CONFERENCE AND MEETING
October 31 - November 2, 2003
WOMEN AND LEADERSHIP IN URHOBOLAND:
THE LANGUAGE DIMENSION
Department of Languages and Linguistics
like to thank the Editorial and Management Committee of the Urhobo
Society for inviting me to this august occasion. I am particularly
Prof. Peter Ekeh for the efforts he made to ensure that I came. I also
thank immensely our amiable Executive Governor of
As a Linguist, I intend in this paper to look at women and leadership in Urhoboland not from a socio-political or economic perspective but I will instead focus on how we can exploit the potentialities of language to forge leadership in Urhoboland and how women can play a leading role in this regard. I am capitalizing on the fact that leadership is multi-dimensional and so, as we try to move forward in other spheres of life, we should not lose sight of the importance of our language.
Who is a woman? She can be described as an adult female human being distinguished from a girl, man or boy. She may be married or unmarried, may or may not have children of her own and, in the Nigerian context, the 21st birthday marks the beginning of adulthood.
The woman is endowed with qualities which make her physically, biologically and psychologically different from the man. She is soft and gentle, radiates peace and love, is tolerant, straight forward and objective in her judgements, and shows a great amount of courage even in the face of obvious difficulties. She is a helper to the man and complements his efforts as he tries to forge ahead in life. She is the mother of society who sees to the proper upbringing of her children and thus assures discipline and orderliness of society.
In virtually every culture, the woman is regarded as special. In the Christian culture, the woman was CREATED by God using one of man’s ribs after the man was FORMED from dust and God Himself brought her to Adam to emphasize her tenderness. This may be why the man looks rugged and strong while the woman looks gentle and soft. In the Muslim religion, she is so delicate that she is not allowed to stress herself with any form of exerting duties including shopping. In Traditional Africa culture, the woman is spared difficult jobs such as felling of trees or climbing trees, e.g. to cut palm fruit from palm trees, etc. Such jobs are reserved for the man while the woman busies herself with the less strenuous concerns of daily life and living.
However, although the woman is supposed to complement the man and together they represent the totality of God’s creation, traditional societies the world over are dominated by men. The men are the decision makers and the definers of roles in society, and of course, they define the roles in their favour. The birth of a son is often heralded with pomp and pageantry and from the first day of his life he is treated as special. On the contrary, many homes have either been broken or become polygamous because the woman is accused of bringing forth only girls.
In traditional Urhobo society, one cannot even place the position of the girl-child and woman. As a girl child, she does not enjoy equal opportunities as her brothers in terms of education, self assertion and psychological development. In the face of scarce resources, the parents would prefer that the boy goes to school instead of the girl, even if she is the more intelligent one. Even if her father can afford to send her to school, one may hear comments like “too much book will drive the men away from her”. As a married woman, she is considered to be “another man’s child” by members of her husband’s family and the larger society. The father of Urhobo music, Chief Omokomoko Osokpa, once sang “Aye komo rohwofa me mrere vughe” meaning “I have realized that a woman is someone else’s child.” She is not party to major decision, some of which may affect her as an individual; she is not entitled to any form of inheritance from her husband’s asserts at his demise even if she contributed to their acquisition, and even while he is alive, his brothers and sisters have more right over his property than his wife. Her major responsibility is to manage the home and bring up her children as best she can and, when they are successful, the man gets the credit but if they are not, he is absorbed of any contribution towards their failure and the discredit goes to the woman. Moreover, the level of success and status of the man determines the woman’s level of acceptance: if he is successful, she becomes a good woman although he takes the credit for hardwork; if, however,, he is not successful, the woman is accused of knowing the source of his problem including being accused of witchcraft. Up till recently, a woman who tried to assert herself in traditional Urhobo society, be it in business, politics, education, or any other field of human endevour was considered by the man as being confrontational, too vocal, a woman to be avoided by any sane woman, etc. Thus, traditional Urhobo society presented a culture that could be considered by any modern woman as repressive, one which did not allow the woman to grow and attain her God given potentials to any reasonable degree.
