Maazi Ogbonnaya is an academic, writer, and translator of the Igbo language. His work aims at preserving and reviving the language & culture of one of Africa's largest ethnic groups. UbuntuFM reached out to Mr. Ogbonnaya for this exclusive interview.
Language is a culture. Culture is people. No one lives without language.
The Igbo nation is one of the most populous of the indigenous African peoples almost equaling their population in the diaspora. The Igbo are an ethnic group native to present-day south-central and south-eastern Nigeria. UbuntuFM's Ikenna Okeh recently recorded the interview with 'Maazi' Okoro Mark Ogbonnaya as follows:
It’s nice to get in touch with you, Maazi Ogbonnaya
It is my pleasure...
What is the significance of the title ‘Maazi’, as is noticed to precede your name and a few others in recent times?
'Maazị' could mean different things to different people. To the Ngwa tribe of the Igbo nation, ‘Maazi’ goes with greeting to an elderly person. But generally, ‘Maazị’ means ‘Mister’ or ‘Master’. The full title of mine is "Maazị Igbo", meaning ‘Master of the Igbo Language’. It is what any man teaching Igbo Language, literature and culture is called.
I was given the title while in Junior Secondary 2 by my then Igbo female teacher due to my remarkable contribution and outstanding performances in Igbo studies. Prior to this time, my grandmother referred me to as 'Maazị'. People chose to call me Maazị because they said that I am a young man with an elderly brain. Before I knew it, it has hopped into my name.
So, tell us about your work and its relevance to the Igbo nation of West Africa.
I have written in almost all the topics affecting the Igbo nation. Through stories I gathered from my late-aged grandmother, old books I have read and stories people told around me, I was able to gather information about the past. I was able to narrate past issues which involved inter and intra-community conflicts, to preserve knowledge and history for the future generation. I decided to write in Igbo.
My works span academics, family lives, communal issues, conflicts, government, careers, etc. There is no code-switching or code-mixing in my works. Everything is purely Igbo. However, to say the least, one of the prominent relevance of my works to the Igbo nation of West Africa is that they preserve their language and culture through Literature, now and for posterity.
There is a forecast that in the near future the Igbo language would become one of the indigenous African languages to go extinct. Do you subscribe to this opinion?
I can say "Yes" and "No". Why do I say a ‘yes’? As a linguist I am conversant with the following terms: Language Shift and Language Death. In a situation where the owners of a language fail to communicate or write using their language, the language either metamorphoses into another language or it dies.
I also say a "No" to the threat because I have done so many projects in the Igbo language and I see some other youths of my generation doing the same in different angles, to keep the language breathing. I know quite a number of persons whom my works have aroused; their interests developed to grab the bull of their language by its horns. When everyone stands to see his language as a blessing and communicate with it daily you will see that the forecast will be proven false.
But if the Igbo people fail to communicate, speak and write with the Igbo Language, I am afraid the language will die and shift to other languages, as is the case with Latin. The fate of the Igbo Language is in the hands of the Igbo people.
Evidently, the Igbo language is not restricted to communication purposes. Its subtleties are laden with the cultural values of the Igbo people. Does it then follow that a threat to the existence of the language is also tantamount to a possible extinction of the culture of the people?
Yes. Language is a culture. Culture is people. No one lives without language. Language and culture are like husband and wife. They cannot produce children if there is no intercourse. In Igbo Culture, for instance, kola nut is a great cultural phenomenon. Without kola nut, no event takes place in Igboland. But one important rule of the kola nut is that it doesn't understand any foreign languages. While using it for cultural gatherings or events in Igboland, one must speak Igbo with it. Hence the saying "ọjị anaghị anụ Bekee" (the kola nut doesn't understand English).
Now, assuming that the Igbo Language dies, the cultural aspects of the Igbo nation regarding the kola nut will die too. What about cultural dances and performances? What about various occasions and festivals like traditional marriages, funerals, masquerades, New Yam Festivals? These events are well represented using the Igbo Language. How can a generation without a native language competency or interest handle these rites that require native-language competency? It is glaring that when such ones cannot use the languages of these rites, the culture and tradition embedded in them will fizzle away and die. No language, no culture.
How exactly does your work forestall such an apparently dismal future?
The most important thing is that my works are written in Igbo Language. This is the first approach to fight the future threats facing the Igbo fate. While writing about the contemporary issues, I do well to incorporate cultural consciousness into my works.
The cultures of the Igbo nation include how they speak. And one significant aspect of the Igbo Cultural and Communicative competence lies in the use of proverbs. Chinụa Achebe defined it as "the palm oil with which the Igbo eat words". Igbo wisdom and philosophy are embedded in words of proverbs. Anyone who says or interprets proverbs is seen as an experienced fellow.
While reading my books, you will be swimming in the ocean of the Igbo proverbs and other figurative expressions. My works are a replica of the Igbo essence. You will see the Igbo nation, culture, language, and prisms through my works. This effort will go a long way to forestall such an apparently dismal future regarding the Igbo Language and Cultural extinction.
