Language & identity: Nigerian video-films and diasporic communities Françoise Ugochukwu Open University UK & CNRS-LLACAN, Paris This paper, based on two sets of questionnaires and interviews dated 2009 and 2011, seeks to evaluate the linguistic impact of Nigerian video films among diasporic communities in the UK in the context of recently expressed fears concerning the future of Nigerian languages abroad, and the reasons behind the success of these films among resettled Nigerians, focusing on Igbo and Yoruba speakers. It investigates the potential importance of language on viewers’ motivations and practices, the role played by the cultural message of the language in identity-reinforcement within the Nigerian community, and the impact of these video films on the revival of language and cultural practices among resettled communities. A growing Diaspora Today, 54% of Nigerian migrants live in the USA, with prominent communities in Houston, Texas (the largest Nigerian community in the States), Atlanta and Washington, D.C., but a significant 10% are found in the United Kingdom. The Nigerian Diaspora in Britain, built over centuries, facilitated by a tradition of scholarly migration and mostly made up of Igbo and Yoruba highly skilled professionals representing 36% of the work force, is probably the largest in Europe. The latest estimate from the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office gives the figures of 800,000 to 3,000,000 Nigerians living in the UK. . Nigerian immigrants usually settle first in London on arrival, attracted and retained by the presence of longestablished structures: support and community centres, specialised markets/shops and friendly churches, and tend to stay there, sometimes permanently, fearing the loss of such a vital support network. This explains that most Nigerians live in and around London and the SouthEast, although they are equally found in other big cities across England and in the two major Scottish cities, with pockets of Nigerian immigrants doted across the whole Britain. “Those who migrated as children tend to live in the UK and visit home occasionally. Some children born and raised in the UK Diaspora have never been to Nigeria and a few Nigerians may never move back if they have lost connection with relatives in Nigeria […] or if they cannot afford to go home” (Hernandez 2007: 10). Endangered languages? Hausa and Yoruba languages, whose communities are spread across Nigeria’s borders, and which benefited from both an early written tradition and strong resilience, seemed to be better placed to resist attrition. Yet all Nigerian languages, after being threatened for more than a century by the high premium placed on English on their own soil, are now slowly eroded among diasporic communities. one of my 2011 respondents justified his lack of interest for his first/Nigerian language by insisting on the need he felt to focus on learning the culture of his host country. The fact that a lot of British Nigerians have long remained abroad has worsened the situation. According to the UNESCO report on endangered indigenous languages, “the Igbo language faces risk of possible extinction in the next 50 years if nothing is done to revive the language” (2010: 85). Odinye (2010: 90-91) proposes a list of remedies to arrest the decline of Igbo language: • Love Igbo language and culture • Have interest in saving Igbo language. • Speak Igbo language at all times. • Encourage the younger generation to learn Igbo language • Provide scholarships for students and teachers of Igbo Language. • Use Igbo language in media: radio, television and newspapers. • Make Igbo language a compulsory subject for admission into higher institution in Igboland • Pass a bill to encourage the use of Igbo language in government of Igboland. • Encourage the reading of Igbo written materials at churches, schools, homes, etc. • Discourage people especially the younger generation from speaking English and other languages. Other prominent Igbo men and women have joined this crusade. Prof Anya. O. Anya commented: “Igbo language is our identity. When we lose it, we lose our identity. We must all be disciples of Igbo language to save the threat that may befall us.” An article on “Igbo language and the extinction theory”, dated April 29, 2010 in The Nigerian Compass, brings in an interesting statement: “ […] Igbo language cannot be extinct because of the role of the entertainment industry. The Nollywood's influence in language development cannot be overemphasised due to its pervasiveness. Hardly is there any home that does not watch home video. […] Producers and marketers push into circulation produced videos almost every week. Some of these home videos are produced in Igbo language. Many families now create time to sit together to watch home videos. NonIgbo have even learnt the language via the movies.” Nigerian movies and the language issue Research carried out between January and March this year shows that diasporic Nigerians