Gladly, times have
changed and are still changing worldwide and our Urhobo society is not
left behind. The Federal Government of Nigeria is a signatory to
Conventions which deal with the emancipation of the girl-child and the
woman. The heightened awareness on the gender equity issue has
resulted from the advocacy and the work of a growing number of NGOs
by professional women and human rights groups. Many of these NGOs
branches in Urhoboland which help sponsor projects and programmes aimed
improving the educational standards and the quality of life of the
and the woman in the society. The Delta Manna Foundation, a pet
of the State Governor’s wife, Chief (Mrs.) Nkoyo Ibori has touched the
very many women and girls. Many individuals and associations have set
cooperative societies and small scale businesses to help women grow
economically, socially and psychologically. Although a lot still needs
done, Urhobo women today have excelled and are still excelling in
politics, government, medicine, law, academics, etc. In politics, of
female state commissioners recently appointed into the Delta State
Council, two are Urhobo. Urhobo women hold the following positions in
Government among others: the Head of Delta State Civil Service, the
Accountant-General of the State and the Chief Justice of the State, the
Judge of the Delta State Customary Court of Appeal. In the organized
sector, Chief (Mrs.) Cecilia Ibru is the Managing Director of Oceanic
the first bank to introduce on-line banking in Nigeria, she was also
with an honorary Doctorate Degree of Science only last week by the
University. In academics, Urhobo has female professors who walk
shoulder with their male counterparts anywhere in the world. We can go
on. As a result of these successes, many parents and husbands now
encourage their daughters and wives to forge ahead in life and delve
fields that hitherto were reserved for men. Johnson Adjan one of our
musicians in one of his songs captured the situation aptly thus:
Oke rawanre ru me yere wan e – e
Eshare da wan nu eya me kekako e – e
Oroke nana ru me yeri vwa e – e
Eya doda me ayen ji. Dineme e – e
Oshare rerhi me mi kese ruona re e
This tells us that in the days of old, the men bought the cutlass and cleared the bush while the women planted the crops and worked for their men, but that in modern times, the women are buying both the cutlass and the file to sharpen it, an indication that they can now both clear the bush and plant the crops. i.e., work for themselves and so decide their fate because they are no longer ready to continue with past practices. They are no longer the docile sex symbols of the past but are now part of the decision making process. How and why they got to this stage is not relevant; what is relevant is that parents now have cause to be proud of their daughters as they are of their sons.
Having considered who the woman is, I wish now to turn my attention to the issue of leadership and how women can contribute to purposeful leadership in Urhoboland. Several scholars have examined the problem of central leadership and identified factors such as ancestral history and our republican personality as some of the causes of lack of central leadership in Urhoboland and they have suggested ways by which the problems can be alleviated. Otite (1993) gives eight qualities of an Urhobo leader among which are that he must be a full blooded Urhobo with both parents being Urhobo, must be non-sectional in terms of sub-ethnic or territorial interest, a shrewd manager of diverse personalities as human resources, an initiator of development projects and must be a democrat who is tolerant of a variety of opposing opinion. It is clear that he assumes that an Urhobo leader must be a man. However, he suggests that
in the light of our
democratic and republican character and home grown personalities, as
the reality of various mutually reinforcing key areas of life and
This is where the women come in to contribute their quota not only to be part of this pool but to also produce men and women who will make up this pool.
Leadership is multidimensional and it is an environmental phenomenon which cannot be achieved in isolation of the people and society for which it is meant. For there to be any effective leadership, communication is paramount and both the leaders and the lead must be able to speak the same language and articulate their thought processes and the key to any effective communication is a common language.
Let us now examine some of the functions of language in human society. Language is an invaluable instrument for human communication, the chief means by which humans express their thoughts and ideas to others and through which they share in the mental process of their fellowmen. It is the custodian of a people’s culture and tradition, i.e., an inalienable part, through which they are able to identify themselves and transmit their culture from one generation to another. Language is both a component of culture and the central network through which the other components are expressed.