Could there be a possibility that the growing decline of the Igbo language is attributable to the diluting effects of urbanization, mostly if one is to consider that the Igbo people make a high percentage of the African Diaspora?
I actually don't believe that. Igbo people in diaspora still maintain their native names. Chimamanda Ngọzi Adichie for instance left Nigeria to the United States of America at the early age of 19. She didn't allow Western influence and the so-called civilization to rob her of her cultural and linguistic identity. She still maintains her name, speak and write in Igbo too. Hardly will you see any Igbo man or woman in the diaspora without an Igbo name. They are aware that language is an identity.
Coming to Igboland presently, many people see their native names as devilish and primitive. They threw them away and adopt indescribable names like Linda, Mhiz Anabel Mhiz, Potipher, John, Francis, Chrysanthus, Horsefall, etcetera, so as to sound Westernized. Such folks never leave Igboland to anywhere. They fail to understand that language is preserved through names. When you bear an Igbo name, it makes you conscious of your language and identity.
I will disagree with the point that the reason for the growing decline of the Igbo Language is caused by those in the diaspora. Millions of Igbo at home cannot even speak or write Igbo. When you meet such ones, they will proudly tell you: "I am Ibo but I cannot hear, write or speak Ibo. Please speak in English". Astonishingly, these folks were born and raised in Igboland.
Urbanization and Diaspora have nothing to do with the decline of Igbo Language, but the attitude of an Igbo man towards his language does. Meet your Igbo brother at home or abroad, he will cringe away from you the moment you open your mouth to speak Igbo.
The major problem facing the Igbo Language is the Igbo parents. They punish their children for speaking Igbo as they believe that fluency in English alone is a mark of outstanding intelligence.
Children grow into adults with this mindset, and then go on to inculcate it into their own children. The environment has nothing to do with the decline of the Igbo Language but our mindset and attitude toward do. Hence, this a factor restricted to the individual.
What successes do you count in the course of your work?
What I count as success is not the amount of money I make from the copies of my books sold. Money was never the reason I ventured onto this path, and it is still never the reason. If it were, I have multiple talents and incentives to pursue other goals.
Yes, a very few read Igbo literature compared to the English ones. Generally, there is a pitiful reading culture amongst the population of Nigerian students. Adults see reading as the duty of the young ones in school. Hence, we do not make much sales from our books.
The major success I have experienced and still, experience is the resurrection of the deadened interest of this generation in reading Igbo. Many young ones now confess to me how ashamed they are not to know their language. They come to me, confessing how my publications made them to rethink.
The Linguistic-consciousness swimming in the minds of many Igbo youths and some adults who my books give nostalgic feelings of the good old days is what I view as success. Seeing my Igbo books approved for the secondary schools in Igbo land, seeing people reading them to pass their exams gives me joy. Seeing my books used for the Igbo course teaching in the University and Colleges of Education, seeing the undergraduate and postgraduate students reading my books for their exams and courses is indeed a success to me. Everything is not about money. The societal and scholastic impact matters.
I perceive it to be quite a challenging task you have undertaken. How would you have done it better under ideal circumstances?
It is quite a challenging task. Nothing is as discouraging as spending huge sums of money on publishing books and waking up every day to seeing them unsold. Students gladly and proudly announce that they cannot read Igbo. They care not about having the interest to learn because their parents already taught them that their native language will get them nowhere.
I am an idealist and optimist. Technology has come to stay and would serve as a great medium to channel my works so that they will get to a wider audience irrespective of one's location. It will reduce the cost of printing unsold books since soft copies will be made available online.
I have been using technological inventions to promote the Igbo Language. I started through a series of articles I have published on social media platforms. Through that means, many Igbo people at home and in the diaspora have shown their interest in learning Igbo. Because of this, I have founded the Igbo Master's Institute, an online school where I will be teaching Igbo Language, Translation, Literature, History, and Culture.
This will go a long way towards bringing together Igbo descendants wherever they find themselves in the world, to teach them. It is not an easy task, and it is no longer a dream, but a reality. My books will soon be published online for easy accessibility.
Do you consider the possibility that your work could find relevance amongst the Caribbean populations, owing to an existing consciousness that’s leading to a good number of her people making efforts at establishing their African roots? A good number bear Igbo names already.
Yes. Just as we read English Literature, culture, and its language here, the Caribbean population of the African extraction will find it so time to learn Igbo Culture through my works and its original language. Not just those of an African extraction but the components of the Caribbean nation and other nations of the world.
In 1933, the first Igbo novel, ‘Omenuko’ was written by Pita Nwanna, and released to wide acclaim. A lot of others like ‘Ala Bingo’, ‘Isi Akwu Dara Na-ala’, ‘Akuu Fechaa’, were released in the years following, serving to educate the people of the generation. Presently, we have none for our time, not even do we get to see the works of the likes of Pita Nwanna in circulation today. What can be attributable to this condition?
