“English language is really difficult to learn. Who e epp sef? (Who does it help)”.
“Madam, e no hard. Na you no wan learn. It’s like speaking your native tongue…”
They kept at it till I alighted at my bus stop. Walking home, I thought about the discourse on the bus: Is English really difficult to learn? And I was taken down memory lane.
I’m Nigerian. And the official language in Nigeria is English. I grew up learning and speaking the English language, even better than my native tongue. My parents are to thank for this.
They are equally to blame for the fact that I can’t speak fluent Ijaw, my native tongue. I still find it hard to forgive my parents for this error.
I mean, both of them speak Ijaw fluently but absolutely refused to teach us, their kids.
It’s quite fascinating – and painful – to watch kids from other tribes speak their native tongue so beautifully, and you’re none the wiser. But you can’t throw your own native tongue back at them.
Ijaw or Izon is quite difficult to learn because of the wordplay. But had I learned to speak it, it would have been perfect because I could cuss out anybody or sell them off (inserts evil laughter here). They wouldn’t understand a thing I said.
Don’t judge me; they cuss me out in their native tongue too. That’s the power of language. Sadly, my parents never taught us.
My childhood was an English-speaking one and as a rule, we spoke only English at home. Many times my parents would speak to us in vernacular or what is called Pidgin English here in Nigeria, and we’d always respond in perfect spoken English.
For a long time, I wondered why because it amused me but that’s how it was with us. My parents would go,
“Tamara, you don baff? Do quick make you carry load go shop.”
(English: Had your bath, Tamara? Hurry up so you take these goods to the shop.”)
My response would be, “Yes, Mummy. I’ve had my bath. I’ll be quick.”
“Tamara, day never break for your eye; you no go wake up abi? Preye (our eldest), run go check if she piss for bed. I don set the pepper down.”
Me: (jumps out of bed to check myself) No, Mummy! I didn’t wet the bed o! No need for pepper.
Preye: God saved you today. She wasn’t joking, I saw the pepper.
“Who hide minerals (soft drink) and meat pie for under bed? Talk true, I no go beat you. But if una lie, na me and una today.”
Everyone: It wasn’t me, Mummy. I don’t know who did it. Whoever did it should confess o because I don’t want my arse whooped.
No pidgin reply whatsoever.
Playing with friends was the same. We all spoke English. We made blunders but we still spoke English. And trust us kids, we’d make fun of anyone who made a blunder.
If you didn’t wanna be laughed at, get your shit together and speak well, or just speak plain pidgin English. But we all preferred speaking English. Pidgin English is the craze now.
English was also a fad growing up. If you could speak it fluently, you were deemed ‘brilliant’ and ‘wise’. Those were the words used, not mine.
“Tamara, how school? You carry first?”
“Yes, sir. I came first in class.”
“Ehen! I talk am. I talk am say you sabi book (you are smart). See the way you dey talk. Na person wey sabi speak English nai go sabi book. Abi you go teach my pikin?”
“Ok, sir. I will teach your kid. But he already knows it…”
“…Taaa! (Shutup) For where he take sabi am? That one wey be olodo. Na him mama brain he carry. Abeg, hep me teach am ehn? So he go dey talk like you. And he go sabi book sef. Shebi una be frens? Hep me ehn…”
“Yes, sir. He’s my friend. But I have to go now.”
“Ok, dey go. No be person like me born this one. This stupid boy wan kee me…”
That’s a typical conversation with a neighbor.
It’s common knowledge that neighbors are very nosy too. How they knew I was smart in school is still a mystery. Scratch that, not so much. My parents may have been the culprits.
Back then in the 90s, your parents bragged about your intelligence to anyone who cared to listen. This irked us to no end as kids. Some of us at least.
Life was hard for us lower class citizens but to have a very smart kid was like a blessing.
That’s the kid who would become great in life and take good care of their parents. That was gold, yo! And such a child would be heavily petted.
Not that my parents ever spoilt or pet me. Not in their house.
“Tamara, how school? Una don close, shebi? (right?) I know say you carry first. Well done. Oya go wash that pot wey you soak before I land you better slap.”
No special privileges. No treats or anything.
They were proud of me but life went on. I just wasn’t subjected to the spankings and dressing down my siblings received (thank God) because of bad grades.
