Nigeria’s Disappearing Storytellers
In September of last year, the judges of the $100,000 (£65,000) Nigeria Prize for Literature announced that there would be no winner for 2015 because none of the one hundred and nine book entries met the required standard. What is the required standard?
a) Stylistic excellence as manifested through an original and authoritative voice,
b) Narrative coherence and
c) Technically accurate writing.
Simple stuff right? Well no because none of the over one hundred entries met these criteria — simple as it may seem. In fact, the entries for 2015 are said to have fallen short of this expectation as each book was found to be incompetent in the use of language (English language) and many of the books showed very little or no evidence of good editing. Sigh!
Only books written in English are eligible for the prize. And, in Nigeria, the quality of a speaker’s written and spoken English is usually directly proportional to the quality of the speaker’s education. Therefore, as the country’s educational system has declined, so has the quality of the written and spoken word because how will people learn flawless grammar if there is no one to teach them? How will an individual learn to think critically and express his/her arguments cogently if teachers are ill-equipped or lack the necessary qualification to undertake such a responsibility?
This educational decline has resulted in a dire situation that can be read and heard when Nigerians communicate in the tongue that was gifted to us by our colonial masters — the English language. The situation is so dire that it has resulted in lots of comedy skits of leaders and authority figures thoroughly abusing the English language. These skits are truly funny because it seems as though the speakers are speaking a foreign tongue; one that’s not English — and when you think about it, they really are speaking a foreign tongue because even their audiences and fellow Nigerians do not understand what they say! So though these poor English speakers receive no points for their mastery of the English language, one cannot say that they aren’t creative in their use of the little English that they do know. The response to these skits may be laughter, but the laughter is usually accompanied by disdain because no one who speaks that poorly should be representing the country on a global stage.
We could argue that Nigerians should put away the English language and speak in their mother tongue. But how will we communicate with each other when the country boasts over 250 unique ethnic tribes and dialects? English thus solves a problem by providing a language for trade, interaction and communication with each other and the outside world. Therefore, if each Nigerian writer were to write in his/her mother tongue, there is the risk of not being recognized or understood outside the boundaries of one’s ethnic group and beyond Nigeria’s borders.
Education is certainly the key to improved communication. Unfortunately, the continent isn’t very literate. For example, the UN reports that more than one in three adults in sub-Saharan Africa is unable to read and write, while 47 million young people aged between 15 and 24 are illiterate. In April 2015, no fewer than 10.5 million children in Nigeria were reported to be out of school, the highest number of any country in the world.
To receive a good education in Nigeria, one must attend a private school but private schools are not affordable to everyone as the fees are enormously high and the country suffers from a high level of poverty. If poverty remains at the current level, fewer and fewer Nigerians will be able to afford to learn proper English — a skill that’s obviously needed by our storytellers. The command of the English language by literary prize winners is always stellar and a standard for the written word. So what does it say about Nigeria that its literary entrants are unable to graciously express themselves?
Africa is rising. This is a narrative we constantly hear and one that I personally believe to be true. However, how can African stories and storytellers take a stand on the global literary stage and be celebrated if African writers are unable to be understood? Indigenous works form an essential part of a people’s literary heritage. So it’s about time we get our act together and begin focusing on education else our stories (and voices) will forever remain muted.