spend a significant portion of their leisure time together with other Nigerians or other Africans, viewing Nigerian video films, massively preferred to foreign films. Yet 47.7% of the respondents prefer watching Nigerian films in English, more easily available than those in Nigerian languages and easier to follow for those struggling to understand their parents’ language. In spite of this preference for English language, 58.7% of them considered that Nigerian languages played a role in the pleasure they derived from viewing films, and value speaking their first language together: they clearly perceived those languages as part of their cultural heritage and identity (59%), a legacy to be cherished and protected especially in diasporic situations, which confirms Adegbija’s remark that “most Nigerians feel very loyal to their mother tongues, love them and see them as ethnic and cultural identification tags” (2004: 127). Respondents equally considered their Nigerian language as a vital tool to communicate with older relatives in Nigeria and keep in touch with one’s roots, and this marked interest for language also reveals the premium placed on communication among long-term migrants, especially for the 62% who still occasionally visit Nigeria – most of them (87.2%) staying more than a week at a time. One of them says it beautifully: “It makes me feel more at home once I speak my language.” Language is equally valued for its confidence-boosting and identityreinforcing value, and features prominently in the list of what attracts viewers to Nollywood. While 68.7% of respondents were in the 18-40 years bracket, it is relevant to note that 35.3% of the sample were born outside Nigeria and only occasionally inherited a Nigerian language from their parents. Some of these still refer to Nigeria, which they might only know as family holiday destination, as ‘home’ – a word used by both those aged 40-50 and younger ones in the two surveys. Among those born in Nigeria and who now live in the UK, those films are a reminder “of when I used to live there. They also remind me of part of my heritage. I also enjoy watching the films with others as a bonding exercise.” For all respondents with Nigerian family connections, video films are the occasion to discover Nigerian cultures or reconnect with them, and their viewing offer the occasion of endless family discussions on customs, practicing their first language freely; they also watch some films on their own, enjoying the songs and the entertainment. On the issue of language, questionnaires reveal a rapid decline in language skills among second generation immigrants; this is even more visible among Nigerians who were born abroad and subsequently relocated to another European country. For those born outside Nigeria, this broad life interest in ‘home’ culture has the potential to become a motivator to meet other people from their culture area and perfect language skills. It has been argued that Nigerian films are primarily meant for a Nigerian market, an opinion corroborated by responses indicating that Nigerians usually watch these films at home with family (67.4%) and other compatriots (37.2%) who do not need any explanation to enjoy the viewing. Gathering with Nigerians of other ethnic cultures is then facilitated by the use of Nigerian English, seen as “a unifying force in multicultural Nigeria” (Adegbija 2004: 126). Whatever the viewers’ nationality, Nigerian films, produced as “a collective expression” (Austen & Şaul 2010:7), are best watched in group and commented inbetween scenes, bringing about a wider, shared African identity. The importance of culture in attracting Nigerians to Nollywood should not be underestimated, because, by their own admission, it helps them cope with exile. Viewing Nigerian films with family and friends can be considered as a way of building an immigrant community within the host society, and fostering a group identity while gathering strength from the group to resist acculturation. This impact of Nollywood is made more potent by the pervasive view, among 87% of the Nigerian respondents, that these films represent more or less accurately the Nigerian society – past and present. They have the ability to transport viewers to Nigeria and allow them to experience living there by proxy and sharing people’s daily life. Viewing Nigerian movies can therefore be seen and experienced as a trip down memory lane, a virtual trip back home, “a ritual experience” (Dipio 2008: 60) and a group therapy. The unifying role of Nigerian English The viewing of Nigerian films can finally be seen as a virtual classroom experience: a number of 2009 respondents insisted on the educational value of the films, saying that “they have a moral tale to tell”, and in the end, all viewers agreed that Nigerian video films had a lot to teach – culture, language and morality. The Facebook page of http://omenigbo.com (‘do it in Igbo’) – explains the aims of their site: “language as a root of our identity