The only time my report card was even looked at was when my parents had to sign something for the new school term.
So maybe my parents did talk. But they aren’t known to. “Mind your business” was their watchword and they never indulged in gossip.
Where was the time sef? They worked their asses off from sunup till sundown. And that’s how we were raised. It’s the reason why I’m very introverted.
So, English it was growing up. It came naturally to me and I thought almost everyone could speak it. You might make a blunder (who doesn’t?) but you could still speak it.
That was my mindset till I had to go live with my father in another part of town. Yeah, my parents got divorced.
I had just finished primary school. I was the overall best student (for the umpteenth time) and my dad thought it best to go to a boarding school (it was the rave back then).
He wanted me mingling with kids from all social classes, the rich ones especially. But that would only happen if I went to live with him.
I was overjoyed. I was going on a new adventure but more importantly, because I wouldn’t be doing so many chores no more.
After dad left, Ma had to shoulder the responsibilities of 5 kids, house rent, school fees and other bills. It wasn’t easy on her and we had to help her out in anyway we could. Mama had a small kiosk where she sold drinks, snacks and food and that was work!
Our work included: fetching water for hours on end, going on countless errands, carrying crates upon crates of soft drinks on our heads from far places (if Pepsi didn’t supply that week), keeping the house very neat (Ma hated dirt and clutter), carrying food and snacks to the shop, cutting up groceries for hours on end, etc.
Ma never let us hawk like other kids. She hated it and vowed she’d be sufficient for us but the clause was we had to help out. Who else was gonna do the work? House helps? No siree bob! After all, that’s why she had five kids.
I can still remember my mother’s face the day I left to go live with Dad. It will stay with me forever. That and what she said.
Ma: “You dey happy abi? Your body dey sweet you to go stay with ya Papa? After all the suffer wey I don suffer for una.”
Me: “Mummy, no o. It’s only for school. Besides, I won’t be at home much. I’ll be at boarding school. I don’t wanna go, I want to stay right here with you…”
Ma: “C’mon shutup there! Winch. I look like mumu for your eye? Abi my eye blind? No be happiness I dey see so for your face. No worry, go o (that’s how she said it), go stay with am and him new wife. After she show you pepper, you will know that I am a mother.”
Ma only spoke good English when she was very angry. She was pretty upset that her darling daughter was leaving but I was still very young and didn’t understand divorce or adult problems.
I didn’t wanna choose between them. I just wanted to go on an adventure and take a break from chores. Was that too much to ask?
Her guilt-trip only lasted seconds. I left our little home and off I went with Dad to his new house, in his shiny new car.
Know how a dog happily sticks its head out the car window, tongue out, lapping up the fresh air? That was me. I could not contain my excitement. Dad was happy too that I was coming to live with him.
Got to his home and he showed me his new wife. She was fab, soft spoken and a practicing nurse/midwife. I met my new baby brother too and dad showed me around. He had a little provision and drug store attached to the house and I loved it.
I settled in quite nicely and absolutely adored my new home. My dad lived in a new site (or residential area newly open to the public), very quiet, and close to the ocean.
I’d go to the Jetty very often and watch speedboats try to outdo themselves. A beach was close by too (if you weren’t scared to hop on a canoe as a means of transport).
Not many people lived there then and we had a beautiful salty lake just in front of my house where kids could play in. It was where I learned to swim (story for another day). I thought I was in heaven.
I couldn’t go to boarding school immediately for some reasons that had to do with the school I applied to, so Dad enrolled me into a Day school.
Which was good because I didn’t wanna sit at home all day when my mates were getting by in their studies. My dad felt the same way.
Despite being an introvert, my good grades outed me and in no time I became popular. School was fun but I loved it when I came home. I would do my homework, eat, go swim, and then help at the store.
Once I became accustomed to the store, I was left on my own for hours, mainly nights. Dad the chartered accountant taught me accounting and book keeping. Mam (my step mum) taught me sales and how to dispense drugs. I felt like an adult, handling a whole business and I was very good at it.
Eventually, I got to know other kids. They’d come to our shop and buy goods and we’d talk. That was when I began to question my early perception that everyone spoke good English.
At first, I didn’t know where these kids came from. I discovered later that some of them were raised in Lagos while others were brought in from the village.
But I assumed that no matter where you came from, you could speak English, because it was our official language and taught in schools. Oh boy, was I wrong?
