In search of originality
By Ayobami Ojebode
WE must thank Dr. Reuben Abati for his recent (January 9) essay, Our Lack of Originality. In it, he came down heavily on Nigerians' lack of originality citing examples from nearly every aspect of our national life: business, entertainment, fashion, politics, religion and ceremonies. Now, we who read Uncle Ruby religiously know that he is gifted in coming at an issue from almost all angles, with quaint originality and freshness. But I think his list of the manifestations of the copycat syndrome was short by one: language.
Nigerians are first-grade copycats in their use of the English language. I presume the case is not different with their use of indigenous languages as well. Here, I concern myself with their use of English. I illustrate my point with two experiences. Mark, an American journalist based in Paris, was in my Department for two weeks in 2009 for volunteer teaching. Mark gave a test to our students and thought that the students copied during the test. I told him they did not: in the reformed University of Ibadan, cheating in examinations has become an endangered practice. But Mark showed me expressions that read alike. The white man did not know how Nigerians write.
Worried by the poor quality of essays coming from the postgraduate class, several departments in the University of Ibadan decided they were going to begin screening applicants into their Master's programmes; some added doctoral applicants to the list. Recently, I had the 'privilege' of reading the over one hundred essays written by a group of such intending Master's students. They were asked to write on corruption in Nigeria: just a topic to make anyone demonstrate that he could or could not write English at all.
Reading the essays was an exasperating experience. Over ninety-five per cent of the applicants described corruption as a cankerworm that has eaten deep into the very fabric of our society. To nearly every applicant, corruption is a hydra-headed monster, a problem which can no longer be nipped in the bud. It has permeated every nook and corner (or sometimes, cranny) of our national life. The reason for corruption is not far-fetched... Ribadu was as bold as a lion but his hands were tied by circumstances beyond his control. Only politicians who were not in the good books were caught by the long arm of the law and were made to face the music. This made those who had swallowed President Obasanjo's anti-corruption promises hook, line and sinker to begin to have a rethink. The achievement of the ICPC was nothing to write home about. But we should not throw away the baby and the bathwater (together) because not all Nigerians are corrupt. (The applicants went on and on, one clich�s expression following another. In their recommendations, nearly all of them want every offender) to (again) face the music; the judges should not tamper (occasionally, temper) justice with mercy. Yes, because there are no sacred cows as all animals should be equal; some should not be more equal than others. Finally, all hands must be on deck.
Clich�s are old, worn-out and lifeless expressions that mean little or nothing. They once were fresh, creative and original expressions that meant much (Imagine what impact 'my hands are tied' had on its audience when spoken in the late 1960s by the judge while sentencing Chief Awolowo to imprisonment with hard labour). But now if all you have to say is 'my hands are tied', then you have nothing to say.
Clich�s are an evidence of thoughtlessness and rote. Ask a student to define 'cankerworm' and he is blank. Ask him to explain 'the fabric of the society' and he is lost. He doesn't know any of those and does not bother; all he knows is that, certainly, corruption is a cankerworm that has eaten deep into the fabric of our society which must be avoided 'like a plague!'.
I agree with Dr. Abati that our society does not encourage originality. If everyone sings like the Nightingale, but, in order to be original, I decide to croak like a frog, I am afraid, if ever I have a breakthrough, the law is not there to ensure my products are not pirated within minutes of being released. Government, parents and everyone have roles to play to promote original thinking. But in the case that concerns me here, teachers have the central role to play. The way writing is taught - where it is taught - should encourage, in fact, compel, creativity. Students must be asked to 'say it in their own words' by all means. Literate parents - and they are a big problem today - must watch the kind of English they speak to their children ('Face your food!'). They too should encourage creativity. I end with the story of a crazy father who asked his 10 and eight-year old daughters to write his obituary:
'If I die, what will you write in the obituary poster?' the father asked.
'Baba has died'
'No. Too ordinary. Think of something else, something great.'
'Baba kicked the bucket'
'Baba slept in the Lord'
'Yeees. But something different'
'Baba smiles away'
'Better. More of that'
'Baba is gone, let's watch TV; no one to shout: 'switch off that TV NOW!'.
'Voila! There you got it!'
* Ojebode is on the staff of the University of Ibadan