Diasporans As Agents In The Promotion Of Nigeria’s Cultural Diplomacy

Diasporans As Agents In The Promotion Of Nigeria’s Cultural Diplomacy: A Food For Thought

 By

Barclays Foubiri Ayakoroma, PhD

Executive Secretary/CEO

National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO), Abuja-FCT, Nigeria

Website: www.nico.gov.ng; Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

Introduction

Let me begin, by first appreciating the organisers of this event, for deeming it fit to invite me, to deliver this address. I must say it is an honour, and I believe that this brings to attention, the message we have been preaching back home in Nigeria. I am particularly happy that even as you have to make efforts to acclimatize to the German culture, where you are domiciled, you have deemed it fit to congregate as Nigerians to celebrate aspects of our indigenous culture. The fact remains that as you try to understand the culture of the people you now live with, there is the high tendency for you to transcend to discard our own culture. The only way to avoid this is to continuously and tenaciously hold on to the traditions, language and the Nigerian way of life in a way that our own land will be seen in a positive light by the host country. This brings me to the concept of cultural diplomacy. 

Concept of Cultural Diplomacy

Cultural Diplomacy has existed as a practice for centuries. Explorers, travellers, teachers and artists can be all considered examples of informal ambassadors or early cultural diplomats. The establishment of regular trade routes enables frequent exchange of information and cultural gifts between traders and government representatives. Such deliberate efforts of cultural exchange can be identified as early examples of cultural diplomacy. Indeed, any person interacting with different cultures, in the past as today, facilitates an important form of cultural exchange. This cultural exchange can take place in fields including art, sport, literature, music, science and the economy, and implies communication and respect between the cultures involved, based on sound understanding of respective values and reduced susceptibility to stereotypes. The potential of such an improved knowledge is to enable improved interaction and cooperation. For example, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, of the United States Department of State, sponsors, in whole or in part, many exchange programmes, such as the Fulbright Programme and the International Visitor Leadership Programme. Such exchange programmes seek to develop cultural understanding between citizens of different countries.

Put succinctly, cultural diplomacy is the initiation or facilitation of such exchanges with the aim of yielding long-term benefits, whether they promote national interests, build relationships or enhance socio-cultural understanding. It specifies a form of diplomacy that carries a set of prescriptions, which are material to its effectual practice. These prescriptions include the unequivocal recognition and understanding of foreign cultural dynamics and observance of the tenets that govern basic dialogue. It is a domain of diplomacy concerned with establishing, developing and sustaining relations with foreign states by way of culture, art and education. It is also a proactive process of external projection in which a nation’s institutions, value system and unique cultural personality, are promoted at a bilateral and multilateral level.

            From the above, it is clear that cultural diplomacy is a two-way avenue. This is in the sense that while trying to nurture a favourable perception of our country’s national ideals and policies with foreign audiences, we should never fail to recognise the cultural identity of the target nation. This includes the psychology, mentality, the way of life, customs, traditions and history of the people. Thus, the success of cultural diplomacy is dependent on intercultural dialogue and mutual respect.

Cultural diplomacy can be employed in many ways and for various purposes by nations, civil society, non-governmental organizations and individuals, motivated by the opportunity to develop and encourage platforms for mutual cultural exchange. Their activities could take the form of cooperation through the sharing of valuable professional information and networks, for example, in the context of academic exchanges, international forums and tourism.  

Diasporans and the Promotion of Nigeria’s Cultural Diplomacy

At this juncture, I shall attempt to review various Nigerian cultures, including the one you are showcasing today, to remind you as our brothers outside the shores of Nigeria, why you should continue to be proud of being Nigerians. The reality of the saying that “there is no place like home,” must have prompted most of the first set of the Diasporans to think about home, irrespective of how nice foreign countries were said to be. For instance, Olaudah Equiano, an African slave, who served in England and the Americas during the heydays of slavery in the 18th Century, was determined to return to his roots. Olaudah Equiano was educated and fought immensely through his writing for the abolition of slavery. He sought for permission to return to the shores of Africa but this was denied him. In the abridged version of his life history, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, edited by Paul Edwards, and titled, Equiano’s Travels, Equiano claimed to have come from Igboland (Eboe), specifically, from the town of Essaka (Acholonu 43). Emenyonu asserts that Olaudah Equiano was the first Igbo expatriate to write an autobiography, and it was the first literary work to be published by an Igbo in English language and, possibly, in any language (xii). In the book, Edwards (1967) notes that Equiano represented his Igbo heritage thus:           