My first experience was with this dude called Molete. He is a Yoruba native. Molete had several deep tribal marks across his cheeks – common with people from some parts of Nigeria – and thick, ponmo (cow skin) lips.
Molete means “I have big lips” in Yoruba. It is also a town in Ibadan, Oyo state, Nigeria, and that’s where he came from. So I guess his name was fitting. A double entendre, if you will.
I didn’t know him so well then but I saw him from where I was seated, bouncing to my shop in that his funny strut.
The following conversation ensued:
Molete: “Joyin (Joy, my English name), I wan buy something.”
Me: (rolling my eyes) “It’s ‘Joy’, Molete. Wetin you wan buy?”
Molete: “I wan buy my disco boy.”
Me: “What now?”
Molete: “I wan buy my disco boy.”
I was puzzled. Then I had an idea. I thought he wanted to buy Bisco, a firecracker of sorts (real name: sparkler) that kids love.
But it wasn’t even Christmas yet and I thought it weird that he wanted it. But hey, Molete is weird like that. So I informed him that we didn’t have it and this guy gave me a dirty look. He said with a scowl on his face,
“Bisco ko, Banger ni. Lø mu my disco boy wa fun mi jor (Go and bring my disco boy for me).
Now I was nonplussed. What was ‘my disco boy?’ I began to search everywhere. I searched the inventory book and saw nothing like that. Mam wasn’t home to ask what my disco boy was. I was home alone.
At some point, I told him to go home and ask again what he was asked to buy. This guy laughed at me and called me an olodo (dullard). The irony.
I got angry and said he’s the big for nothing dullard who couldn’t speak proper English nor remember what he was asked to buy.
Told him to leave that we didn’t sell my disco boy but Molete angrily insisted that we had it and that he had bought it the night before.
See me see trouble, my dilemma doubled. He was accusing me of not wanting to sell to him and that he wouldn’t leave.
I combed the whole store again but found nothing remotely close to a disco boy. Then I asked him to describe it.
But that was another problem as he couldn’t speak English. Our conversation so far was a cocktail of pidgin English, the little Yoruba I understood and sign language.
Molete went on a rampage in pure, undiluted and fluent Yoruba; the kind conversant with his people. So back and forth we went for close to an hour over my disco boy and its description.
I think God decided to have mercy on me. Just then, a customer came around. He saw us arguing and asked what the problem was.
Customer: “What’s the problem?”
Me: “Good evening sir. Molete wants to buy something called ‘my disco boy’ and I don’t know what that is.”
Customer: “My disco boy, ke? What’s that?”
Me: “I don’t know. Ask him (pointing at Molete).”
Customer: “Young man, what do you want to buy? And what is my disco boy?”
Molete: (speaks in Yoruba trying to explain)
Customer: (in Yoruba now) “Ok, what is my disco boy?”
Molete: (in Yoruba) “Ę se, sir (thank you sir) My disco boy is what is used to kill mosquitoes.”
Customer: “What? My disco boy? There is nothing like that. Or it is not sold here.”
Molete: “There is. I bought it here last night.”
Customer: “Ok, describe it.”
Molete: “It’s coiled like a snake and has a stand where you place it on. Then you light one end up with a match and the smoke drives away mosquitoes.”
Customer: (deep laughter that went on forever)
Me: “Sir, what did he say?”
Customer: (still laughing) “He wants to buy mosquito coil!”
Me: “Mosquito coil?”
Customer and Molete: “Yes!”
Me: “Are you sure, sir? How is Mosquito coil my disco…”
And then it hit me: Mos-qui-to coil = My-disco-boy!
I looked at Molete who was smiling smugly at me and called him a big olodo. We would have gone at it again if that kind customer who spoke Yoruba didn’t intervene.
I sold the mosquito coils for Molete and off he went, but not before telling me I no sabi English. That was one encounter with him. There would be several to come.
Many times, I tried teaching him how to pronounce words and speak good English but it was all to naught. I wondered how he coped at school. Molete wasn’t the only one with that problem.
I’d hear over and over again from friends and acquaintances how English is very difficult to speak and understand and I’d go like, “How?” It’s the simplest language ever!
Perhaps I’m biased because I grew up speaking the language. Is English really difficult to learn? Let’s read it in the comments.