Urhobo Historical Society

Monday, October 31, 2005       

Sixth Annual Conference of Urhobo Historical Society

For Dying Language and Culture, Urhobo Find Way Out

By Uduma Kalu

IT was a day Urhobo intellectuals and eminent citizens will not forget easily. In fact, it marked a new beginning in the ethnic group's relationship with its language and culture, neighbours and politics, economy and family, women and education. So, when they rose from the Sixth Annual Conference and General Meeting of Urhobo Historical Society's (UHS) three day-conference which held in Effurun and Sapele, Delta State, the elite of the stock came out with measures, especially, on how to tackle the erosion of their language and culture.

To this end, the conference was worried by the way Urhobo neighbours saw them and wanted a better image. The conference which began last Friday, October 20, in Effurun, ended Sunday 23, 2005, at the Sapele Athletic Club's open field with Urhobo women engaging their husbands, fathers, uncles, and men on issues concerning education of the girl and the boy child, circumcision, sharing of widows to deceased husband's relations, as well as sharing of his property, Urhobo politics and education.

It was also a view into aspects of Urhobo performance culture. Both venues had opening ceremonies featuring cultural performances. At the Petroleum Training Institute Conference Hall, Effurun, it was a medley of cultural dances by Urhobo women, with Justice M. E. Akpiroro, (rtd) as chairman. At Sapele, there were songs by both the Catholic Church and Anglican Church Choirs, and a dramatic recapturing of traditional marriage system in Urhoboland by young women.

However, as the conference started at Effurun, with Olorogun Moses Taiga chairing the awards ceremony in which trophies were given to deserving Urhobo sons and daughters, who have contributed to the development of the area. The awardees included Chief Salibu, Prof. Joseph U. Akpokodje and proprietoress of Auntie Rose Schools in Warri and Abraka. Taiga also chaired the launch of the colourful UHS 2006 calendar, while Mr. Simoen Ohwofa, a Lagos based business was the calendar's chief launcher. But Olorogun Oskar Ibru represented his uncle and publisher of The Guardian, Mr. Alex Ibru, as chair of the book launch, while Dr. Hope Eghagha of the University of Lagos reviewed the book, with Mr. Emmanuel Evue as chief launcher. A fiery political speech by Isoko leader, Chief James Otobo, in which he called for a conference of the five ethnic nationalities in the state, just as he decried what he called marginalisation of his Isoko people by the Chief James Ibori administration, climaxed the opening day.

The next day, Saturday, at Effurun, was devoted to Issues in Urhobo Language and Culture with Prof. Onigu Otite as chairman. Participants at this session included Emmanuel Ojameruaye of the International Foundation for Education and Self help, Scotdale, Arizona, USA, who spoke on Culture and Economic Development in Urhoboland, while Macauley Mowarin of the Department of English and Literary Studies, Delta State University, Abraka, talked on Probable 'Linguicide' of Uvwie and Strategies for Maintenance of Urhobo. Dr Rose Aziza dwelt on ICT Globalisation and the Future of Urhobo, under the chair of Chief Johnson E. Ukueku.

Saturday also marked Reverend Prof. Obaro Ikime's keynote speech, on the topic, Isoko-Urhobo Relations, in which the erudite professor warned against much reliance on colonial histories of the state and Nigeria as a whole, saying that most of them were not dependable, as confessed by the European historians themselves. Based on this revelation, Leader of the Ijaw people, Chief Edwin Clark, who attended the conference as an Urhobo chief and citizen, asked the professor to write another book on his new researches on the area so as to stop the carnage and conflict there. Ikime agreed but went on to say that he would like to train historians from the area to take over from him.

After the break, the conference broke into roundtables. The first one was The Making of an Urhobo Agenda, chaired by Prof. Sam Oyovbaire, a former information minister, while participants included Prof. Bright Ekwerhare, Deputy Vice Chancellor of DELSU, Dr. Emmanuel Urhobo, a lawyer, Prof. Fred Opute of the University of Benin, Mr. Patrick Okuneh, a lawyer, Mr. Francis Daniel Okumagba, a general manager in Oceanic Bank and Engr. Erhuero, a retired Delta state government secretary.