Language is an environmental experience, i.e., the language of given society is an embodiment of the experiences of the people of that society and since no two societies share exactly the same experience, they are bound to have different words to express different experiences. This explains why the Eskimos have words for different kinds of snow which the English do not have; the English have words for different types of motor vehicles which the Urhobo do not have, and the Urhobo have words for different categories of wives, avwebo, ayeruku, avwirovwe, (corresponding to favourite wife, inherited wife, unfavoured wife, respectively) which the English do not have. Consider the Yoruba who have a variety of greetings corresponding to virtually every kind of activity a person may be engaged in whereas the English culture stresses that each person minds his/her business. Although every culture, tradition and religion recognizes the need for respect for elders, the African culture demands it. In the Urhobo culture, for instance, when a child gives a glass of water to an older person, he is expected to kneel and say ‘miguo’ whereas in the English culture, it is the older person that says ‘thank you’ to the younger person. A person’s culture, imparted to him through his language gives him the distinctive characteristic that makes him an Urhobo, English or French.
However, a child’s knowledge of his language as well as the culture that goes with it is directly related to the degree of his integration into that culture. Since language is the chief medium of cultural transmission, if a child grows up with little or no knowledge of his supposed mother tongue, he may be able to communicate quite fluently for everyday purposes in a lingua franca, but he will be at a loss for knowledge of the deep culture of his people. In Urhoboland, useful as Pidgin is, it does not carry a culture into which an Urhobo child can enter deeper with the passing years. The Urhobo language does and anyone who has studied Urhobo culture in some depth will agree that we have a culture that is rich, subtle and interesting. To express elements of a people’s culture through the medium of another language always produces disastrous results. The close relationship between language and culture is aptly captured in this statement by Sapir (1923) cited by Polome (1987:462):
is also the
chief medium of education and linguists agree that a child learns
best when taught in his mother tongue. The Ife Primary Education
Project (1970 – 1978) showed clearly that when a child is taught in his
tongue (assuming that the mother tongue is also the language of the
proceeds from the known – a familiar language – to the unknown –
writing and all the other skills that he learns at school, but if he is
with both an unfamiliar language and the new skills, his progress is
slower and restricted to rote learning rather than to reason and real
absorption of knowledge and its application to practical and
problems. As evidenced in the International African Institute (IAI)
of policy as cited by Essien (1993:4) thus:
A child’s native language is called his mother tongue’ not for want of adequate vocabulary but to bring to the fore the role of the mother in helping the child express ideas about himself and the world around him and in carving out an identify for himself in his native language. Science tells us that from about sixteen weeks of gestation, the foetus hears and reacts to voices and which voice is the likely to hear more than that of his mother?. After birth, and particularly during the formative years, the child interacts most with his mother. Therefore, the mother tongue is supposed to be the child’s first language, the language that shapes his entire personality, his ways of thinking, acting, understanding, reasoning, expressing himself, and later, when he is expected to contribute to the development of his community or nation, he does so only to the extent that his language directs him. Thus, a child develops his language and his personality right from the cradle.
be enhanced through language? Language can be used to create
well as break them, to lead and mislead people and it is the chief
for uniting people. The story of the
Let us now examine some of the effects of English and Pidgin on modern day Urhobo language and culture.
rather than Urhobo interfering with English and Pidgin in the speech
of most Urhobo youths, the reverse is the case. A number of
are being dropped and replaced by those of English and Pidgin.
