In official linguistic circles, the language is called West African Pidgin English. It came into being on the coast of Guinea in the 17th century when British merchants succeeded the Dutch as the prominent seafaring group stationed on the West African Coast.

Today, the language has evolved into a complex linguistic phenomenon and is widely spoken in the major English-speaking West African cities. 

Nigerian journalist, Ruona Agbroko-Meyer, schools us on this versatile and beautiful urban language. She also dishes out on Reason Am!, a brand new project taking the production and consumption of pidgin english media to new heights. 

Pidgin English is dear to my heart for personal reasons. It is my first language! I didn’t begin speaking standard Nigerian English until I was about seven. So it pleases me to no end to share this amazing but underrated African language with you. 

Enjoy!

 

abroko-meyer-ruona-reason-am

Ruona Agbroko-Meyer

Tell us a bit about yourself Ruona.

In one sentence? I am a journalist whose father was a journalist and killed for being a journalist. But a longer version is that I am a Nigerian journalist, writer and producer based in London. I grew up in Lagos and started out writing columns for Thisday newspapers, moved to GTBank working in Corporate Communications and then ended up at NEXT newspapers, all in Nigeria. My work there brought the 2010 Niall Fitzgerald Prize, which meant Reuters sponsored me for a postgrad degree and an internship in South Africa.  I left South Africa to settle in London in 2011 and have since had a brief stint with the Financial Times, notably on its BeyondBrics desk. Currently I mainly ghost-write for corporate clients, blog on the side for SabiNews and run Reason Am!, which is fast turning out to be a full-time gig.

The whole shebang is on www.agbroko-meyer.com

You recently launched a new project called Reason Am! What exactly is Reason Am! 

In Pidgin English, when you say “reason am,” you are trying to argue a point, and so you ask others to reason with you, along the same lines. So Reason Am! is an audio service which explains complex news and current affairs in Pidgin English for the benefit of African audiences. We use podcasts to break down topical policies, issues and news that would ordinarily float above the heads of people who have only Pidgin English as a first language and/or cannot read.

So we make these podcasts and they are free under creative commons license, meaning they can be used for whatever purpose so long as appropriate attributions are made.

What inspired the project and how has the response being so far? 

I was reporting on a very important court case in May 2014; oil multinational Shell was in a UK court for the first time, dragged there by over 1,000 residents from a fishing community in Nigeria’s Rivers State over two oil spills. Even though I reported previously from court on the Okah and Ibori trials, this case was quite tough to grasp, as the legal arguments went really fast. I wrote the story in English, but it never for one moment escaped me that the fisher folk were not only unable to make it to court, but they would be unable to understand all the grammar and nice prose I had written. Added to this was the fact that Mr Taiwo Obe, my mentor and a strong advocate for Pidgin English, asked me openly on LinkedIn if I would be reporting this case in Pidgin. I was so disturbed I decided to summarize the technical points of the case in easy-to-understand Pidgin English. I was still trying to upload the audio file to Dropbox so I would just share it willy-nilly online when my husband asked me: “why stop at Shell vs Bodo? There are other things that need explaining in Pidgin, right?”

And that was how Reason Am! began.

Within a few days after I opened the website, Human Development Initiatives, an NGO from Lagos contacted us to transcribe their newsletter from English to Pidgin English and also voice sections of it into podcasts. Reason Am! is also in talks with another notable NGO in Nigeria called Spaces For Change towards a rolling partnership. We have received really enthusiastic reviews via emails, phone calls and on social media especially. Just last week The Commonwealth Secretariat tweeted a Reason Am! podcast on The Commonwealth, which they wouldn’t have done without first listening to, I reckon. This has led to more enquiries from other organizations regarding collaboration, so I am quite shocked at how it has all caught on.

Your command of Nigerian Pidgin English is astonishing. How did you learn to speak the language so beautifully? 

I grew up in a home where my mother-tongue (Urhobo) was hardly spoken, even though both my parents are Urhobo, from Delta State. We spoke mainly English, but because my mother’s siblings lived with us they spoke Pidgin English, and my parents did as well. The flowery metaphors, slangs and jokes came from home and even from work, as well as the subjects I reported on and all that. As someone who could not speak Urhobo, in my adult years I turned my attention to pidgin, in the hope that I would have that to pass on to my child whenever I became a mother. I think this is where the seeds were sown and watered.  However, I actually felt the greatest attachment to Pidgin English when I left Nigeria. In London, a home away from home and married to a German, I unconsciously began to write Pidgin on my social media accounts, in text messages and speak it during long phone calls to Nigeria and unsurprisingly, my husband has now picked it up, while my German language skills are sadly non-existent.

There are still people who shy away from speaking Pidgin English because they think it’s a low-class language for the uneducated masses.  As Nigerians like to say: “it’s not toosh enough.” What’s your take on that perspective? 

I think that is unfortunately very myopic, and smacks of unwarranted snobbery. Many Nigerians subconsciously think like this; it’s why accents are faked all over the airwaves. It is a confusing prism from which to observe and relate with language because these same people who denigrate Pidgin English get excited and share videos in which foreigners show off their Pidgin English skills.  A case in point: someone who came across a Reason Am! podcast tweeted: “please will this not encourage mediocrity?”

After laughing I had to be thankful that this was just one person in the sea of reviews we had been receiving. I took the time to explain to this gentleman that whether we like it or not, those who speak Pidgin English will always remain with us, as will those who speak Mandarin, Russian or French.