Our land is commonly rich and fruitful, and produces all kinds of vegetables in great abundance. We have plenty of Indian corn, and vast quantities of cotton and tobacco. Our pineapples grow without culture; they are about the size of the largest sugar-loaf and finely flavoured paper, and a variety of delicious fruits which I have never seen in Europe, together with gums of various kinds and honey in abundance. All our industry is exerted to improve those blessings of nature. Agriculture is our chief employment, and everyone, even the children and women, are engaged in it. Thus, we are all habituated to labour from our earliest years. Everyone contributes something to the common stock, and as we are unacquainted with idleness we have no beggars.... Deformity is indeed unknown amongst us, I mean that of shape…. Our women too were in my eyes at least uncommonly graceful, alert, and modest to a degree of bashfulness; nor do I remember to have ever heard of an instance of incontinence amongst them before marriage. They are also remarkably cheerful. Indeed cheerfulness and affability are two of the leading characteristics of our nation (Edwards 7-8: cited in Emenyonu xii-xiii).                         

One of the fundamental and distinguishing features of Nigeria, as an independent nation, is its cultural diversity. Culture, as a complex whole, which includes language, foods, beliefs, art, morals, laws, customs, and other distinguishing ways of life acquired by a people in given societies to adapt to their environment, is a social phenomenon that is best understood in the context of groups or individuals. Within the Nigerian context and experience, however, cultural groups are more or less co-terminus with ethnic groups. Ethnic groups have been defined as categories of people characterized by cultural criteria of symbols, which include languages, value system and normative behaviour, whose members largely inhabit a specific part of the country’s geographical area.

            With well over 350 ethno-linguistic groups, there can be no doubting the appropriateness of the description of Nigeria as a social milieu of rich cultural diversity. Firstly, each ethnic group can be identified to occupy a distinct geographical part of the country. Secondly, the respective ethnic groups employ their specific cultural traits and practices as distinguishing features from other ethnic groups. Thirdly, despite their cultural specifics and claims to exclusivities, each ethnic group is an integral part of the larger Nigerian society. Fourthly, each ethnic group acts as an interest group that aggregates and advances the interest of its members, a tendency that has been given greater emphasis under our nascent democracy. Lastly, despite the cultural differences that exist among the respective ethnic groups, there is also the inescapable fact that members of various ethno-cultural groups live and own property outside their cultural areas.

In an earlier lecture, titled, Culture and National Identity: A Challenge to Ijaws in the Diaspora, when the Ijaw National Alliance of the Americas (INAA) invited me to deliver a lecture at the late Major Isaac Jasper Adaka Boro Commemoration Day in the USA, I stated that the legendary Isaac Boro, and all our fathers, and the youths currently in the struggle, have had one thing in common – to create an identity for the Ijaws, home and abroad. On that note, I did re-examine the existence of the Ijaws as a people, and how they can be proud of whom they are: Ijaw men and women. In this paper, I want present a food for thought for all of you, as Nigerians in Germany.

It is worth noting that what Equiano had mentioned, is captured, to a large extent, in the Cultural Policy for Nigeria, a theoretical framework for the overall development of culture Nigeria, which the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and National Orientation launched in 1988. The policy is generally regarded as an instrument of promotion of national identity and Nigerian unity, as well as that of communication and cooperation among different Nigerian or African cultures, while the State’s cultural policies stand for the affirmation and development of particular (ethnic) groups. It is currently undergoing extensive review to reflect the new policy thrust of government. The set directions of the cultural policies are:  

ü  Analysing and understanding of the Nigerian cultural life, cultural values and cultural needs and expectations of the people;

ü  Affirming the authentic cultural values and cultural heritage;

ü  Building up of national cultural identity and parallel affirmation of the cultural identities of different ethnic groups;

ü  Developing cultural infrastructure and introduction of new technologies in cultural activities;

ü  Establishing links between culture and education, as well as between education and cultural industries, particularly, the mass media; and

ü  Providing administrative and institutional structures for easy and clear cut implementation of the framework of these policies. 

The Ministry of Culture, Tourism & National Orientation, is responsible for administering and implementing cultural policies, which include formulation, execution, financing and promotion of all national cultural organizations and for international cultural relations or diplomacy. This also involves cooperation and coordination among various bodies at the national, state and local government levels. Parastatals in the Ministry, like the National Council for Arts and Culture (NCAC) encourages and develops all aspects of Nigerian cultures and interacts with private or public organisations; just as the National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO) is responsible for training cultural workers and harnessing the diverse cultures of the country for national development (Ayakoroma 10-11). These are realized in various aspects of Nigerian culture, such as Nigerian dress culture, indigenous languages, Nigerian cuisines, marriages and cultural festivals, and so on, which could be used to positively project Nigeria globally. 