Another roundtable discussed Urhobo and Its Neighbours. Chaired by Prof. David Okpako of the University of Ibadan, participants there were Sunny Awefeada of the Department of English, DELSU, who spoke on Reflections and Realignment for an Urhobo Agenda, alongside Prof. Omafume Onoge of the University of Jos, Prof. John O. Enaohwo, VC of DELSU, Mrs. Margaret Unukegwo, a former Delta state commissioner and Chief Johnson M. Barovbe, director of Westminster College, Lagos.

The Sapele gathering was a Women's Forum, and it featured two women roundtables. The first roundtable had Women and the Urhobo Agenda under the chair of Mrs. Juliet Uloho, a lawyer and Mrs. Ufuoma Veronica Awhefeada, a lawyer and lecturer at DELSU, Oleh Campus. She spoke on The Role of Women in a Prospective Urhobo Agenda, with Unukegwo, Mrs. Patricia Uloho-Ogboru, from Abuja, Dr. Stella Ovie of the National Institute for Freshwater Fisheries Research, New Bussa, Niger State and Prof. C. Okobia, DELSU as participants.

They also spoke on Family, Marriage and the Urhobo Future, with Mrs. V. O. Akpobome, an educationist and managing director of Votia Fishery Farm, Kokori chairing. Her participants were Mrs. Emuobohwo Ibru, Dr. Regina Otite, Mrs. Ruth Aweto, provost, Federal College of Co-operatives, Ibadan, Dr. Philo Ofuafo, University of Lagos, and Dr. N.A. Ovadje, a consultant, Ophthalmic Surgery, Military Hospital, Lagos.

At Effurun, Governor James Ibori was represented by his Chief of Staff, Prof. Gordini G. Darah. Darah noted the importance of writing, saying that writing makes words look divine, like the bible. He went on to say that earlier history of the area was written by the Portuguese but the people are now writing theirs, and the works, he observed, are classic.

Darah asked the people to empower themselves with knowledge so as to build bridges among peoples. Looking at the arrays of professors in the conference, Darah said that any nation that has such statures of professors should not lack anything. He remembered the history of Urhobo College, which the people built.

The former Guardian Editorial chair said that the federal government has approved the siting of a federal university campus at Effurum, and that authority had been given to the University of Benin to take over PTI as Campus for studies in petroleum and gas, just as he asked the Urhobo to invest in private universities and that Novena University, Kwale, Delta State, has been approved.

Just after Otobo's speech, Oskar Ibru walked in, in his traditional Urhobo dress. He was there on two capacities-to represent his uncle and Guardian Newspaper publisher, Mr. Alex Ibru, and for himself. Oskar told the gathering that his uncle, Mr. Alex Ibru, was in Europe but had asked him to represent him at the conference. For Oskar, since the plane crash in US in 2001, people are now interested in identifying together. He thanked Ekeh for the conference.

The kernel of the conference was visited when the UHS chairman, Prof. Peter Ekeh, raised fears that Urhobo language was dying. This, he said, should be a thing of concern to all Urhobo, whom he said had names for the 12 months.

Ojameruaye in his paper spoke on issues in Urhobo language, arts and crafts, music, burial ceremonies, political culture, marriage institutions and ceremonies, female circumcision and conceptual framework for empirical analysis. In the end, he told the gathering to modernise aspects of their culture in a global village, just as he called for the establishment of an Endowed Chair, or an Institute of Urhobo Studies at the DELSU. He declared: "I think the Institute/Chair can easily be established with a seed grant of about N20m which can take it through its first three years whilst it establishes mechanism for self sustenance."

He decried the absence of cultural tourism in Urhoboland, saying that "It is a shame, that out of the 816 "world heritage sites/properties" identified by UNESCO only two are in Nigeria viz.: the relatively unknown Sukur Cultural Landscape in the Mandara Mountains in Adamawa State approved in 1999, and the Osun Osogbo Sacred Grove in Osun State, approved in 2005."

Urhobo people, Ojameruamye said, "need to recognise and support intellectuals, artists and other people who have promoted Urhobo culture in their works, such as Tanure Ojaide, Bruce Onobrakeya, Ben Omokri, Perkin Foss, "Okpan" Omokomoko, etc."

Ojameruaye's appeals did not go unheeded as Olorogun Felix Ibru at the venue endowed a chair at DELSU for the study of Urhobo language, to which they sang and danced in appreciation of his effort.

