Not long ago, a Nigerian journalist and columnist – of course, Onye Igbo b’anyi; respected and senior media man – accosted me rather angrily. His angst was this: Stop all these your struggles to correct the spellings of Igbo towns. Stop trying to change the conventional thing. It is not correct. You can’t change what has come to stay.
I kept calm in my reverence of him until he finished with his magisterial intimidation. Fortunately, he mentioned a well-known Professor of Igbo Language while we talked, as not being concerned and ‘crazy’ as I am about spelling the names of wrongly spelt Igbo towns correctly despite his being an Igbo language specialist which I am not. I took it upon myself to go meet the said Professor in his office at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. The old man simply told me this:
“My son, you’re not wrong. The wrong spellings have stuck like a strong adhesive on our people’s minds over the years just as the White man left them wrongly too. Keep doing what you’re doing. It is not easy. We have tried and tried when we were young to tell our people – especially those of them that have been in government – that the spellings of some of our towns are wrong going by our Igbo language but they didn’t hear us. Most times, they simply waved us off just as they wave off the Igbo language as not too serious a discipline unlike the Yòrúba would do. You can see we are tired out, weak, and old. It is left for you young ones to continue where we stopped. Perhaps, one day, you will succeed at unchaining our people from the colonial slavery of spelling their own towns not as their very own language suggests but as the colonialists suggested, even after over 100 years of education and enlightenment. Jishie ike, nwa m,” he said all in Igbo using his Olu dialect of Igbo language in Imo State.
He then entered his black SUV and drove off while I waved him a goodbye. The man is of the generation of Chinua Achebe and Chukwuemeka Ike.
I did that not because I’m not convinced of what I’ve always stood for but because I needed the blessing of an Okammuta and Onye Okenye just so I can stand the intimidation of any other elder who would in future want to serve me another magisterial grandstanding. I have kept pondering and asking why many Igbo elders and elites who are now retired never cared about these anomalies of wrong spellings all through their active years before handing over to these ones in their active years now. But I have not had any intelligent answer. How can a people so learned, exposed and culturally conscious remain so enslaved in something as simple as a spelling? It shocks me deeply to see no reason why that nonchalance should be part of such a people for many years.
Yòrúba has never spelt and will never “Sagamu” as “Shagamu” even when the White man must have spelt it that way. Yòrúba will never spell “Okitipupa” as “Awkitikpukpa” even when a colonialist would simply spell it that way with his usual arrogance. I’ve checked most Yòrúba towns to see one that is wrongly spelt but couldn’t find. Notice that even “Lagos” which is a foreign word is most times suppressed with “Eko” which should be the right name. Babatunde Raji Fashola’s campaign team forced down that name into the consciousnesses of the younger Nigerians with the “Eko o ni baje” slogan. Even when you are in the nearby Ogun State, people there will tell you in Yòrúba language when they’re heading to Lagos: “Mo lo si Eko” and rarely “Mo lo si Lagos”. For the time I spent there, that expression alone gave me serious thoughts as I reflected on their tenacity to keep the right things right using their own language. Like I’ve always said, identity is great politics which only the historically deep can see. Again, it wasn’t for nothing that the previous Yòrúba government in Lagos insisted on naming that big hotel “Eko Hotels and Suites”. Identity — whether of a person, place or thing — is great politics only the historically deep can see.
When some Igbo elders challenge me on my daring to spell some Igbo towns the right way in some documents, I wonder at how they could think big things outside their environs and then turn back to think little of things right under their noses. Let me make some juxtapositions:
When educated Igbo elders spell that commercial city of ONICHA in Anambara State wrongly as “Onitsha”, they forget the other ONICHAs in the nearby Delta correctly spelt as ONICHA-UGBO and ONICHA-OLONA. They don’t ask themselves why those towns weren’t spelt as “Onitsha-Ugbo” and “Onitsha-Olona” too. You see, they know that Onicha in Anambara holds a bigger interest than the ones in Delta but they forget that politics was involved when the colonialist abusively left it wrongly spelt. That name, Onicha is still derived from the goddess that owns the Niger River which these towns hold some great allegiance to in the traditional past. That goddess is never spelt “Onitsha” in the White man’s fashion and manipulation. Na-agbakokwa ya o!
The same educated Igbo people keep spelling ENUGWU wrongly as “Enugu” years after the colonialists have arrogantly identified that coal city that way. As usual, they forget that there are ENUGWU-UKWU and ENUGWU-AGIDI towns in Anambara State, yet these towns are never spelt “Enugu-Ukwu” or “Enugu-Agidi”. The word “Enu-ugwu” simply means “Mountain/hill top” and these towns have something to do with their geographies and topographies associated with the hills and mountains. Yet Enugwu city which has more political and economic interests is spelt wrongly as “Enugu”. Na-agbakokwa ya o!
The same educated Igbo people would spell Imo’s Capital as “Owerri” yet there’s a town in same Imo spelt correctly as OWERE-NKWOJI and never “Owerri-Nkwoji” and both almost mean same thing considering that word “Owere”. (I stand to be corrected in this one but the much I know tells me this). In the old Igboland mapping done by the White men; the present day OHOFIA was spelt as “Awhawfia”. What an abuse of spelling! But Ohofia people didn’t allow that to continue. They were truly educated to know that identity is not just a mere ‘name’. Each time I see the capital of Anambara, my home state written anywhere, I feel like vomiting. A simple Igbo spelling as OKA abusively left as “Awka”. And the other one, OKA-ETITI abusively left as “Awka-etiti” just the way the colonialist arrogantly wrote them.
Any Igbo government that would listen to these and make the corrections using the Igbo language professionals to do the assignment of educating and freeing our people’s minds from the powerful mental slavery together with necessary legislations would have done the greatest revolution that will begin a fresh page for our people’s identity politics.
Check out this: America can’t be leading the world with a foreign spelling of their name such as “Ameriqua”. Nkea wee bulu okwu bulukwa ukabuilu.
Daalu nu, ndi b’ayi!
Chijioke Ngobili is a social critic.
The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.