Nigerian Dress Culture and National Identity

Dress is an important component of our daily lives. There is a popular saying that, “You are addressed the way you dress.” Through clothing, individuals establish their sense of self, as well as their place in society. One will therefore not be out of place to say that the unique Nigerian dress styles and the connections between dress and both individual and collective identities can be used by Diasporans to promote the Nigerian lifestyle. Nigeria as a multi-ethnic and multi-lingual country, has a rich dress culture. By way of identity, we have the dress cultures of tribes like the Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba, Igbo, Ijaw, Itsekiri, and other ethnic groups. The babariga (voluminous robe), kaftan, jabba, gambari, dandogo and gbariye, are examples of Hausa, Fulani and Yoruba dresses. Zanna bukar, mu hadu banki and abeti aja, are also examples of Hausa and Yoruba caps. Indeed, all tribes in Nigeria have fine indigenous dresses but the question is, how many Nigerians, both adults and youths, wear these dresses? How many people know the actual significance of native dresses and the appropriate occasions to wear them? Can dresses really promote the country's culture?

            Indeed at the peak of many traditional occasions in some parts of Nigeria, various dress styles have continued to capture the admiration of both indigenous and foreign observers. Such favourable developments, if sustained, will rise to the continuing survival and enduring vitality of many Nigerian textile and clothing styles. Apart from providing a mark of identity, dress functions almost as a language that can indicate a person's age, gender, marital status, place of origin, religion and social status. To the traditional ruler and politician, dresses are symbols of power, authority and charisma, as well as symbols of unity. Incidentally, the saying that “a people might not know the value of what they have until non-natives angle for possession,” is the picture of what is happening among Diasporans not preserving our dress culture, which calls for conscious efforts. The unfortunate thing now is the wholesale assimilation of foreign dress cultures by Nigerians, a situation that has made the Nigerian local textile industry to crumble like a pack of cards. If other countries in the world with similar multi-ethnic and multi-cultural diversity can project their cultures on the international scene, Nigerians in Diaspora can also showcase our dress culture and by implication, preserve them for future generations, enhance the development of our indigenous fabrics, cultural industries, as well as the entire nations culture through the creativity of fashion designers, which can even take on competitors in any part of the world. In India, for instance, the country’s cultural multiplicity has stood the test of time on the international scene and their dress culture is valued to the extent that it has contributed immensely to both their economy and the fashion industry. The same could be said of Indonesia, where the batik has become a veritable national symbol and identity.

I am looking at a situation where Nigerians in the Diaspora can promote Nigerian dresses and accessories by wearing their traditional attires in different colours and designs and adorning them all the time. There is therefore every need for Diasporans to start looking inwards and not just adopting Nigerian designs and fabrics to their places of work, but adopt it for general purposes. By the time you “Dress Nigeria,” it will help to give vivid expression to our patriotism and promotional efforts on our indigenous fabrics and styles.

To underscore the importance of our dress culture, National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO) presented a memo to the National Council on Tourism, Culture and National Orientation in 2010, requesting approval for “Dress Nigerian Day” in public offices, as a systematic approach to promoting our dress culture and national identity, among public servants. While the Federal Government as directed civil servants to adorn Nigerian attires every Friday, staff of NICO have shown the way forward by statutorily wearing Nigerian attires, three times in a week: Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. In fact, this development has earned a NICO director the “Best Dressed Participant Award” in a workshop in Malaysia last year. This is an event, which drew participants from many other countries from Europe, Africa and Asia. Apparently, his dress style showcased the nation’s cultural heritage and other participants were amazed.

It is also pertinent to note that while other nations have benefitted from the inherent advantages from upholding their dress culture, this has not been given due prominence in the development of our nation. There are a lot of things to benefit from promoting indigenous dress culture, since its contribution to the economic development of the country cannot be over emphasized. Local fabrics can be used in manufacturing bags, sandals and other items and, thus, empowering local communities. In the past, when Kano Textile Factory, Arewa Textile Mill, and the Kaduna Textile Mill were fully operational, the abundant cotton produced by farmers in the region was well utilized thereby growing the economy of the region. Kano became a textile marketing city and Kaduna also developed into a textile city, as well as other factories, support services, such as the spinning and weaving industries, blossomed. Marketers of Kaduna who made textile materials, mainly African prints, carved a niche for themselves, selling these products locally and exporting to neighbouring countries. Sadly, these textile industries had collapsed in the past few decades, until the intervention fund approved for the sector by President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan in 2010.