instance, Urhobo has the following sounds which do not exist in Pidgin
a) The voiceless palatal plosive spelt as ‘ch’ as in Ochuko ‘personal name’
b) The voiced palatal plosive spelt as ‘dj’ as in Odje ‘personal name’
c) The voiced velar fricative spelt as ‘gh as in Aghogho ‘personal name’
d) The voiced labio-dental approximant spelt as ‘vw’ as in Rukevwe ‘personal name’
In the speech patterns of may youths, since they cannot produce the sounds mentioned above because they do not exist in Pidgin or English, i.e., the languages they are more familiar with, they tend to substitute them with other sounds and so one commonly hears:
*Oshuko instead of ‘Ochuko’
*Oje instead of ‘Odje’
*Agogo instead of ‘Aghogho’
*Rukewe instead of ‘Rukevwe’. (Note that ‘Rukewe means ‘blessed you’ while ‘Rukevwe’ means ‘blessed me’. The other renditions are meaningless)
In fact, Prof. Kay Williamson (personal communication) reports a similar experience with some of her Ijo students. The Abua dialect of Ijo has ten vowels and operates a vowel harmony system but many of her Abua students can only produce the seven vowels found in Pidgin thereby gradually reducing a ten-vowel system to a seven-vowel one.
Moreover, Urhobo, like most Nigerian languages, but unlike Pidgin and English, is a tone language. Tone plays both lexical and grammatical functions. It is similar in function to the consonant and vowel sounds such that a change in tone can result in a change in the meaning of words, for example:
a) ùkpè ‘year’ ˜ úkpè ‘bed/bedroom’
b) ènì ‘elephant’ ˜ èní ‘headpad’
c) Ògó ‘bottle’ ˜ Ógō ‘in-law relationship’
a) ò dámè ‘he drank water’ (past)
b) ŏ dàmè ‘he drinking water’ (present)
‘he must/should drink water’ (future)
Tone is used to mark aspect and the intonation of an utterance is superimposed on its tones, e.g.,
a) ò dámè ‘he drank water’ (statement)
b) ò dámè ‘did he drink water?’ (question)
c) ò dámèé ‘he didn’t drink water’ (negative)
d) ò dámèè ‘didn’t he drink water?’ (negative question)
Besides, tone can be used to differentiate whole sentences. With due respect to our dear Governor, his middle name can mean any of the following:
a) ònànèfè ‘This is wealth’
b) ònànéfè ‘This is more than wealth’
b) ònànèfè ‘Is this wealth?’
d) ònànèfè ‘Is this more than wealth?’<>
distinctions would however be available only to the users of the
failure to recognize them could create ambiguity which could lead to
In addition to linguistic elements, a lot of our literature is being lost Urhobo is well endowed with all sorts literary resources such as poems, plays, proverbs folktales, etc that are being left to rot away because of lack of use. There are praise songs and dance drama which extol excellence and hardwork and songs which chastise laziness and bad behaviour. There are satires, comedies, tragedies, which not only teach about our history but also help to check behaviour in civil society. Nowadays, a public occasion is not complete without the Urhobo orator who comes to perform and display his prowess in the language to the admiration and entertainment of the audience.
We submit here that it is the parents that must help the children acquire their language and this should begin early in life. Every one of us here who can speak Urhobo acquired it from his/her parents as the language of the home. It is interesting to note that many well educated Urhobo middle aged men or women today who are making their mark in every field of human endeavour can speak Urhobo well even though many of them grew up outside Urhoboland, in Ukane country, where the people of the land were non-Urhobo. These people acquired Urhobo from their parents and siblings because it was the language of the home and the settlements in which they lived. However, the acquisition of Urhobo early in life did not in any way affect their education in English and, as mentioned earlier, the Ife Primary Education Project (1970 - 1978) has demonstrated that a child is better for it if he is well acquainted with his mother tongue before proceeding to school. How many of us tell stories that we heard from our parents to our children? Such folktales, apart from entertaining, teach morals necessary for the proper upbringing of the child and above all help to develop communication skillsin the language. Such stories are more relevant to children growing up in Urhoboland than the adventures of Tom and Jerry. I have personally observed (and this has been confirmed by Prof. G.G. Darah (personal communication)) that in the courses dealing with Urhobo language and culture which are mounted in the Department of Languages and Linguistics, Delta State University, Abraka, the Igbo speaking students are doing relatively better than the Urhobo students and this may not be unconnected with the fact that most of the Ibo students can speak Igbo fluently and so when faced with another Kwa language like Urhobo, there are a lot of similarities which can be transferred from one to the other. This is not so with English or Pidgin where the differences are much wider. It is naive to think that because a child has to learn in English at school, it is necessarily better to expose him to English right from birth. Many of us forget that no matter the amount of English we can speak, we are not native speakers and so not the real models our children need. It is like the case of the blind leading the blind.
