Oriki for Onitsha Market Literature: Remembering Veronica My Daughter

by Ikhide R. Ikheloa

Someone once asked me to respond to the interesting question: Is Nigerian English the same as Nigerian pidgin? My response: There is pidgin and many variants are spoken in Nigeria. And there is English and many variants are spoken in Nigeria. Debating the idea of one Nigerian English is as useful as saying that there is ONE recipe for cooking egusi soup (yes, soup, NOT sauce!). There are ways of speaking, and ways of expression that are distinct to various sections Nigeria. And it is often possible to tell where someone is from based on how they handle the English language. Some of the best masters of English are from Nigeria. And some of the worst are from Nigeria. What is mildly hilarious is that it is the latter that usually spends precious time correcting the former. There is something about some Nigerians and the attainment of knowledge or whatever; they like to wear it loudly like a Rolex watch, and when someone is around they tap it so that someone can tell they have it. Some would say it is an inferiority complex.

American academics and intellectuals tend to be quiet about their accomplishments. Do not make any assumptions about your neighbor working in her backyard, She may have three PhDs from Ivy league schools and may be secretly building the next generation nuclear reactor. Just call her Jane. And when you read her academic papers, they are highly accessible, while still retaining the requisite substance. American academics tend to be considerate of the target audience. In contrast, my people love bombast. I don’t know where that bad habit came from. Ironically, they are the ones that really need to break it down for the “masses.” Before you clamber on to any Internet forum that houses Nigerian intellectuals, please say your prayers, take some painkillers, drink a quart of cognac and then, only then, start reading. What some may regard as “Nigerian” English is merely the product of a dysfunction: Bad grammar posing as our national anthem. Go read President Goodluck Jonathan’s babble on his Facebook status. Once you recover from the shock of reading Presidential atrocious grammar, then you will understand my frustration.

Please do not die until you have read as many Onitsha Market literature pamphlets as you can. The experience will remind you of some of our Nigerian intellectual elite. In particular, please read Ogali A. Ogali’s hilarious play Veronica My Daughter, featuring the great master of bombast, Bomber Billy. Next, you must read Peter “Pan” Enahoro’s seminal How to be a Nigerian. That pamphlet is a hoot. Please, please, please, find a copy and enjoy. It was written almost fifty years ago; not much about the stereotypical Nigerian has changed other than the Internet is here and they are all now on Facebook entertaining the world. Some of the best masters of the English language reside in Nigeria. When they relocate to America, listening to them the first couple of months is sheer joy. Give them six months, in the zest to become the Americans they will never be, the tongue becomes tied up in knots, they acquire atrocious grammar habits from who knows where, and guess what, when they visit home, they are “hailed” or envied for losing their “Nigerian accent.”

It is actually the case that several of our writers were already wired to write nonsense at home. They come abroad and mangle their already atrocious literary style with additional bad habits. Then they call this new product scholarship. I disagree. What some of our writers call academic writing is simply bad writing. There is no need in my opinion to deploy bombast where a few or blessed silence would do. From the beginning of colonial history our people have been drawn to big words. Back to Bomber Billy in Ogali A. Ogali’s Veronica My Daughter. Bomber Billy was the caricature of the bombastic Nigerian. Here is what Bomber Billy has to say upon sustaining a bad fall:

“As I was descending from a declivity yesterday with such an excessive velocity, I suddenly lost the centre of my gravity and was precipitated on the macadised thoroughfare.” He goes on to assure concerned onlookers thusly: “Don’t put your mind under perturbation. But after my precipitation whereby my  incunabula got soaked, it was made incumbent on me to divest my habiliments which were saturated as a result of my immersion in the rivulet.” When asked if he had gone for treatment he responded thusly:  “I don’t care what the Medical Officer said but I assure you that this is nothing but a cocified agency, antipasimodicala producing nothing but voscandum, miscandum and tiscono. This medicine that I have in hand is called the GRAND ELECTRICAL PUNCHUTICAL DEMOSCANDUM which cures all diseases incident to humanity.”

Our writers are starting to be really innovative. In the blogs, websites, and on Facebook, they are showing us the true face of their creativity, using the new media to create a fusion of voice, text, and dance in the oral tradition of our ancestors. I salute them.