Reviving indigenous literature in Nigeria, by Fatima Garba Yusuf

Fatima Garba Yusuf.
Fatima Garba Yusuf.

I would like to start with a reminder: There’s no tree without roots and, no matter how much a dainty flower may frown at the soggy roots beneath it, it can not deny that it owes its continuous existence to them!

And yet, we find human beings, of a more advanced genetic composition, denouncing their own roots and even making moves to uproot those earthy veins of theirs, without realising that such an action would mean an end to their existence!

Just look around you! It’s evident in the way we eagerly purchase those offshore products, from the mundane to the luxurious! Unfortunately, this excessive self-deprecating mentality has trickled down to our intellectuals, who mostly take delight only in reading and writing and even communicating in foreign languages while adopting their culture and tradition.

But why is that?

Why do we rush to the embrace of alien cultures, and bask in the glory of acquired accents in foreign languages while adulterating ours with disproportionately infused vocabulary?

It is indeed a sorry state of affairs and, whether it’s due to the remnants of the inferiority complex developed in us right from the time of the colonials, or due to our own skewed mentality, it’s taking a huge toll on our societal progress. We’ve lost most of our rich culture along with the wonderful societal cohesion and upright values that characterised our forefathers’ days. This is while knowing yesterday helps people to understand their today and hence plan for their tomorrow. Little wonder then that we don’t progress!

If only we’d limited our evolution to progressive change, and adopted foreign principles only in relevant areas such as knowledge and technology to implement and build on, it would have been understandable. Unfortunately, our people, both those living here and in the diaspora, mostly take pride in embracing others’ while shunning their own.

Perhaps we’re blind to it, but there’s great beauty in African indigenous languages that can’t be found anywhere else. The unique rise and fall of our tones as we voice out words is quite interesting as they convey meaning even in their sound. In fact, we can agree that most of our proverbs and stories, when translated, shed some of their flavour and rich meaning. Even works of poetry, such as the famous Infiraji by Dr Aliyu Namangi of blessed memory and the contemporary indigenous poets of today can be seen to have remarkable structure and rhythm. For example, you’ll notice that many poets writing in languages such as English find it difficult to structure lengthy, meaningfully rhythmic poems, having to restrict themselves to free verse, while in indigenous languages like Hausa, there are poetically rhythmic meaningful poems filling volumes!

When penned down, our indigenous letterings are a delight to behold, from the interesting strokes of the Yoruba to the peculiar dots of the Igbo and the unique bends of the Hausa and Fulfulde letters. How wonderful it’d be if we continuously have new publications in these wonderful letterings flocking to our bookstores… But alas! We find that their numbers, if any, are quite disappointing. Even the previously existing ones find little patronage as many of our youth nowadays find it difficult to speak coherently in their native languages, let alone read or write in them!

This is while we live in an era requiring the great influence of literature in reviving and reforming our societies, both the rural and the urban. Not only would indigenous literature assist in curbing the menace of corruption in our communities, but it would also help in earning us a place in the international literary arena. Unfortunately, our able indigenous writers are either dead or retiring, while our upcoming generation is more interested in foreign literature.

Those foreign writers we so admire, aren’t they writing in their own languages? Yet, we find our youth inattentive to these vital issues pertaining to our heritage, as code-switching and code-mixing remain the order of the day. Nowadays, our youth find it difficult to write complete sentences in their mother tongues while following proper rules of spelling, punctuation and grammar. On chatting platforms, errors abound in misspellings and unwarranted fusion of words. Sometimes, I really wonder how low we’ll sink instead of rising.

The way I see it, this is the best time to revive indigenous literature, before it’s too late. This could be in the form of new publications and even translations of great works from other languages. The burden may rest mostly on writers’ shoulders but also on the readers. A number of times, I’ve read stories with Nigerian characters who sounded and acted strangely, and when the writers of such books get confronted, they mention that ‘our people don’t like reading Nigerian stories.

So they either make their characters Europeanized or Asianized or completely write about foreign characters. So we observe that instead of combating misconceptions held about us and showcasing our good values to the world, these writers only promote the culture of other foreign entities, which, in many cases, leads to the adoption of improper behaviours and even modes of indecent dressing and corrupt thinking by our youth.