Section 9.4 of the Cultural Policy for Nigeria encourages the preservation of Nigerian traditional designs, which implies the incorporation or involvement of cultural diplomacy in the context of Nigerian foreign policy to promote the country’s dress culture to achieve highest global ranking. More than two decades after the launch of the policy, there has not been any meaningful promotion of our indigenous dress culture at the domestic or international level. The linkage between Nigerian dress code and cultural diplomacy, in terms of reputation management, has a lot to do with the self-imposed foreign dress codes on majority of Nigerians, especially, those in the Diaspora. Although no culture can be said to be free from borrowing elements from other cultures, it is very important to acknowledge the root of one’s culture and make it more dynamic rather than abandon it in the quest of the so-called dominant foreign cultures (Ojah 86). There is no doubting the fact that Nigeria has an enduring vitality of indigenous dress culture, which through cultural diplomacy in the context of foreign policy, can catapult Nigeria to a favourable competitive global ranking (Ojah 88). Nigerian foreign missions can therefore serve as formal tools to promote Nigeria’s dress culture. Apart from helping to effectively coordinate other identified tools of dress culture, the missions/embassies, including their personnel, must be seen to be part and parcel of promoting Nigerian dress culture, at all occasions. The promotion of our dress culture in the Diaspora will not only revive and sustain the local textile industries but positively re-awaken cultural consciousness.            

Establishment of Nigerian Kitchens

Nigerian cuisines, which consist of cultural dishes or food items from the hundreds of ethnic groups that comprise the entity, called, Nigeria, are part of the cultural heritage of the country. Nigerian indigenous cuisines are natural, with all their nutritional values intact; original and direct from their various sources, unlike most Western foods, which are canned therefore contain a lot of preservative elements, which could have harmful effects on our body systems.

As the most populous Black country in the African continent and home to hundreds of different cultural and ethnic groups, Nigeria is reputed to have a wide variety of cuisines, which are not only appealing to the citizenry but will be delightful to foreigners, if well-packaged and presented. It could be argued that many Nigerian fast food companies, like Happy Bite, Mama Cass, Tasties, Jevinic, Pepperoni, Chicken Republic, Mama Calabar, and many others, have upstaged the operations of foreign ones like Mr. Biggs, McDonalds, and KFC, purely because of the perspective: a Nigerian dimension or identity. Unfortunately, they are yet to export their services to foreign countries. It therefore behoves on Nigerians in the Diaspora, as cultural ambassadors, to follow the example of the Chinese, the Japanese, and the Indians, in promoting Nigerian cuisines in their host countries, through the establishment of Nigerian kitchens. This position is collaborated by Shettima thus: 

Food is an important cultural export. Recognizing the importance of its national cuisine, Thailand has used restaurants overseas as a means of promoting its culture and tourism. In 2003, the government launched ‘Global Thai’ a plan to boost the number of Thai restaurants around the world in a bid to drive tourism and promote awareness about Thailand. The popularity of the first McDonald’s restaurant in the former USSR in the late 1980s sent a potent message of popular rejection of the Soviet model. In the same way, Nigerians in Diaspora should think how to promote specifically Nigerian cuisines on a global stage. There is no reason why we cannot package and promote our pounded yam, suya, kilishi, and the rest of our indigenous cultural foods, as truly global delicacies (108). 

In the same light, Ayakoroma avers that:  

We as Nigerians are particularly passionate about our foods and therefore very patriotic as far as food culture is concerned because food culture plays a great role in our tradition to the extent that we have special festivals like the one we are celebrating here today; the Igbo people’s iri-iji, otherwise known as the new yam festival. However, we can do better, by using our indigenous foods as a medium of cultural diplomacy, just as the Asians are doing with the Chinese Restaurant, our restaurants should blossom to the level where other nationals take pride in our foods and go out to look for Nigerian restaurants for our indigenous cuisines (http://www.nico.gov.ng/news/629-be-proud-of-your-cultural-background-ayakoroma-urges-nigerians.html).  

Nigerians eat meat mostly in sauces or as tsire (stick meat) or suya (roasted meat), a meat kebab coated with groundnuts, peanuts and chili pepper and other local spices, prepared barbecue style on a stick. This is one of the most famous Nigerian delicacies and can be found all over the country. Also fura da nono (yogurt and fresh milk produced by Fulani pastoralists), is a major food in parts of the North. Furthermore, in Northern Nigeria, people like kunu (corn, sorghum or millet juice) and zobo or isapa (a drink made from roselle juice or juice made from indigenous vegetable plants), while in the Eastern and Southern parts of the country, people enjoy natural juices like emu fun-fun or mmanya ngwo (palm wine), which is sometimes distilled into traditionally brewed liquor, called, ogogoro, kaikai, kinkana, or apeteshi. Nigerian cuisines, include, indigenous salads like abacha (popularly known as, African Salad), which is common with the Ibos and mostly used for big occasions. It is prepared with dried shredded cassava, ugba (fermented oil beans), garden eggs, akan (potash), palm oil, dried fish and cooked cow skin (pomo). The country’s food culture also include snacks and sweets like kuli-kuli (groundnuts cakes), kpekere (plantain chips), kokoro (fried dry snack made from corn or garri), dundun (roasted or deep fried slices of yam in palm or vegetables oil), kpokpo-garri (dried fried fermented cassava snack), common among the South-South people of the country.            

