I once watched a video where a white lady was filmed singing in Yoruba. It wasn’t the first time I’d come across such, hence the public reaction to it on social media was predictable; excitement and surprise that a westerner identifies with our native language.
A series of tweets from a renowned Nigerian author captured my reaction to the video. In his tweets, he wondered why Nigerians seem obsessively excited about seeing a White man speak our native language. He asks why it isn’t the other way around when we speak the White man’s language?
It follows a trend where we express admiration and appreciation for our cultural attributes through the eyes of westerners. It’s called external validation. This external validation occurs when we fail to see the value of our people, culture, creations and resources until they are either lost to or embraced by foreigners. The reasons for this attribution range from ignorance, colonial mentality and an ironic form of status symbol.
The consequence of external validation is we tend to overlook the jewels in our midst. Take for example the video of the White lady filmed speaking Yoruba. This same Yoruba language is frowned upon by some here as having no value; hence I’ve met individuals who are outspoken in their bias against their kids speaking it.
I’ve heard parents boastfully say, “My son speaks fluent Chinese, French, English but doesn’t understand a word of Urhobo.” They argue that these are the languages of the global economy whose relevance to their professional advancement cannot be excused. Often times, it’s sarcastically expressed as “who Igbo epp?” or “who Yoruba epp?”
Some argue that native languages corrupt their spoken English as if any language ought to be inferior to the other. Last October, I watched several speakers drawn across Africa and outside deliver papers on the growth and relevance of native African languages at a symposium organized by Yale University. What struck me the most was how much influence Nigeria’s Nollywood movies have on Kenya’s slang as highlighted by its researchers.
Thus, why should my native language be relevant only in respect of the opportunities it spells when it comes to career paths? Who says my native language cannot co-exist with western languages? Why should it take a foreigner to make me appreciate my language?
Trevor Noah, the world-renowned comedian from South Africa hosts The Daily Show. In his bestselling book, Born a Crime, Trevor expresses admiration for his native South African languages and talks about how its understanding played important roles in his life. In his words,
Language brings with it an identity and a culture, or at least the perception of it… Living with my mom, I saw how she used language to cross boundaries, handle situations, navigate the world.
I recommend listening to the audio version of the book where Trevor’s command of native South African languages ignites a feeling of pride and inspiration.
Perhaps, it’d help to share some examples on what outsiders think of what we possess.
Yes, I’ve met other Nigerians who fully want to become Americans and they pass off their traditions by not picking up their native languages… And I’m like, Are you serious? I want what you have! Why would you do that?
It didn’t start today. In Malcolm X’s autobiography as told to Alex Haley, he echoes a similar view:
For instance, I love languages. I wish I were an accomplished linguist. I don’t know anything more frustrating than to be around people talking something you can’t understand. Especially when they are people who look just like you. In Africa, I heard original mother tongues, such as Hausa, and Swahili, being spoken, and there I was standing like some little boy, waiting for someone to tell me what had been said; I never will forget how ignorant I felt.
This was over 50 years ago yet those words remain relevant.
We are blessed with distinct cultural traits wherever we look across Africa. The evidence of these inherent beauties when embraced and tapped speak well of us as self-confident people without the need for external validation. There are people out there who will fall over themselves to have what we own. If we’re not conscious of that then we may end up paying a premium in the near or distant future to recover what is originally ours. Sadly, it’s already happening.