Nigeria’s Comedy Language And The Quest for National Identity By Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu
A well respected and accomplished Nigerian comedian recently chided his colleagues for being local champions who are hardly marketable outside the shores of Nigeria and Anglophone West Africa. Global fame has eluded his counterparts, he regretted, as a result of the 90% reliance on Pidgin English as the language of comical communication. The comedian clarified his understanding of ‘global’ as being the western world, specifically the United States and English speaking Europe. South African comedians, he charged his Nigerian colleagues, have been able to penetrate the high walls of America and Europe’s s stand-up comedy business due to their ability to render jokes in the sort of English embraced by these nations. For his colleagues to make progress, he admonished, they must leave behind the local pidgin language and reach towards its more ‘refined’ counterpart.
In trying to understand the implications of the comedian’s – no doubt – well intentioned advice for the Nigerian comedy industry, the question of a sense of self-pride, self-assurance, self-acceptance and collective sense of national identity of Nigerians as a people comes to the fore. Along that line, one realizes that the comedian’s admonition can be located within the age old conviction of Africans that to make progress, they must shun their authenticity in favor of Westernization, often labeled modernization. Since the days of colonialism, Nigerians and Africans have been striving to please, impress and catch up with the white colonial masters. If an average comedian has yet to make an Oyibo roar with laughter in the Oyibo’s own language and inside the Oyibo’s nation, then he is not yet validated.
In more recent times however, Nigeria’s entertainment industry has been at the forefront of trying to break free from this mental slavery; this denigration of self and upholding of the west as the ultimate audience. Nigerian musicians are tapping into indigenous sounds and dance steps to satisfy their audience. The outstanding rate of innovation and creativity in Nigeria’s music industry has stemmed mainly from the promotion of indigenous languages and sounds, and with that Nigerian musicians are steadily climbing global music charts. Africa’s film industry- pioneered by Nollywood- with its emphasis on telling the African story is also making sure progress globally.
Success is not achieved by the desperate seeking of external approval; success comes with the acknowledgement and appreciation of one’s innate abilities, and the subsequent exploration of one’s immediate environment to identify potentials and challenges that match such abilities. What occurs in such instance is a situation where available resources when adequately utilized, propels one to unimaginable success. If one million Nigerians and Africans subscribe to a comedian’s YouTube channel or follow him on social media because he makes them laugh so hard, global success will be sure to follow at the appropriate time, as the comedian continues to improve his skills.
Of course, there is much to be gained by Nigerian comedians aspiring towards becoming multilingual in their acts. Indeed, every human being in search of progress should aspire towards multilingualism. Scientific evidence has established the fact that people who speak two or more languages are more mentally and emotionally able to handle life – in short, they are considered more intelligent in many ways – than those who speak only one language.
But aspiring towards multilingualism should not imply a denigration of one’s authenticity, uniqueness and ingenuity as far as language is concerned. Pidgin English is indigenously Nigerian. It was birthed in Nigeria and the average Nigerian on the street understands Pidgin English almost as his own mother tongue. The emphasis therefore, should be on meeting the needs of almost 200 million Nigerians who want to laugh at the jokes of stand up comedians. If pidgin language is the preferred language of the Nigerian masses, why deny them of such privilege in the name of seeking the applause of America and English speaking Europe?
Since Independence in the 1960s, formerly colonized African countries have been in a desperate struggle to follow through the unfamiliar development models of their erstwhile colonial masters. Very minimal success has been achieved. However, countries that were previously colonized in Asia who have embraced or sought to embrace authenticity have been able to advance far beyond even their own imaginations. Africans and Nigerians must now embrace their own originality, to respect and have value for their own knowledge and experiences, and to learn to find fulfillment in growing within their realities. Developed nations of the world grew by looking inwards, by valuing their people’s tastes, expectations and needs, and by formulating policies, creating industries, and carving out sectors that specifically address such need. The resulting excellence achieved during this process attracted the attention of other nations in search of growth. Nigeria and the rest of Africa will likewise experience tremendous leaps in advancement by searching for growth and excellence within their borders, and by investing in readily available resources.
Follow Chika on Twitter @chikaforafrica or www.facebook.com/chikaforafrica. She blogs at www.chikaforafrica.com