Mowarin on possible extinction of Uvwie language in the nearest future examined strategies that can be adopted for the revitalisation of Urhobo language and culture. He said that Uvwie and Urhobo are at different stages of endangerment and there was need to sift out retrogressive aspects of Urhobo culture. He pointed out that the two subtle cases of linguistic hegemony in Nigeria are the desertification of the 250 indigenous languages in the Middle Belt region in the North by Hausa language and the deforestation of the 100 languages in the Niger Delta region by Nigerian pidgin. Threatened languages, he said, are found within the 397 minority languages. Since speakers of the majority languages dominate the nation's socio-political and economic spheres, the minority language speakers view their languages with disdain because they constitute a barrier to their socio-economic and political upward mobility.

He revealed that it is mostly Nigerian languages developed to facilitate ICT, noting that will survive the future. He talked about the bad attitude of the Uvwie people to their language, industrialisation, migrations, pidgin, the assimilatory effect of Urhobo as some Uvwie families have now shifted from Uvwie to the Agbarho dialect of Urhobo as their mother tongue. This factor, he said, marks the eventual death of the language.

He accused Delta State Government of neglecting Uvwie language. The language is not taught in schools in Uvwie speech community and no attempt is being made to encourage a literary tradition for the language, he said. "The extinction of Okpe will be further delayed than that of Uvwie due to its large rural setting around Elume and Egborode axis. Once this part of Okpe opens up area up to development and language exogamy sets in, the language will be doomed by extinction. The western part of Okpe, which include Aghalokpe, Oviri Okpe, Ekpan and Okurekpo, have already been infiltrated by Urhobo and Nigerian pidgin," he added.

Mowarin extolled the "linguistic Urhobo" of DELSU course study and the decision by the Delta State ministry of education to teach Urhobo in schools in Okpe and Uvwie speech communities.

Aziza said that "Urhobo language is gradually disappearing and may go to the land of dead languages if something is not done fast to arrest its decline and maintain its use and relevance. The surest way of maintaining any language is by using it regularly as the language of the home, school, social function (including religious worship), trade and commerce and mass communication."

Reasons for this death, he went on, are because of families' non speaking of Urhobo in their homes, dilution of Urhobo culture into English mixture because of invited guests, inter-ethnic marriages, western education, migrations to Urhoboland, non promotion of Urhobo by the mass media as factors against Urhobo language. But Aziza was hopeful that "Urhobo can survive the imminent language shift, death and extinction if we take some effective and pragmatic steps and exploit available ICT resources to propagate the language."

To this end, she asked the people to sponsor the production of 'Teach Yourself' materials on audio and video. And that the Urhobo Foundation, Lagos, producers of the Urhobo Language Primer, together with its audio cassette, can make the materials more affordable as most students nowadays lack the culture of intensive study and that the situation is worsened if the materials are not easily affordable.

She wanted the Urhobo to establish at least a radio or a television station whose airtime would be devoted more to relaying programmes in Urhobo than in English, and that jobs be given to those who study Urhobo. Urhobo language graduates, she pointed out, are useful in government programmes such as HIV/AIDS, female circumcision, juvenile pregnancies, participation in politics, census matters, the benefits of a good education, issues which affect the people. For her, there are many talented Urhobo artists, theatre, musical and visual, all working in Urhobo language whose talents can be tapped and publicised and that a radio/TV station will be of immense help to them.

Aziza asked Urhobo linguistics, technocrats, engineers, artists, media experts, to design Urhobo numerous moonlight stories into puppet shows for children. She wanted mobile phones, the computer, the Internet, among others, used to strengthen Urhobo and ensure its survival. "With improved connectivity, we can now reach our friends and loved ones in very remote areas through the cell phone and communicate with the in Urhobo. "Aziza asked that the Urhobo "need to nativise technology to make digital literacy in Urhobo possible. Our engineers have a lot of work to do here," as the Yoruba have a keyboard called Konyin and the electronic dictionary in Yoruba. And that the Nigerian Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA) also has a Nigerian font that can be used for Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba.

Delta state government, she went on, should "recognise the use of Urhobo and Enuani (Igbo) for discussing affairs on the floor of the Delta State House of Assembly at least one day in the week....

"We must develop Urhobo and raise it from the status of a domestic language and make it available for information dissemination using modern information and communication technologies.... All hands must be on deck to make Urhobo relevant to modern trends so as to counter the strong destructive current of globalisation and the present English - dominated ICT," Aziza noted.