Nigerian Traditional Marriages and Cultural Diplomacy

Nigerian traditional marriages are imbued with very rich cultural aesthetics. That they have the capacity to amuse and attract global attention is never in doubt. They could be harnessed as an effective instrument of cultural diplomacy if Nigerians in the Diaspora proudly showcase and embrace the tenets. Some of the basic cultural elements of Nigerian traditional marriages include the following: 

1). Kola Nuts: Kola nuts play an important role in African traditions. The kola nut is also used for medicinal purposes. In traditional marriages, for example, the presentation of kola nut represents the couple’s and families’ willingness to always help heal each other. A marriage ceremony is not complete until kola nut is shared between the couple and the people. There is the general accepted saying that, “he who brings kola, brings life.” Even among Muslims, the kola nut is a symbol of fertility and is exchanged by family members during engagement celebrations. The kola nut also symbolises the unity of the Nigerian nation, in the sense that the soil in the South-West supports greatly, the growth of kola nut; the northerners eat it with relish, while the Ibos celebrate it, in the sense that an occasion is not deemed to have started without the traditional presentation of kola nut. I am happy that we have done just that today, telling others that this is a tradition that had been passed down from generation to generation. Cha cha cha! Igbo kwenu! Kwenu! Kwezue nu! Nigeria kwenu! Kwenu! Kwezue nu ooo! Ndi be anyi, ekene mu unu ooo! Of a truth, if Nigerians in the Diaspora are able to sell this remarkable culture to the rest o the world, Nigeria, with its abundance of kola nut, will be a major exporter to the world, enhancing respect and generating good foreign exchange.  

2). Tasting the Four Elements: In a ritual adapted from a Yoruba tradition, the bride and the groom taste four flavours that represent different emotions within a relationship. The four flavours typically used are sour (lemon), bitter (vinegar), hot (cayenne), and sweet (honey). It is note-worthy that all of these materials are abundant in Nigeria and would boost export if imbibed abroad through constant showcasing of this culture at marriages abroad. By tasting each of the flavours, the couple symbolically demonstrates that they will be able to get through the hard times in life and, in the end, enjoy the sweetness of marriage. What a beautiful tradition that Nigerians in Diaspora should strive to translate through literature, films, and real life marriages.  

3). Libation Ceremony: This is peculiar in the Nigerian culture and many African-American couples have incorporated the ceremony into their marriages as a way of honouring the ancestors. Gin (now Aromatic Schnapps) is poured on the ground in each of the cardinal directions, as prayers are recited to the ancestral spirits and, at times, those that had passed on are called upon to protect the couple. The libation ceremony can also be used as an opportunity to honour the elders in a family, asking them to pass on their wisdom and guidance.  

4). Knocking of Door: Since marriage in African culture is considered the official joining of two families, emphasis is placed on getting family permissions and blessings from both families before the marriage. In Nigeria, and some other African countries, the groom requests permission through the custom of knocking on the door of his would-be in-law, bearing gifts. He visits his potential in-law, accompanied by family members and friends. Once he is well received and accepted by the bride as her proposed husband, both families celebrate and marriage plans begin and the two families begin forming family ties.  

5). Mgbede Culture of the Igbos: This marks a young woman’s cultural rites of passage before her marriage. Mgbede provides an opportunity for the young woman’s mother, her mother’s female friends and the married women of the community to educate and familiarize the prospective bride with various responsibilities she will face as a married woman. She is usually kept in a hut, where she would be fed special food and other women would gather and offer her advice on various issues ranging from her relationship with her husband, family members and the larger communities, to practical matters like cooking, farming and other tasks. This practice is called, iria, among the Kalabari speaking people of the Ijaws. Many of these traditions are now largely symbolic but many Igbos in Nigeria and the Diaspora still attach much importance to these symbols of our culture. It is usually a wonderful sight when portrayed abroad and foreign spectators are usually enthralled when watching.  