Pidgin English may be spoken more amongst the uneducated masses but the educated masses have it as a second language at the very least. There are people who will never be able to, or even have no interest in speaking English; does that mean they are not entitled to information? They aren’t entitled to programming? Thank goodness the folks at WazobiaFM aren’t buying into that school of thought! Because while our educational systems are being upgraded, should the public be allowed to wander about, unaware of basic concepts critical to their comprehension of the world just because they are only fluent in Pidgin? All language is critical to the core of humanity’s existence—the concept of communication and interaction is far beyond appearances of “tooshness.” The US ambassador spoke Pidgin on WazobiaFM and endeared Nigerians…is he now mediocre or not “toosh”?

I asked the gentleman on Twitter this: if your mother in the village needed to be told that an earthquake was approaching and she needed to run for her life, would you rather we eschew “mediocrity” and waste time telling her in Queen’s English or would you rather we got on with it and told her straight up in Pidgin? Of course he chose the latter, admitting he hadn’t even thought of the issue like that. Because every human being has and brings value, by extension every language is valuable.

My all-time favorite Reason Am! moment is the INEC podcast. Your explanation of INEC as “Eye-Neck” is plain and simply brilliant and quite poetic. You translate the abstract concept of INEC into an image that the listener can grasp. Do you find that pidgin English is a language that relies a lot on imagery and figures of speech—simile, metaphor, hyperbole, etc? {Listen HERE}

Indeed it does, even more so with the Niger-Delta “dialect” of Pidgin English. For instance, it isn’t enough to simply say someone died, you have to say in pidgin that they went to say hello to God. To show that someone is really behaving weird you declare that the devil has opened an office on their head and is now operating from there. These are all images that may induce laughter and images but will pass the point. My take is that it comes with the witty and story-telling origins of native Pidgin speakers and this has just been passed on continually.

Many Nigerians think it’s easy to speak pidgin. But it isn’t, especially when you’re trying to explain very abstract concept like GDP, poetry, the Eucharist, and so on. What would you say is challenging about “breaking down” ideas and concepts in pidgin?

Pidgin is like any language; it isn’t easy to just up and go, and start speaking away. I guess that is why foreigners become celebrities for having a crack at it. On a more serious note, it is extremely difficult to break down ideas and concepts in pidgin and I can say it is only because I have a politics and financial journalism background as well as good Pidgin skills that I can take on things like Privatization or GDP and explain it. What is most challenging is having to inject humor, to always remember that with audio, the audience cannot see and so the images need to be conjured in their heads and stay there, in such a way that they remain informed.  Thankfully, this is where an MA in Broadcast Journalism comes in handy. For example, I deliberately repeat the topic at strategic places so that both the English and Pidgin meanings are not lost. I also have my Grandmother to thank. Because even though she lives in America, I always write all podcasts as though I am speaking to Nana, as I call her. Nana is quite a curious old girl and if you tell her something in a boring way then she would be snoring in minutes, never mind she asked you to explain in the first place. So after writing the facts in Pidgin I begin to review it, reading aloud and I can just hear Nana’s voice saying “wetin dis one mean?” and that is how I often arrive at a script.

What about reading and writing in pidgin? Does Pidgin English present peculiar challenges for writers and readers? Will there ever be a Pidgin English novel? 

I have read a lot of blogs in pidgin, translated news articles and written for one so I can say that yes, there are peculiar challenges. The main one being the fact that pidgin has no vocabulary, no grammar or standardized spellings. It is all down to how the particular writer wants to spell their words and this can affect how a reader will consume the product. This is one main reason why we do not use text at Reason Am! actually. But nevertheless, a Pidgin English speaker will always understand written or spoken Pidgin to a large extent.

Will there ever be a Pidgin English novel? The answer is a definite ‘yes’ because I am writing one at the moment. It all happened when Mr Obe was asking me to write a book on a particular subject and I confessed to him that I could only seem to write it in Pidgin! So he said ‘why not?’ But as usual work is in the way. I am working on some business articles for a client in Germany and I find that writing in English seems to chase away my Pidgin English muse. So because I have been focused elsewhere I am behind, and cannot say for sure when I will finish the book. Of course you tend to hear a few people say: “a Pidgin English novel? Who will read it?” And I usually say it will be those who read books translated from English to Polish or Italian of course; humans! So yes, there will…there should be a Pidgin English novel – hopefully from me, and hopefully from other writers. Because as I said earlier every language is valid and I am not moved by money or convention, to be honest.

Where do you see Reason Am! going in the next few years?

Reason Am! needs to get out to the people and we hope to move to radio as soon as possible to get to the audiences that need this service the most. Pidgin English is a language spoken across West Africa and I am looking at immersing myself in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ghana especially to grasp the nuances of their “dialect” of Pidgin English so Reason Am! can grow to accommodate other variations of Pidgin English. In the interim, there’s a script that’s waiting the “Nana” treatment. Must dash.

 

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  1. 7/7: On pidgin and broken English | Sooo Many Stories - 2014/06/30

    […] Pidgin English: A Language of Flowery metaphors, Slangs and Jokes, an interview with Nigerian journa…, is a good read that explains how we relate with language and how we can use our languages to include more people in discussions that affect their lives. […]

  2. Vol. 1 Brooklyn | Morning Bites: Emily Gould Interviewed, “Downtown 81″ Revisited, Political Novels, New Lee Rourke, and More - 2014/06/30

    […] Brittle Paper talked language with Ruona Agbroko-Meyer. […]

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