Two years ago a white female student was raped on the campus of the Canadian University that pays my salary. Ottawa Police posted a security alert everywhere on campus. University Communications also sent out the police alert as a campus-wide email communiqué. I read it, empathized with the victim, and wondered how that could have happened in our otherwise serene and beautiful campus. The authors of the communiqué almost ruined things when I got to that part of the notice where they solicit the help of the University community for information concerning the suspect. Hear them:
Description of Suspect:
height between 5’8” and 5’10” with broad shoulders and a chubby build in his mid-twenties
bald head wearing a blue sweatshirt
carrying a white Macy’s bag
spoke English with no accent (my emphasis)
Spoke English with no accent? That sentence, of course, means that the culprit has a Canadian accent. I’ve always been amused by the cultural arrogance which makes Canadians – and their American brothers – assume that there is anyone in this wide planet of ours who speaks English without an accent! In the US, I’ve encountered Americans speaking in the most incomprehensible southern drawl and who make statements quite unselfconsciously about your accent: “oh, I just love your African accent. It’s awesome”. Naturally, they are assuming they have no accent. It’s worse whenever I’m in London – having the English comment about my Nigerian accent in that funny accent of theirs and assuming, of course, that they have no accent. I’ve often had to tell my western interlocutors that one Canadian, American, or Briton among 140 million Nigerians is a funny man speaking funny English in a funny accent!
Wole Soyinka gave a talk here at Carleton University in November 2006. During the question and answer session, one Canadian student asked a question that she had to repeat several times because the poor Nobel Laureate could not understand her – hers was the thickest Canadian accent I’ve encountered in all my years in this country. An exasperated Soyinka asked me to interpret – I was moderator – her question and apologized to her for his inability to comprehend her accent. “Oh my God, I have an accent?” she screamed incredulously into the microphone in her hand. It simply had never occurred to the poor lady – and nobody had ever told her – that she had an accent. Accents are for Africans, Indians, and other coloured dregs of the British Empire! I told Soyinka later that he was lucky we weren’t in litigation-crazy America. In America, the outraged lady would certainly have sued him for pain and suffering!
The war of accents is a tough one for a culturally-sensitive Diasporic Nigerian like me. I have spent the better part of the last ten years struggling to retain my Nigerian accent – I want my interlocutors here in North America to catch a whiff egusi and orisirisi in my sentences; to sniff the flavor of paraga and burukutu in my speech; to imbibe the aroma of garri and kulikuli in my utterances. So, I warn my Western undergraduate and graduate students to clean their ears with cotton bud before coming to my class. Nigerian English being internationally intelligible, my responsibility to them is clear, audible English delivered in impeccable grammar. Nobody should expect me to say warrer (water), meerring (meeting), Orrawa (Ottawa), and Trrono (Toronto).
Incidentally, the pressure to “civilize” my accent comes mostly from Nigeria. Often, Nigerian interlocutors on the phone express surprise that I am still talking like them “after all these years”. Folks who have never left Lagos have better “jand accent” (American or British) than me! Their affectations of foreign accents can be infuriating if they are of the Victoria Island-Ikoyi-Lekki-Victoria Garden City axis. My undergraduate nieces have given up on me. Whenever I’m home and they want to show off “their Uncle in jand” to their campus friends, they always have to beg me desperately: “ah, please Uncle, don’t disgrace us at that party O. Don’t go there and use that your Yoruba English accent O. We told our friends you’re a Professor based in jand.” Obviously, whether I indulge them by switching to my impeccable American accent – I’ve had to groom one over the years for emergency use whenever a North American interlocutor absolutely refuses to understand my ngbati accent and communication breaks down totally! – depends on how beautiful their friends are!