUBUIRO in Lagos on his writings, his literary activism and experience translating one of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s works into Naija languej.
How did the warmth of the muse overwelmed you?
My literary journey began in Abuja when I first published in Naija Languej, a collection of poems entitled Abuja na Kpangba and Other Poems Dem. That was in 2011. Thereafter I made a call for submission for poems in Naija languej. Actually, they were written in Pidgin English, but I translated them into Naija languej.
What’s the difference between pidgin and Naija langwej?
The difference between pidgin English and Naija langwej is that pidgin English is written in adulterated form and not standardised, but Naija languej is pidgin English in standardised format. In that regard, we are promotion an autography, fallout from the conference on Nigerian pidgin held in Ibadan in 2009, where we came up with the coinage, Naija languej.
So, you mean you hadn’t been writing before the publication of Abuja na Kpangba?
I had been writing, though unpublished, prior to that. While in secondary school many years ago, I was good in literature to the extent that I was the president of the Literary and Debating Society in my school at Ugheli, Delta State. But, immediately I finished secondary school, I started working in a clearing and forwarding firm in Warri; I didn’t get to the university immediately. Not quite long, I got into marital life, and that took all my attention as I began focusing on my children. As things began to improve, I told myself I had to go back to writing.
You are a poet; how does a poem idea come to you?
For me, ideas come now and again, but not all of them are worth putting pen to paper. If you bring up an idea and you are able to put it in poetic form on paper and you go through it and discover you need some standard in terms of features of poetry, you have to put it up so that people will see and critique it. Many ideas come, but not all can pass for good poetry.
What inspired Abuja na Kpangba?
While in Abuja, I saw a two-facet Abuja: the central part of Abuja and the larger part of Abuja (the FCT), as well as the closer suburbs and the inner suburbs still developing, and, overtime, whoever comes to Abuja may not actually be in the centre of Abuja but still claims to be in Abuja. In that light, I saw development at the centre and I saw an underdeveloped suburbs and a growing part; I now said Abuja na Kpangba, meaning I saw the heaven and I saw the suburbs. When something is kpangba, it is not tight; it is not smooth. The point I am making is, when you are coming to Abuja, don’t see it as heaven –it has both good and bad sides.
Why the choice of Naija languej as diction?
The choice is to promote pidgin as it were, because, presently, pidgin as a language cannot grow beyond the spoken pidgin. It cannot move into a formal language if it doesn’t have standard. That was what inspired the diction used in Abuja na Kpangba. When I had the opportunity to attend the conference in pidgin at the University of Ibadan, which I mentioned earlier, we came up with standardising the language, and I got a copy of the autography we were going to promote. So, I started writing in Naija languej rather than in pidgin.
So, what’s your interest in promoting Naija languej? You are one of the most popular proponents of this language…
I have more than one interest. First, if you standardise Pidgin English, automatically, it could be used for creative writing. Why we use English today is because everybody can access it from wherever –whether you are in London or Port Harcourt. But pidgin has no standard. For it being standardised means that literary works could actually be promoted and published from that perspective and people can access it from all over the world.
Second, if you promote Pidgin English in a standardised form called Naija languej, it will provide job opportunities for millions of jobless Nigerians in teaching and translation, for instance, from either English to Naija, German to Naija or Naija to other languages. So, something that could provide job opportunities is something the government should give attention. Recently, there was a JALADA publication dedicated to the promotion of traditional languages, and I was opportune to translate one of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s works entitled “The Upright Revolution”. My translation was “Why We dey Stand Waka”. Afterwards, they wrote back appreciating it, and tried to make comparisons with their own Sheng slang spoken around the Mombasssa axis, and they thought if they could standardised it, it would really move.
If you are able to standardise your language, it will help foreigners to actually have a direct means of communicating with your people outside the formal language, English. Of course, it will be easy to formalise. If you come into Nigeria, I must speak to you in Hausa, Yoruba or Hausa or English. But, if you speak English and, after speaking English with you, I now saw you speaking another language different from what I already knew, I would like to know about the language.
The other reason I think we need to know about Naija languej is, as a country, we have three major languages, and government gave approval for the language of the immediate community to be used in teaching in schools, but it is not being done. In 2009, it was recorded that more than 30 million Nigerians spoke Pidgin English. What, then, will you think the number will be today? Your guess is as good as mine. Really, we need to promote Naija langwej. It is spoken in the National Assembly; it is used in lectures –most times when lecturers finish speaking in high faluting English, they still go back to pidgin English.
I have problem with using Naija languej to classify standardised Pidgin English. This is because pidgin is not spoken only in Nigeria. We have close variants in South Cameroun and Ghana, and a standardised form of it in Sierra Leon called Krio. Don’t you think it is better to call it a common name instead of creating unnecessary dichotomy?
What they speak in Cameroun is not Naija Pidgin English. Their own brand of pidgin is nowhere near ours. If a Nigerian goes to Ghana and speaks pidgin, Ghanaians would want to learn it, because it is more mature. In Sierra Leon, they speak Krio, but they have their own peculiarities, which is different from ours. In fact, in the world of pidgins and creoles, Nigerian pidgin is the richest, because our pidgin has been enriched by many traditional languages, which are more than 500. You can’t compare it with Cameroon or Ghana with fewer languages. How much has our pidgin impacted our languages is what makes it the richest.
Of course, when you talk of Pidgin English being spoken, Naija languej comes from the literary aspect where it has to be standardised for usage –it doesn’t differentiate it from the way you speak. Nobody is saying you should change the way you are pronouncing come to kam (as pronounced in Ghana). I have met many Camerounians who have expressed keen interest to learn Nigerian Pidgin English. When you write it down, pidgin becomes more formal as a language, and that’s why they coined the language Naija. Naija happens to be the most popular slang that has come out of this country. Outside the country, people understands where you come from when you say you are Naija, and companies even have started doing adverts with it.
