“Mo gbo Itsekiri, dereke me nemi fo”. I understand Itsekiri, but I can’t speak it. At least, not very well. I am pretty good with that phrase above, though.
So, how did that happen? Well, my brothers and I were born in the US at almost the same time “Sesame Street’ was conceived. By the time we were in primary/grade school – University of Lagos Staff School – our English reading, writing and comprehension skills were above average, as expected from American born professor’s kids. In fact, I vividly recall assisting classmates with writing and comprehension all the way through secondary/high school. The professor’s son, right?
That was school; home was a different story. While we spoke English, our parents communicated between themselves and with us in Itsekiri and English. And some Urhobo when my maternal grandmother was visiting. But primarily Itsekiri and English.
So, imagine this. you’re constantly hearing both Itsekiri and English as a child and teenager, but you always responded in English! It was second nature, a reflex action. At the airport and other public places where parents meant the words for your ears only, whenever Mom wanted us to know we were in serious trouble! My brain digested the words and information from either language fluidly, but as with any habit you develop from a young age, I never gave it much thought. After all, it was never confusing. I was not even aware. I was bilingual in my comprehension, but English was the language I spoke and wrote in. I understood Itsekiri but didn’t speak it.
I moved back to the US from Nigeria in 1985. I wasn’t getting that dual salvo of Itsekiri and English anymore, not in college. When the parents moved back to the US, I wasn’t living with them constantly. Some summer vacations, then off to graduate school. And beyond. At this point you’re not thinking about “Me nemi fo Itsekiri O”. I can’t speak Itsekiri.
Then we attended our first Ugbajo Itsekiri national convention about twenty years ago.
What a spectacle! Surrounded by Itsekiri dressed in traditional attire. And there it was again, all around us, I could hear it everywhere! The fluid, dual salvo of Itsekiri and English reverberating all through that Ugbajo Itsekiri convention weekend. Itsekiri words, phrases, images, pieces of conversations - yes, my brain still comprehended, but it had been a long time. So rusty, slow and sluggish! And then people were actually trying to converse with me in Itsekiri!? System overload!! To put it mildly, I was no longer at ease with the language.
Well, like I said, that was twenty years ago, the first of many conventions I would attend. The start of many Itsekiri meetings at the regional level. A lot of conversations about the Itsekiri language. Learning the language, preserving the language, how much Itsekiri should be spoken during said meetings. All those conversations held in English and Itsekiri, and I was never less than an active participant. Slowly, very slowly, I reacquired “Mo gbo Itsekiri, dereke me nemi fo” status. I understand Itsekiri well enough, I just don’t speak it.
“So, just how easy or difficult is it to learn Itsekiri in this day and age?”
I think you would have to start with some context. Who’s your audience, what generation are you referring to? Where are they geographically located? What tools and access to language learning do they possess? And yes, what is their motivation for learning the Itsekiri language?
In my opinion, these are the questions any significant gathering of Itsekiri folk should be embroiled in. What’s more important than the survival of the language and culture? What better venue for addressing this topic than a convention for and about Itsekri people, culture and language?
Let’s think on that as the 22nd Annual Ugbajo Itsekiri USA, Inc.Convention approaches, shall we?