To address such issues, we need principled writers on board. Writers can be of two types – the first group comprises writers who don’t necessarily require an audience. These include some poets who mostly just write to express their feelings for personal reasons, not for a targeted audience. As for the second group, they write with an objective in mind, for a targeted audience. With their pens, the honourable ones among them inform and educate, create awareness and encourage virtue while discouraging corruption and other social vices. Our society is in need of this second group, as they not only sensitize and inform but also preserve and conserve our norms and values.

We live in a society where people often hide behind curtains of half-truths and deception. Most of us are quick to judge but reluctant to recognize and amend our own faults. The corrupt practices that prevail in our communities need uprooting right from the grassroots, in our cities, towns and villages. And what better way than the use of indigenous literature?

Note that I’m not completely discouraging literary endeavours in foreign languages, nor am I implying that our people are so inexperienced in the English language that books and other publications have to be written in their native languages for their comprehension, but what’s wrong with being bilingual, or even multilingual? Sadly, it’s difficult to find intellectuals well versed in both their birth and adopted languages. This is while we have foreigners from Poland and China coming to learn our languages and appreciating its intricacies. In fact, many of the indigenous publications made by our predecessors form the basis of informed research and intellectual discussions.

Indeed, society is known through its intellectuals and their publications. Shouldn’t we claim our place on the map of scholarly achievement? Our desire to attain intellectual heights shouldn’t make us compromise on our language and culture. Ironically, in ancient times, our writers mostly didn’t delve into literature in foreign languages such as English because most of their people were not English-savvy while the reverse is the case in our days. Writing in indigenous languages will certainly go a long way in combating ignorance and keeping our languages alive as well as preventing them from premature extinction.

In fact, we could even facilitate the airing of such works in media stations for greater penetration in towns and villages so that they won’t just be restricted to the elite. With the deplorable condition of the Nigerian educational sector, one can’t really blame many of the masses for not being well informed, literate or properly educated.

But alas! Such works have become a rarity, as fewer standard literary publications are made in indigenous languages in Nigeria. Instead, our children and youth have been left to the mercy of media stations and sub-standard novellas which degrade our culture rather than enrich it, for entertainment!

But perhaps it’s not entirely our fault, and probably a result of how we were brought up. Due attention is not usually given to learning indigenous languages and literature in schools, and a number of Nigerian parents, in a bid to raise ‘posh’ children, only address them in English.

In an interview conducted by the respected Khalid Imam, Dr Bukar Usman, a well-known writer in both English and Hausa, and retired civil servant, expressed his sadness at his inability to get anybody proficient in both English and his native language, Babur, to translate his autobiography. He himself didn’t get the chance to learn the written aspect of the language. He also bewailed the rapid decline of the story-telling culture in our societies. During their own time, they had been groomed with valuable lessons and morals from these didactic folktales even before school-going age.

Are saddening situations such as these not making us lose out on wonderful treasures in our heritage?

Personally, I can remember coming across a certain book years ago. It was titled ‘Igbo Olodumare’, Yoruba for ‘The Forest of God’ by Late Chief D.O. Fagunwa. It was really quite interesting, a glorified Yoruba folktale embedded with lessons on morals and life in general… And in case you’re wondering how I read it, well… It had a peculiar structure whereby the pages were alternated in Yoruba and English. I remember occasionally gazing fondly at the Yoruba pages, wondering what it would be like to be able to read more than the few words I could pick out.

So I asked my friend who lent me the book. Unfortunately, she confessed that she really couldn’t read them much either, as the peculiar strokes of the written words confused her.

But at least she could speak the language. I have a number of friends from different ethnic groups who don’t even know how to understand or speak, let alone write, in their native languages.

So now that we’re talking about this sensitive issue, why don’t we develop and hold fast to our wonderful heritage and leave treasures for generations to come? There’s no place like home, no language like yours.

Therefore, the ball is in our court. Either to keep struggling with borrowed colloquialisms and fake accents, revelling in their elusive glory, or to revive our dying culture before it gradually slips into oblivion.

And… If we indeed decide to revive indigenous literature, we have to take the initiative now. Not by clapping, smiling or nodding our heads, but by taking the initiative to enrich our knowledge of our mother tongues, and even languages of other ethnic groups in the country. We could start by trying to hold coherent conversations in the languages. Thereafter, we could visit textbooks to get our grammar, spelling and punctuations right. We could then try our hands at writing in these lovely languages and forward them to our elders for corrections, after which we should write, improve and write again and again.

Only then would we be on the path to reviving indigenous literature.

Fatima Garba Yusuf (A.Y.M) is an Engineering student with a passion for literary arts, especially poetry and can be reached  via email:


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