In 2009, I decided to visit a dear friend in Scotland over Christmas. My objective was to experience the Much talked about White Christmas- the stuff of movies and storybooks. Let's just say that after that experience, I am always running to a "Red Christmas" - one filled with hot sun and harmattan dust!
But I digress. During lunch at her place one day, I met two lovely Nigerian ladies who were also in Scotland. And we got talking about people and accent. I must tell you-the Scottish accent is probably the most unique in the world. You can swear on your bank account that they are NOT speaking English.
I was amazed at how they switched from that accent to pidgin to Igbo and back to the accent. And I got thinking- everywhere else in the world, we accept accents, without blinking an eye. We refer to some as cute, musical, nasal, uppity.
But when it comes to our Nigerian accent, we immediately refer to it as 'bush', uneducated, non polished, ignorant.
Why do we do that?
Why do we judge people based on their ability to 'spree', speak 'phoneh'.... And invariably, the tighter your non-Nigerian accent, the smarter you are? Does it stem from the deep rooted psyche that 'if you are white, you are right, if you are black, get back?’
Unfortunately, I am no saint. I also have made that baseless assumption that a person who speaks well is probably smarter, until I realized what I was doing, and worked hard to change that perception - hiring people who are SMART- not because they speak up a storm, but because they are smart, irrespective of their accent.
Indians have a class/caste system which is widely condemned across the world. The news has been buzzing about the unfortunate teenage girls who were raped and hanged, and the police not giving it due attention because of the caste they belonged to.
I do think in Nigeria, we have a silent caste system- where those who speak with a non Nigerian accent are perceived as smarter, brighter and potentially richer. Doors open, people are polite, security guards probably will salute with a loud 'Welcome Sah'.
And for the unfortunate accent laden souls, the reception is not as polite and you end up being relegated to the ‘unpolished’ class, dismissed before you are even given a chance.
I remember an incident with another group of young ladies in Lagos. We were discussing actresses – first of all, disclaimer, I totally suck at Nollywood actors/actresses. In the spirit of conversation, I mentioned a particular lady, and all the women shouted : ‘NOOOOO, she is fake, she has a Igbo accent, she is not aspirational’ ……. I was speechless. And I made up a word then and there to describe these women – classist. Indeed, we are classist as a country, as a nation.
I am an Ishan girl. Growing up in Benin City, my parents spoke English, Ishan and pidgin English. I picked up Pidgin English, but unfortunately no Ishan- to which I regret to this very day. That said, I have an accent- when I say 'Eeeeyeme', 'JiSOS', you know, I am a proper Bendel gal.
And I won't change it for the world. It’s my identity. I love it when I speak in public, and people come up to me and say- are you Bendel? Or the time when I visited my boyfriend (now hubby) in Warri and broke out into the most concentrated musical pidgin English when talking with his driver, who just couldn’t believe his ears. He probably thought that coming from Lagos, I will be too posh to speak pidgin. In any case, the huge smile on his face as we conversed was priceless.
And now I have learned a reverse mechanism, when people say – you are talking too fast, or I don’t understand you, I make my accent thicker, guttural, while looking straight into your eyes, daring you silently to make another classist statement. After all, I spend time trying to understand your accent, you may as well understand mine.
So here is the punchline: Don’t judge based on accents. If you must judge, then find something of substance and not something as shallow as the sound of someone’s voice as they pronounce words.
Una doh oooooo.
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