6).The Bride Price: It is a well established principle of cultural practice in Nigeria, that the payment of bride price is an essential ingredient of traditional marriages. The bride price is referred to as any gift or payment, in money, farm produce, brass rods, cowries or any other kind of property whatsoever, to a parent or guardian of a female person on account of an intended marriage. In the Yoruba culture, the term, bride-price, is known as idana. Historically, bride price took the form of labour provided by the suitor for the parents of his wife-to-be. Such labour was rendered in addition to the payment of small amount of money and drinks. But with the advent of modern cash economy, bride price has since been monetised. There are no uniform rules governing the quantum of the price throughout Nigeria; it varies from one locally to another. Even though, some tribe in Nigeria have been known to charge high bride-prices, it is generally accepted that, collecting bride-price does not imply selling the woman. It is just a token of appreciation; that explains why some community charge as low as fifty naira and it is usually shared out among familiy members. Proudly promoting this practice abroad through the Diasporans weddings would engender better appreciation of this aspect of our cultural heritage.
7). Showcasing of our Beautiful Attires: The wrapper is a colourful woman’s garment widely worn by Nigerian, especially, during special occasions like marriages. It has formal and simple draped clothing to fully tailored ensembles. The wrapper is most common in Nigeria and is referred to as, iro, among the Yoruba. It is usually worn with a matching headscarf or head-tie, that is, called, gele, in Yoruba. A full wrapper ensemble consists of three garments: first, a blouse, called, buba; second, a wrap skirt, called, wrapper, in English, or an iro in Yoruba; third, a head scarf, which is called, a head-tie, in English, and gele in Yoruba. The traditional male attire is called, adashiki or danskiki. A wrapper takes metres of quality fabric, while a wrapper set (of two pieces) are worn during ceremonial occasions.

Other colourful materials employed for marriages or other ceremonial occasions, include, aso oke fabric, most common among the Yoruba people. The cotton brocade is a shiny, polished cotton fabric. Also, George cloth, though originated in India, where it was used to make saris, has become popular among African royal and noble families. The Ijaw people are known for the George wrappers. The laces, also known as, shain-shain, aso-oke, linen, satin, and wax print, are also well utilized and have become cultural materials for traditional marriages. Proudly showcasing this wears abroad by Diasporans during ceremonial occasions, can create a sense of national pride and identity. It tells a story of how unique and distinct the Nigerian culture is, creating a platform for good cultural diplomacy.

 

Nigerian Indigenous Languages and Cultural Identity

Nigeria has one of the most widely spoken languages in Sub-Saharan Africa, Hausa, and many severely endangered languages, whose last speakers are now very old. Yet its languages remain very poorly researched, compared with efforts that have gone into the indigenous languages of Europe, the Americas, or Australia. It is believed that Nigeria has by far the largest number of endangered languages in Africa. For example, in examining the problem of language endangerment that threatens the three constituent languages of tUrhobo, namely, Urhobo, Okpe and Uvwie, Mowarin observes that these languages are in various degrees of endangerment, presently grappling with survival. Language endangerment is seen as synonymous with language shift, which is, a process in which speakers of one language begin to use a second language for more and more functions, until they eventually use only the second language.

Incidentally, there have been recent media reports that the Igbo language is also seriously endangered and might become extinct by 2015, if urgent steps are not taken to ameliorate the situation. It is believed that the degree of Igbo language endangerment is in between definitely endangered and unsafe. It is disheartening to note that many Igbo children cannot speak Igbo language. Parents make efforts to see his child speak English language; but many hardly encourage such children to speak Igbo language. Unlike what used to be in during the colonial era and the 1960s, Igbo is no longer studied compulsorily in schools. It is not the medium of communication in meetings, churches, campaigns, or conversations, not to talk of homes. There was even an unnerving news report recently that Chief Chika Okpala (alias Chief Zebrudaya Okorigwe of New Masquerade fame), was harassed by an Igbo lady at a function in Houston, Texas, USA. His offence: in his usual jocular way, he tried to speak Igbo language to her son! The sad commentary in this episode, which Chief Chika Okpala told me personally on phone, was that he knew the young boy in Enugu, and that the lady and her son were not Diasporans but only visiting the US. If an Ibo woman, based in Enugu, can do this, what do we expect of others from the ethnic minorities?

However, being the statutory body established by government to re-orientate Nigerians toward a culture-related lifestyle and effecting a sense of cultural direction in the citizenry, the National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO), has taken the initiative of piloting and encouraging the learning of our indigenous languages as one of the major orientation programmes. To promote a sense of Nigerian identity in our homes and country, for improved interactions, national integration and development, a 4-week long vacation Nigerian Indigenous Language Programme (NILP) was conceptualized as one of the practical ways of encouraging the learning of our mother tongue in many families. The programme started in 2007 in the Lagos office, with the teaching of three major languages, Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba. The programme has, however, expanded to thirteen languages, including, Tiv, Efik, Gbagyi, Nupe, Fulfulde, Izon, Isoko, Chamba, Bwatiye and Batonu. Today, these languages are taught in the zonal offices across the six geo-political zones, according to their peculiar language needs. The indigenous languages taught at NICO head office and the zonal offices, as at 2012, stand as follows:

 

ü  Abuja              -           Hausa, Gbagyi, Igbo, Yoruba, Fulfulde, Nupe, Tiv,

Izon, and Efik

ü  Lagos              -           Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, and Urhobo

ü  Akure              -           Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, and Izon

ü  Ilorin               -           Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Nupe, Tiv, Batonu, and Izon

ü  Yola                -           Yoruba, Hausa, Igbo, Fulfulde, Bwatye, and Chamba

ü  Katsina            -           Hausa, Fulani, Yoruba, and Igbo

ü  Bayelsa            -           Izon, Efik, Urhobo, Hausa, Yoruba, and Igbo

ü  Owerri -           Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, and Efik (Ayakoroma, 2012: 10-

11).       

Currently, there are arrangements to open state offices to further coordinate the teaching and learning of more indigenous languages, thus taking the programme to the grassroots.

The approach to NILP is such that participants undergo normal classroom teaching of the languages of the person’s choice. Apart from the usual language study, key aspects of the culture of the people are embedded in the scheme of work. These include, proverbs and aphorisms, recitations, folk songs, going to the market to buy items, the dress culture of the ethnic group, hair styling, cooking of the popular dishes from that tribe, and other major cultural practices. The idea is for those who go through the programme to be well grounded in the culture of the people. The Institute has concluded plans to organize weekend classes for interested workers and also create a webpage on Institute’s website (http://www.nico.gov.ng) for interested participants, Diasporans, and those who may not have the time to physically attend the programme.

There is no arguing the fact that Nigerians in the Diaspora have a very crucial role to play in the promotion of Nigerian culture through the use of our indigenous languages. Parents should not only use the languages but also encourage their children to take pride in the use of these languages, as vehicles for the transmission of our cultural values from one generation to another.  

Hosting of Cultural Festivals

Nigeria is known to have many colourful and fascinating cultural festivals. These festivals, which date back several centuries ago, are usually celebrated with beautiful masquerades and energetic dances. An interesting feature of Nigerian festivals is the celebration of virtually every aspect of life. We celebrate birth, death, harvest, initiations, and so on. Major festivals in Nigeria include, Argungu Fishing Festival, Osun Oshogbo Festival, Durbar, Eyo Festival, Black Heritage Festival, Igue Festival, and various New Yam Festivals, among others. These festivals can be replicated by Nigerians in the Diaspora and create acceptability from their host countries. Just recently, I attended “Valpo African Fest: Wazobia Nigeria,” organised by the Valparaiso University in Indiana, USA. It was a special focus on Nigerian cultural heritage, as a prelude to the opening of an African Cultural Institute in the university.  

Festivals are usually memorable events in the lives of people and during such ceremonies, the gods are said to be present either as observers or performers (Ugolo 42). Ekweariri and Kelechi posit that festivals are organized around certain deities or spirits, to mark generational transitions, or the passage of the seasons. Whether of climate or agricultural production, festivals are sprawling multi-media occasions, incorporating diverse forms, such as songs, chants, drama, drumming, mimes, masks, costumes, and puppetry, with episodes of theatrical enactments, ranging from the sacred and the secretive to the secular and public. They, more or less, dramatize a story or myth – or related sets of stories or myths (135). Also, right from classical Greek period to the contemporary times, carnivals and festivals have always reflected the people’s history and way of life (Ekweariri & Ogbonna 127).

In a survey of the development of dance, an aspect of theatre practice, Ugolo asserts that the evolution of dance as an art form has its roots in the numerous traditional festivals across the country. Examples of these festivals are the Igue festivals of the Bini, Ogun and Egungun festivals of the Yoruba, Ekine festival of the Kalabari, Ijele and Ekpe festivals of the Igbo, Sharo and Ngarda festival in Gombe, to mention a few. These festivals project theatre practice, in the sense that some major features in them are the masks (masquerades), elaborate costume, make-up, music and dance (movement) that feature. The whole village, sometimes, constitute the stage; the village square, the river bank, or the shrine could also serve as the venue for performance. Furthermore, the whole community may form the audience; and during performance it is very difficult to distinguish between performers and spectators (41-42).