may be regarded as the most important cultural identity marker in any cultural heritage. The primary purpose here is to promote and discuss Igbo-language movies as well as other Igbo movies.” The group, lamenting the fact that “nowadays, it is not uncommon to hear an Igbo person living in Nigeria claiming that he or she is not proficient in the language or does not even speak it”, further describes their enterprise as an investigation into reasons behind the dearth of movies in Igbo. Their aim is to boost the language, “the most vital heritage of any society”, since “certainly, the medium of film is one of the avenues whereby language can be revitalized and Igbo language can be maintained through the medium of Igbo-language film.” The strong emphasis placed by respondents on moral values and the didactic component of films – again a distinct Nigerian trait – is further indicative of a desire to hand down those values and languages to the next generation and ensure the survival of the culture among Nigerians in Diaspora. In normal circumstances, at home, culture would have been imbibed effortlessly from the environment. In the UK, films are now used instead, as one of the main cultural tools - someone called them ‘baby-sitters’ because parents frequently leave their children watching them while they attend to domestic chores. On the whole, research shows that, although most respondents acknowledged the important role of language in identity building and reinforcement, very few of them sought to watch films in Igbo or Yoruba, and that songs, usually rendered in those languages even in English-speaking films, did not catch the attention of the majority. It would be interesting to investigate the potential role of these films as incentives to actively seek to learn Nigerian languages through other means such as evening classes/ E-books and online software developed to help learners of major Nigerian languages. In the end, while “languages may commit suicide, […] it may be impossible to eradicate a language which its speakers truly wish to retain” (Edwards 2009: 62), and this leaves diasporic Igbo and Yoruba speakers with a clear choice. For Anyanwu (2009), “a people without language are a people without voice. A people without language are a people without identity for it is language that identifies us as Igbo, Yoruba or Hausa.” Interestingly, Edwards questions this centrality of language in the building of group identity, offering a strikingly different illustration of cultural identity as he quotes Koestler (1976) on the Jewish example: “first they spoke Hebrew; in the Babylonian exile, Chaldean; at the time of Jesus, Aramaic; in Alexandria, Greek; in Spain, Arabic, but later Ladino […]. They preserved their religious identity, but changed languages at their convenience” (Edwards 2009: 205). Would this work for diasporic Nigerians as their ethnic languages disappear through intercultural marriages and the resulting multiplicity of languages? The following posting from an Igbo lady born in Britain seems to prove it: I'm an Igbo Nigerian […] born and raised in London and more and more I feel as though I am an alien. I'm not Nigerian enough for Nigerians and other Africans and I'm not English enough for the English! People make wise cracks that I'm English, as though being born here makes the fact that my parents, grand-parents, relatives and DNA are routed in Nigeria irrelevant. My parents spoke to me in English so I only understand certain [ Igbo] words and phrases […]. Many Nigerians […] do see me as Nigerian though they always underestimate my knowledge of and interest in my culture, […] the politics of Nigeria, […] Chimamanda Adichie/Chinua Achebe […], Nollywood […]. Can anyone else relate? (2010) In conclusion Current research shows that in the UK, the language most viewers relate to, while watching Nigerian films, is Nigerian English, a variety of English that identifies them as Nigerians and which, should they feel free to give it the ethnic flavour they would have used at home, might even identify them as Igbo or Yoruba. Reverting to Nigerian English triggers an empowerment, a claiming of a portion of British space as Nigerian space and bearing their souls, using words, code-mixing and codeswitching, accents, intonation and body language usually muted: gathering round the TV set, they join in recreating home away from home. Omoniyi (2010: 239) questioned “whether or not English or African Englishes are sufficiently indigenous, and to what extent they can mark national identity.” To bilingual or multilingual Nigerians abroad, who may not be able to meet fellow Yoruba or Igbo people but now enjoy watching films in the company of Nigerians from other ethnic groups, Nigerian English definitely serves its original purpose, that of bringing Nigerians together and supporting an embryo of national identity which, in Adegbija’s words, “should be thought of as a ‘production’, which is never complete, always in process” (2007: 111).