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Charles Ogu

Charles Ogu´s blog text tells about his first experience of using a telephone in Igbo language. Ogu is doing his PhD in the University of Jyväskylä about using drama in the language studies of illiterate immigrants. In his Master´s thesis he studied pre- and post-apartheid South African black theatre. Ogu is one of the board members of Catalysti association. 

Can a white man´s telephone take Igbo language?

We lived in N0 3 TU-DE-TI street, Ibadan, Nigeria. This is the name the white man gave the street without knowing it. He had appeared one morning walking like a pigeon to the centre of the street where the Town Hall now stands. He was called Nwa D.O  which means ‘Child D.O’, because the district officers, including him, were always too young. When the D.O opened his mouth to talk that morning, he was pointing at our street and shouting:

– Too dirty!

The people turned to each other shaking their heads and repeating after him:

– Tu-de-ti!

That’s how the street came to be known as Tu-de-ti.

The D.O disappeared almost the same way he came. He lived in a place called Town with other white people, in the headquarters of the protectorate. As the white people live in Town, everybody wanted to live there; it meant “civilisation” even without saying it. People who lived in Tudeti Street wanted to change the name to Town, but that didn’t work either.

When my uncle came to work in Town, I saw a telephone for the first time in my life, in a visit to Mr Grant’s house. There were many trees and flowers in DO’s house, even cats. We were never allowed to keep cats in my village or in Tudeti, because witches can easily enter a person through cats and bring bad luck to the entire family. Dogs walked around without nobody owning them.

In the Town there were good food and white women who, as we heard, only love life and flowers unlike our women who will not only search for your pocket, but empty it. We all loved the white women and wondered what we would have done with them. My uncle told me that he once had one from the back. I couldn’t believe it, and wondered how someone who couldn’t speak English can sleep with a white woman. I also wanted them badly, to taste if they taste the same. Now you can imagine how my stomach and heart was filled with happiness and laughter when my uncle invited me to a party at Mr.Grant’s house in the Town.

My uncle’s name is Onwutubo which means “death may wait”. That was the name given to him because he was the only surviving child of his mother. His other siblings all died before they grew up. When a white man, Mr.Grant, took him to the university college hospital in Ibadan, he was diagnosed sickle-cell disease. With time he passed the crisis stage and survived. That’s how he came to live in Ibadan and he started working for the white man. When Mr Grant had asked my uncle’s name, my uncle said “Die wait” and that’s how the name came to stay till this day.

When I finished high school in my village, it was natural to go to Ibadan to live with my uncle. As I walked to Mr Grant’s house for the first time at the Government Reserved Area (GRA) in the Town, the whole thing went through my mind. As I reached the house, I met the gateman.

– You’re DIE WAIT’s brother? he asked me.

My uncle was a ‘house boy’, a domestic servant to Mr Grant. I was expecting the gateman to go and call him as I nodded in confirmation. But he settled on some crooked lines drawn in a piece of paper.

– All the villages and roads to the streams are in this paper, he said with self-fulfillment.

Then he started pointing by pressing his finger through the paper, the route that leads to the kitchen where my uncle works. I asked him to describe it by words of mouth since I didn’t have faith that the paper can take me to the place. Then he sat back, and started scrolling the numbers on the phone, one after the other. He handed over the receiver to me, and asked me to speak with my uncle, as he returned to the map.

Though I had seen a phone before, I had only heard English spoken into it. So I started speaking English to my uncle, to whom I had never spoken English in all my life. We spoke our mother tongue Igbo to each other, a polite language without abusive words.

Half way of our discussion, I said something in Igbo and he replied. So he understood what I said.

– You understood what I just said now?, I asked.

– Yes, he said.

As I handed the receiver back to the gateman and made my way to Mr Grant’s house, I kept wondering:

– So this thing can take my Igbo?

It was a wonderful experience because we heard each other clearly, like I am talking to you face-to-face.

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