It is important to note that traditional festivals also provide platforms to bring people together every year. The Odi Ogori ba Uge, the Amassoma Fishing Festival, the Odemimon Festival of Otuoke, the Akpolokiyai Fishing Festival of Tungbo, the Kabo Sei Gbein Festival of Patani, the Lake Iffi Festival of Sabagreia, the Okolede Festival of Ekpetiama, the Okpoama Beach Carnival, the Nwaotam Festival of Opobo and Bonny, the Owu Aruson of Kalabari Kingdom, Odum Festival of Okrika, among others, are traditional festivals that bring people together, among the Ijaws. They serve as rallying points for the people to identify with their culture, in addition to their being tourism products. For example, the journey to the Akpolokiyai Lake in Tungbo, Sagbama Local Government Area, is very dramatic. According to the tradition, it is “first person first,” once you enter the track road to the lake: there is no overtaking of any one on the way, just because you feel you can walk faster. If any person in front of you wants to obey the call of nature, those behind have to wait until he/she is done. The question of “survival of the fittest” is not the case here, as a community-based event; rather, it is the case of being “your brother’s keeper” (Ayakoroma, 2011: 38).

The high point of festivals in Nigeria was when Nigeria hosted the second World Black Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC ’77), during the military regime of Gen. Olusegun Obasanjo. In his “Introduction” to The 2nd World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC 77), the then Federal Commissioner for Special Duties and President of the International Festival Committee, Navy Commander O. P. Fingesi, highlighted the objectives of the festival, when he said the festival represented an effort on our collective part to come together as a people, so as to set in motion a new cultural awakening among Blacks and the African world. The cultural heritage encompasses our world of arts, our songs, our dances, our behaviour, our communal efforts, and our humanism (9). These are reflected in some of the aims of FESCTAC ’77 itemized by Fingesi thus: to bring to light the diverse contribution of Black and African peoples to the universal currents of thoughts and arts; to promote black and African artists, performers and writers and facilitate their world acceptance and their access to world outlets; to promote better international and interracial understanding; and to facilitate a periodic return to origin in Africa by black artists, writers and performers uprooted to other continents (8).

As it were, the inter-cultural beauty of the festival was seen in the programmes of the dance, music and drama. In dance, there were traditional African dances, traditional Afro-American, traditional Caribbean, traditional Australasian, contemporary dance theatre, modern dance, and ballet. Music featured traditional African music, traditional African-American music, traditional African-Latin American music, traditional Afro-Caribbean music, traditional Australasian music, modern African music, modern Afro-Latin music, modern Afro-Caribbean music, and modern Australasian music. Drama showcased tragedy, comedy, poetic recitals, shows revolving around fables legends, humoristic, children’s shows, and pantomime. And in the area of films, there were feature films, short length films, children’s films, cartoons, and documentary films (Festac’77: 141). This coheres with what Duruaku says of cultural festival:  

Festival achieves a complete transformation. For instance, the Ahajioku Festival (Imo State of Nigeria) was in its traditional form an agricultural harvest for the god of yams. But it has been structurally changed into a festival of another sort that of ‘intellectual harvest’ more like a festival makeover from a festival of the farming cycle to an emergent festival and so on open to change in dates, form and content (12).

      In this regard, we wish to commend the organizers of the New Yam Festival in Berlin, just like the Isaac Boro Day in the UK and USA, the Igbo Day in the USA, and other such Cultural Days abroad, because they promote the Nigerian identity.

Conclusion

In this paper, the point has been made that the Diasporans are very critical to the realization of the Nigerian cultural diplomacy objectives. Their being pivotal to Nigeria’s cultural diplomacy stems from the fact that foreigners are within their sphere of contact, and they could be looked upon as channels of interface between all that Nigeria represents, culturally, and the rest of the world. The cumulative effect of their impact, if their potential is fully exploited, can positively recreate Nigeria in the minds of foreigners.

It is therefore of utmost necessity for government and other relevant agencies to have a meaningful engagement with Nigerians in the Diaspora with a view to sensitizing them to re-engineering this process, by first being conscious of their noble role and cultivating good actions and attitude at all times. Whatever they do must be in tandem with their ambassadorial mandate of portraying Nigeria in a positive light. This is premised on the fact that having residency in a foreign country does not make one a non-Nigerian.

It is very important that international festivals like the New Yam Festival being organised in Berlin should be replicated in other nations of the world by the Diasporans. Suffice to say that, when this is done, the Diasporans themselves will be the first beneficiary of the respect, love and uniqueness it generates. It is an avenue for us to continually promote Nigerian food, dress, indigenous languages and all other aspects of our rich cultural heritage. Cha cha cha! Igbo kwenu! Kwenu! Kwezue nu! Nigeria kwenu! Kwenu! Kwezue nu ooo! Ndi be anyi, ekene mu unu ooo!


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*** Being a Keynote Address Delivered at the New Yam Fesival organised by Nzuko Umuigbo Berlin-Brandenberv e. V, on 22nd, September, 2012, in Berlin, Germany

 

 

 

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