On the social side, as has been commonly reported in the literature, many Africans have a poor image of their languages and cultures and regard European languages and cultures as being more useful and prestigious (see, for example, Bamgbose 2000 and Tadadjeu 2002) and the Urhobo, particularly the youths, are no exceptions. Studies have shown that in many of our towns and cities, e.g., Warri and Sapele, most youths cannot speak Urhobo beyond the basic greetings and they do not display any appreciable keenness in identifying with elements of their culture. True, a mastery of English will give us access to the world but this does not require us that we dump our language in the process. The trend in modern times is for youths to take over leadership but that leadership cannot be effective of the leaders and the lead speak different languages and have different thought processes. A people’s language is an embodiment of their culture and all that makes them unique. The obvious poor attitude of our youths towards our language manifest in their disregard for aspects of our culture. Take culture out of a group of people and you take away their identify.
The Way Forward
Ekeh (2001) has pointed out to us that before the British arrived in our land, our people engaged in politics by deciding on how to govern themselves and they also engaged in the administration of the policies and decisions arrived at by the political community. This means that it was not the British that taught us about politics and administration; these were already in place before they came. There were defined roles for adults as well as for youths, for men as well as for women. There was direct participation of everyone in village and clan assemblies where vital policy and administrative decisions were taken and those who absented themselves from such gatherings without serious reasons were usually sanctioned and lost social esteem. The youths thus had ample opportunity to learn the tenets of the society from the elders and of course such assemblies were conducted in the Urhobo language. I am not a historian but from the stories told to me by my parents and grandparents, I believe that that was when Urhoboland enjoyed the greatest amount of unity of purpose in community life.
Leadership, as earlier mentioned, is an environmental phenomenon which cannot be achieved without language and language develops as part of the maturational process of the child. The child belongs first to a home before he is seen as a member of society. Scripture tells us in the Book of Proverbs to train up the child in the way that he should go and when he grows old, he will not depart from it. Women are the mothers of society, the agents of discipline and good upbringing and so they have a role to play in ensuring that Urhobo produces good leaders who are brought up right from the cradle to know that the progress and development of the Urhobo nation rests on their shoulders. Nowadays, in an attempt to clear the bush and plant the crops, they have less time for the home and so the amount of interaction between mother and children is greatly reduced when compared to the times of old. The stories that our mothers used to tell us, the songs and dances they used to teach us, etc, are now alien practices. We must try to revive them so that the children and youths will be able to appreciate early enough the tenets of the society for which they would be future leaders.
The future of Urhobo is in our hands, especially those of us who are literate and formally educated in the western oriented civilization. This millenium is full of challenges, prospects and problems for small languages like Urhobo. It has been predicted that more than 60% of languages worldwide would die before the end of this millenium. Are we ready to count Urhobo among those languages that would die? The answer, I guess, is No. Therefore, we must all join hands to uplift the status of Urhobo and this means taking some important steps such as the following:
1. Women must help the young ones to learn to respect, tolerate and take pride in identifying with the Urhobo language, literature and culture. There is nothing linguistically or culturally wrong with Urhobo; the problem is with the uninformed attitude of our people towards their language and culture. If we persist in this unhealthy attitude, we will continue to suffer from what Prof. Essien has termed ‘linguistic under-nourishment’, a condition in which our people know neither the English language nor their own native language well. This does not in any way mean that we should not take the acquisition of world languages, literatures and cultures seriously as we go about our daily lives and living as members of the global village known as the modern world in which bilingualism and multlingualism remain a great asset. As times change, irrelevant practices in our culture would fade away while others would be modified to reflect the needs of society. Let us not forget that English, once regarded as a vulgar and uncultured tongue during the Norman conquest is today one of the most prestigious world languages.
