I am not sure if I should be excited about the BBC News initiative in launching a “pidgin” feature for a West African audience; or should I grimace at the fact that the beautiful English language many from those parts speak so well is being butchered, and this may reflect the deteriorating standards of universal education among the broad spectrum of West Africans? I am clearly ambivalent about this “innovation.” However, my approval wins for the following reasons:
First, pidgin serves to unite not only the disparate tribes and cultures in Nigeria, which has about 500 different ethnic groups. Although English is our official language, due to the colonial legacy, fluent English has become a staple only the Nigerian, Gambian, and Ghanaian elite can afford. English is also the major language spoken by the elite of Liberia and Sierra Leone. It is also spoken fluently by the large West African diaspora, who emigrated to English-speaking parts of the Western world, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and the United States.
However, both elite and the plebs of West Africa also speak pidgin concurrently with their indigenous languages and the language of their former European colonial “masters.” (All West Africans are polyglots). Like the Creole developed by former Haitian slaves of different ethnic identities, who innovated their own unique language and mode of communication, Pidgin is an amalgam created through the eclectic interaction of English, Portuguese, and indigenous West African languages that have continued to develop organically with the fusion of cultures and modernization in the region.
The educated and wealthy elite of West Africa were once forced to speak it in order to communicate with their “staff” or to relate with the common man. Today, even the offspring and households of the often uppity Nigerians have a thrill speaking in pidgin, as it is considered “cool,” fashionable and even modern to converse in Pidgin, because it symbolizes an organic unity among the disparate tribes of Nigeria, and does not have the same imprint of the “imposed” or acquired English language – the identity from British colonialism.
Second, apart from the fact that I am all for anything that unites Africans, especially the region of West Africa, with its exploding population approaching 400 million (the region’s population now surpasses the United States’), taken in context, language like culture, is constantly in flux. The English language itself is not an original language, but also an amalgam of various languages – a borrowed language. Many modern European languages have also gone through their own linguistic osmosis. Moreover, reuniting West Africans, decimated by the slave trade and balkanized by colonialism, which separated major tribes through the arbitrary administrative units that served as a convenience to facilitate the exploitation of the region’s resources by European powers, is critical and feasible through the fluid communication engendered via Pidgin. The Anglo- and Franco-phone division in communication enforced by the legacy of colonialism, artificially balkanizes a region once united in cultures, kinship, and had integrated systems pre-colonialism.
For instance, the Fulani tribe while mostly concentrated in the northern regions of Nigeria, cuts across all the northern parts of West Africa and resides as far as Senegal a different country once colonized by the French. Similarly, the Yorubas another major tribe in Nigeria, are indigenous to Benin Republic (different from the historic Benin Kingdom in Nigeria, famous for their ancient bronze works and art residing in European and American museums), Togo, parts of Ghana, and also reside in Sierra Leone. Colonialism arbitrarily separated kinsmen into new administrative units that became countries carved out by foreign European powers.
It is a welcome development that even the young elite who have studied abroad and reside in the west are very comfortable communicating in pidgin, despite their sophisticated use of their beloved adopted English and French languages. When they speak pidgin among themselves, it is more than a means of communication and expression which is normal for the West African plebs, as they conduct their daily activities. When the young elite use pidgin among themselves, it is imbued with some passion and real emotional content, as if they are saying: “we have found our raison d’etre.” We have chosen our unique national identity and this has not been forced on us. It is more than our own thing.