The Eriata Food Poetry competition is your brainchild. What’s the correlation between poetry and food?
Food has much to do with poetry. If you talk about the food of any people, you are talking about the culture of the people. With poetry, you are talking about ourselves, our people, our environment, politics, everything put together. If you are talking about food, you are talking about the people, much more when you have to put it in a more creative format. Kolade Olarunwaju is the moderator of the Food Poetry Contest. We felt it would be nice to promote our food culture. I think it is the best thing that has happened to us as a group. Poets from all parts of the country, including foreigners from Africa and other parts of the world, have been participating since 2014. We capped it up last year when we produced the poetry anthology, Who Shall I Make my Wife?
It is hard to find many Nigerians who are as committed as promoting literary activities in the country with a lean purse as you, and you have kept the momentum going from Abuja to Lagos. What drives the imaginative enterprise?
The driving force for my passion for promotion of literature is because I have been well informed, for I know that, over the years, from when I left secondary school, the standard of education really dropped; you see school graduates, who don’t speak good English and they don’t write well. So, I felt we needed to keep the tempo by initiating literary activities. I felt people should be well informed, no matter how small the impact may be, because a little drop of water makes an ocean. It is good to keep ourselves well informed and busy much more when there are many distractions today. That aspect of getting the youths engaged is very important
Your latest initiative is the PIN Students Poetry Prize. What’s the idea behind it?
The idea is still to keep our youths engaged creatively, empowering them to stimulate creativity and excellence. PIN is to connect poets in Nigerian and beyond. The response has been wonderful. We had about 400 entrants from 64 tertiary institutions in Nigeria and one from the US. We hope get the winners announced 30th of June this year.
Let’s go back to the translation of Ngugi’s work; how challenging was it?
It was a novel experience translating the famous Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The title of the work I translated is “The Upright Revolution” or “Why Humans Walk Upright”. It’s a nine-page prose work. It was very engaging. The work is centred on the synergy between all parts of the body: the hand, the toes, the ear, mouth, etc. What he is trying to say in that work is that, as humans, we need each other; nobody can do it alone. It was my very first experience at doing a major translation. I have translated poems, maybe 1, 2, 3 from English to Naija Languej; but translating such a wonderful work by a genius was very tasking. Before you finish translating even a page, at a point, you got tired. I would leave it and kept postponing the date to continue the translation. I would do maybe a page or half a page; I would drop it and come back to it later. But they kept reminding of the target date to go to press.
So, one day, I sat down and started translating from the fourth page. It took three days. I am looking forward to that kind of experience again. If we can do that – I am just imagining what Nigerians have written –and we have Nigerians vast in Naija languej translating works to Naija languej, it would be wonderful. When you say Naija languej, people will think you are not talking about pidgin again –it is the same language we are talking but a standardized version, not when you write, say, something on the billboard and the spelling is different from what the other person has written.
Your version of written Naija languej is different from what most of write. How do you reconcile both?
I said before, Pidgin English is not a language; it is a means of communication between people who understand themselves, and it is limited to those people. But when it becomes a language, it is open to everybody. The major shortcoming pidgin has been having is because it is not standardised. So, we are trying to standardise it so that everybody can access it. The economic advantage of doing that is overwhelming as I mentioned early.
You have vowed to remain a poet. What do you find most enchanting about being a bard?
It is not as if I have not written prose works. I actually have prose works I have written that I have not published yet, including short stories. But I love poetry for so many reasons. One, I love it for its depth and brevity. Something one would write in a page or some lines, why shouldI be rigmarolling writing pages and pages because I want to pass one simple message. I just feel poetry is all for me. Each time I travel outside this country and introduce myself as a poet, people listen to you. Poetry is the heart of art. So, why go for the entire body when the heart is there? I am not against other genres of literature –I actually started with plays growing up in Warri as a member of a dramatic society which we founded and later founded the NNPC Drama troupe for the NNPC staff club –but poetry is where my love is actually.
Currently, I have a collection of short stories, which ought to have been published, but I am still hoping to get them published. While I was in Abuja, I wrote a column Naiaja Languej A-Z in Leadership newspaper, and it ran for a long time. Just when I was transferred to Lagos, I stopped it. All the articles I wrote were humours, satires and stuffs like that. I was also using it to promote Naija languej.
How do you cope combining writing and promoting literature?
I started out seeing myself as a multitask person. I like multitasking, and I am that kind busy person. Once I am not busy, it seems the world is crumbling on me. So, multitasking has been part of me. In the office, people also express the same feeling. But it is part of me.
What are you working on now?
I am about to publish my next collection of poem entitled That Beautiful Picture. It’s ready for publication and, hopefully, it will be out by July.
Why the title of That Beautiful Picture?
I was inspired to write that when a friend travelled abroad; he was at one beautiful environment, took a photograph and pasted it on Facebook. I started looking at it, and said, if the guy, a colleague of mine comes back, how much will he be impacted by that environment he saw and enjoyed? And I tried to relate it with our politicians who travel all over the place –do they really come back with a change? So, I said that beautiful picture is more than a picture –when you picture yourself in a good environment, try to replicate that kind of picture wherever you are living. When you are able to do this, it means your orientation, too, has changed.
That Beautiful Picture is about the totality of life and trying to live it in a good way. Politics is about good life, but when we talk about politics, people think it is to hoodwink, deceive, cheat and have their way, not our way.