In present-day Nigeria, language is a tool that can be strong and powerful in the hands of those who know how to use it. In this feature, ISABEST OMOREGBEJI writes about a Fulani woman who sells ‘agbo’ traditional herbal medicine and her distinguishing multilingual abilities.
It is not uncommon to hear words such as, “Is it my language? Why should I even study it when I am a science student, my mother tongue is ‘Mbe’ a minority language spoken by Mbube tribesmen around Northern Cross River. I cannot speak any other Nigerian language. Although I made some attempts to study Hausa some years back. It’s quite unfortunate that presently I speak just English and my mother tongue, but I really think for now English is enough for me.” These were the words of Nkwam Ajie. And there are several others like him in our society today.
Majority of the students, who learn Hausa, Igbo or Yoruba in Nigerian schools, do so purely for academic purposes, while some others find it difficult to learn and speak their own mother tongue.
So it is surprising as well as refreshing when one stumbles across a multilingual in the most unlikely places. This is the story of Miriam Ahmed. A few Nigerians like her have really demonstrated unique multilingual ability that has most often become a huge advantage living amongst diverse ethnic nationalities in Nigeria. It is not very often that you come across a person that fits into the description of the word especially when the circumstances that ordinarily should bring out such genuinely rare language ability are not there.
Ahmed, a typical Nigerian with all these qualities wrapped in one person, is from Oja Oba local government of Kwara State. A young energetic Nigerian Fulani woman in her early twenties that happens to break all odds to speak the different dialects of Fulani language as well as Hausa, Yoruba, Ibo, Gbagi and also English fluently.
Young Miss Ahmed grew up with her grand-mother who is of the Borgu Fulani tribe. Like her granny, young Miss Ahmed speaks virtually all the versions in Fulani, including five major Nigerian languages that help her communicate in a particularly interesting manner with her customers.
LEADERSHIP SUNDAY spotted the genius while she was carrying on her trade in natural herbs popularly known as ‘Agbo’.
There she was, neat, and well dressed. Greeting her alone immediately sparks a beam of smiles from her as she hurriedly offers a seat. On meeting a first time customer, the looks alone offers Miriam the details she needs to immediately make a guess. She begins to communicate in which ever mother tongue she thinks you would likely be from. Sixty percent of her guesses are always right but when she’s wrong she feels no shame as she quickly make another guess- often the right one and swiftly changing into speaking one’s own very mother tongue or universal English. Worst case, she moves on to pigeon English- then throwing a joke and everyone begins to laugh again as her drama continue to unfold.
Miriam displays her lingual talisman that makes all her customers grab a seat, even passersby hearing obviously looking Fulani lady selling ‘Agbo, a trade that is averagely considered to be exclusively for Yoruba women, briefly they spare a minute or two to stare at Miriam; a Fulani lady, doing well in her trade as she speaks Ibo, Yoruba, Hausa, Fulani and Gbagi. People immediately find it surprising as they turn back again to catch a glimpse of young Miss Ahmed. Others who cannot resist the uncommon display of the typically ideal ‘Nigerianess’ in Miriam would simply engage her with their own mother tongue to tempt her into changing to another language as she sells on, making thousands out of her curious looking customers.
About 99 percent of ‘Agbo’ sellers are Yoruba women, who sell the stuff alongside some quantity of alcohol or ‘shekpey’ in local parlance. But young Miss Miriam does not sell alcohol with her herbs, she sells only different kinds of herbs to her army of Customers. In place of liquor she entertains her customers with their own mother tongue even to the point of speaking incantations, sharing jokes and proverbs in the mother tongue. This makes her customers laugh and want to stay on. The non inclusion of liquor in Miriam’s trade makes her place particularly attractive to non alcoholic people.
Miriam revealed to LEADERSHIP that she learned majority of what she knows from her mum and granny. She started her trade from Kabusa a settlement around Apo neighborhood and then moved to Mararaba. Her superior multilingual prowesses have opened so many surprises and opportunities to her.
“I am able to understand my customers to the faintest detail; most of them that are illiterate find it more convenient to relate their health challenges to me using their mother tongue, even the Yoruba people who have many of their women selling ‘Agbo’ also come to me. I actually feel some sense of pride and satisfaction not only in what I sell but because I can take away people’s pains from merely communicating with them while they took my natural products. You would see someone in pains still able to laugh and share jokes in their mother tongue when they come to me”, she said.
“People use to believe that ‘Agbo sellers are dirty but I use that as another added advantage to my business as I appear neat and with my veil. Other times I try attires from other tribes to attract my customers to patronise me more. The idea is to keep my connection with my customers as warm as it can be.”
“Although it is quite unfortunate that because of my style in business some of my customers are beginning to chase after me, but whenever I notice that, I politely spell it out, time for business is time for business. Marriage and friendship will eventually come but for now I take my business seriously because it helps both my brother and I when we get to return to school” She added.
During the nineties, work transfers took Nigerian families to virtually all the regions and states across the nation, hence most Nigerian children born from this period down, could understand or speak at least one other major Nigerian language different from their mother tongue. But since the system changed fewer families still retain the opportunity to traverse the length and breadth of this country. A situation that would have helped them learn another language. Apart from the idea of the Federal Capital Territory, the federal security agencies, the military and perhaps the National Youth Service Corps that send people out of their zones, other works limit assignments within particular states and so people do not find the circumstances they need to learn and mix well with Nigerians of other tribes to be able to learn another language.
Most educated Nigerians who happen to speak two major Nigerian languages are for many reasons considered lucky because of the opportunities of being able to communicate and connect with a larger mass of people either in business, as an educationist, as a translator or in politics. An ability to speak more than one language could make a huge difference. It could swing favors one’s way or even open opportunities never before thought possible. Merely speaking in one’s own mother tongue could appease a salesperson to reduce the price of commodity, if not for any other reason, for the fact that you speak the same language.
A lot of people understand and feel a better sense of connection when their mother tongue is used to communicate with them. It tends to bring out that beautiful quality that makes people feel at home and secure as they communicate. Such is the lingual qualities that are lacking in most youths of today limiting optimum communication and of course, the unity that ordinarily should have been forged through intense and deeply felt communication with the mother tongue.
One would have argued that young Miss Ahmed’s future would be at stake or wasted away, taking all this wealth of language just to sell ‘Agbo’. The fact that she attends school and does the business on holidays is reassuring. Perhaps we hope that in the near future we will see young Miss Ahmed doing well in any of her chosen career when she eventually finishes secondary school and gains admission to study in the university. We would see women with qualities like her go into politics to become leaders that would fit into that missing link, using language to forge something new, a unity in diversity for Nigerian people to unite behind a common leader that speaks, understand and hears multiple tongues.
Considering the importance of language ability and how it could become an aid in education, the minister of Science and technology Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, had said the government has commenced moves aimed at ensuring that mathematics and science subjects are taught using local languages in primary and secondary schools across the country. Citing the cases of some countries such as China and India, the Minister said that technological advancement in those countries was fast because mathematics and science subjects were taught in their indigenous languages.
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