3. Women organisations can help by organizing holiday camps where Urhobo language and culture can be taught to the children, youths and adults who want to learn. This will not only keep our children out of trouble, bad company and irrelevant satellite programmes but will enable them become more acquainted with their own language and culture. Such holiday programmes should teach all the communication skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing and, in addition, be accompanied by interesting cultural displays and drama to catch the attention of the learners. They can also be taught aspects of Urhobo technology and medicare. Participation in such programmes will go a long way in making our children become more functional literates.
4. Although it is being encouraged here that women should take the lead in developing our leaders through the use of language, it is also true that much success cannot be achieved without the support of our men. In a survey I conducted in Warri and its environs recently, I found out that in homes where Urhobo is the medium of communication between parents and their children, it is because the fathers encourage it. Where the mother uses Urhobo and the father English (although both parents are Urhobo), the children are able to understand utterances in Urhobo but prefer to respond in English. Yes, the native language of the child is called his mother tongue because the mother spends more time with the child than the father but the father still sets the pace for the child to follow. If he shows a keen interest in his language and culture, the children will follow suit. There is no point trying to wish away the Urhobo culture: it is far better to accept it and look for the creative possibilities it has which can be developed to help move the Urhobo nation forward. The fate of the Urhobo language and the culture that it carries lies in the hands of every Urhobo man and woman. If we wish it to grow and develop, we must take steps not only to use it ourselves but to ensure that our children are adequately exposed to it and retain it as the language of the home to pass it on to the next generation. If parents neglect to use of the language with their children, the children will have little or no knowledge of their own language and culture and in a few generations, the language and the culture it carries will die out. We believe that when children are well equipped with the hopes and aspiration of their people, embodied in their language and culture, they are better prepared to perform the leadership roles expected of them. There is so much literature, so much science, so much technology, all that can make the Urhobo nation the envy of all waiting to be tapped and exploited for the general good of all and the key that can open the door is the language. Before we cry out that Government has done or has not done this or that, let us try to put our house in order first. United we stand, divided we fall and the key to our unity is in the language.
me to end this
talk by forwarding to our women a letter from God to women. It
forwarded to me by my sister, Mrs. Ese Green, who is based on the
When I created the heavens and the earth, I spoke them into being.
When I created man, I formed him and breathed life into this nostrils.
But you, woman, I fashioned after I breathed the breath of life into man because your nostrils are too delicate.
I allowed a deep sleep to come over him so I could patiently and perfectly fashion you.
Man was put to sleep so that he could not interfere with the creativity.
From one bone, I fashioned you.
I chose the bone that protects man’s life.
I chose the rib, which protects his heart and lungs
and supports him, as you are meant to do.
Around this one bone, I shaped you….I modeled you.
I created you perfectly and beautifully,
Your characteristics are as the rib, strong yet delicate and fragile
You provide protection for the most delicate organ in man, his heart.
His heart is the center of his being, his lungs hold the breath of life.
The rib cage will allow itself to be broken before it will allow damage to the heart.
Support man as the rib cage supports the body.
You were not taken from his feet, to be under him, nor were you taken
from his head, to be above him.
You were taken from his side, to stand beside him and be held close to his side.
You are my perfect angel……
You are my beautiful little girl.
You have grown to be a splendid woman of excellence, and my eyes fill when I see the virtues in your heart.
Your eyes…… don’t change them.
Your lips – how lovely when they part in prayer.
Your nose, so perfect in form.
Your hands so gentle to touch.
I’ve caressed your face in your deepest sleep.
I’ve held your heart close to mine.
Of all that lives and breathes, you are most like me.
Adam walked with me in the cool of the day, yet he was lonely.
He could not see me or touch me.
He could only feel me.
So everything I wanted Adam to share and experience with me, I fashioned in you; my protection and support.
You are special because you are an extension of me.
Man represents my image, woman my emotions.
Together, you represent the totality of God.
So man….treat woman well.
Love her, respect her, for she is fragile.
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