Writing in Igbo is a sacrifice. A very few can make such sacrifice in today's world. During the time of Pita Nwanna and other Igbo writers, money, prizes and fame were not their primary reasons for writing. They wrote to preserve our language, stories and culture. But today, many writers who write Igbo well have abandoned it saying that it yields no money and prizes when compared to Literature-in-English. Any Igbo writer who writes because of money will be disappointed.
Another issue is a lack of readership. It is quite discouraging that after publishing a book in Igbo, no one buys or reads. Additionally, not many publishing houses accept Igbo manuscripts. They opt for those written in English, with a hope for better profits. Attitudes of publishers affect writers.
The publisher of Omenụkọ and other Igbo books of its contemporary till the 1990s are no longer reprinting the books and that affects their circulations. Because of this, I am trying so hard to ensure that I publish and circulate the works using modern technological platforms. This will enable everyone across the globe access the Igbo books.
Do you think we can come back again to using literature as a means of preserving and handing down our cultural values?
It is 100% attainable. I believe so. That is exactly the battle I have been fighting. We lost a lot of histories about ourselves because they were not properly documented. These days, most of our past histories are borne out of speculations and assumptions. Literature is the only way to preserve our culture and identity. If every Igbo person should make it his goal to read at least one Igbo novel monthly, he will be fluent in reading. Again, he will be culturally conscious. There is no reason our language will die.
You also work as a translator. What works would you like to see translated into the Igbo language?
Yes I am a translator. Having worked with the BBC and other international organizations, I realized that there are things we need to domesticate into our language to make it grow. We are in the technological era.
The technological terms and instruments need to be translated into the Igbo Language. Medical and Health topics need Igbo renditions. Scientific discoveries, textbooks in Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Geography, and other subjects should be translated into the Igbo Language. Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, French, etc learn these not with the English language but in their languages. Because of this, they are technologically advanced and productive more than others.
How did you get to this point, and what led to your embarking on this journey of preserving the fragments of what’s left of a nation’s heritage?
Nothing good comes easily without hurdles and setbacks. In the formative stages of my career, I passed through hell, disappointments, and abandonment, but I believed in hard work, persistence, and determination.
Initially, I wanted to study Law as everyone thought I would. Getting to some levels in my life, I changed my initial plan and decided to study Mass Communication so that I would work as a journalist. But my final year in Secondary School gave me this decision. I hid it from everyone because I knew I would be discouraged as people don't want to hear Linguistics or Igbo.
My parents and those around me didn't know the course I applied for in the University until I was granted a provisional admission to study Linguistics and Igbo in the University of Nigeria, Nsụka. Those hoping that I would study Law felt disappointed and withdrew their supports. My friends left me. I was like an orphan in the school hostel where other students of the Igbo extraction made a mockery of me and my course.
They would laugh at me and say that I came to the university to waste money and only end up studying Igbo. I didn't give up. I kept on working hard. Before they knew it, I already published my first Igbo novel. From there, my Department and other Higher Institutions began to use my books to set exams for their students. I received my first award. I self-published the second book by then.
Those publishers who looked down on me kept looking for me again. As an undergraduate, my books were recommended for the masters and PhD students of the Igbo Literature in my Department. How Providence made it, some of my lecturers were reading the books for their postgraduate exams.
It has never been easy. Battles upon battles. Up and down. My interest from childhood had been to write and promote the Igbo Language and literature. I admired two Igbo authors; Prof. I.U. Nwadike and Tony Uchenna Ubesie. I learnt skills from their works.
Before we wrap up, what word do you have for our listeners, especially the Igbo people as are scattered all over the known world?
They should know they are not Igbo people if they allow their language to die. Any nation without its language is dead. It is never too late to disprove the forecast of Igbo extinction by UNESCO and other International Linguistic Researchers. Igbo parents all over the world should be communicating with their children and stop punishing them for speaking Igbo. Bilingualism is a precious phenomenon that places everyone in the world of self-worth.
Identity is language and language is an identity.
When an Igbo child is a monolingual and his only commanding language is English, one day, the native speaker of English will tell him that he does not belong to them. Will such child ever forgive his parents for denying him his linguistic right? When a child is linguistically balanced– he speaks, reads, and writes Igbo and English as well – such a child will go places and will not be easily intimidated. No race will tell him that he has no identity.
Igbo people should know that money is not everything. No matter how rich you are and you don't take your language seriously but rather prevent your children from speaking it, you are lost. Such a one is not an Igbo. Igbo people should be proud of their language. They should not feel shy speaking it wherever they find themselves. They should imitate the Yoruba and Hausa peoples on this regard. When the Igbo value and hold their language so dear, the world will come and learn it.
It’s been an informative one with you. Thank you for granting us the pleasure of the moment.
You are highly welcome. Once again, it is my pleasure. Daalụ.