A Quest For Cultural Identity: How Ibibio Became The Language of My Immigrant Family

By UnyimeAbasi Odong

My sons are overcoming a speech impediment I caused them in the early stages of their development.

Today, my son said to me, ‘eka mmi, abo die?’. My heart swelled with pride. Much more than if he had just graduated on a scholarship from Harvard with joint degrees in quantum physics and rocket science and Chinese arithmetic at his five years of age.

Last week, I said to my second son,

‘Lala, aya atua oh!’, [you will cry] to which he replied, ‘I will not tua. Now what did I do’. I was glad. He understood the verb, ‘editua’ and the tense in which I was using it, and the connotation of promising that he would ‘tua’. Very far from where I want to be, considering his English language vocabulary is much wider and more developed, but a step in the right direction, and much farther from where we were when I started about six months ago.

This is where we were:

One day my sons were sitting outside with their father who said to my Udo, ‘ka ke’bo anwaan mmi akeene awuo adi’tie mi’. To which he gave his then constant reply, what does it mean?’  My husband kept repeating himself in Ibibio till my Akpan came to his rescue. ‘He said you should go and tell Eka mmi to come out with us’

Udo marches to me, ‘eka mmi, I don’t know what été mmi said but Koko said that he said that you should come outside and sit with us’.

And I have my husband and siblings to thank for even the small progress as they alone continually flouted my no- Ibibio policy, often saying of the varied versions of English that people spoke around us in respect of that policy, ‘isn’t na it better théy speak Ibibio than that they pick up these strange tongues?’

Just before inviting them to flout the policy. It was said husband that gifted my children deep Ibibio names after I had gone through intense pains to birth children so beautiful they had to have exotic names. Anye’do ama ambiak baaaaad.

Why is this a big deal for me?  Many reasons.

When each of my sons was just developing his speech, my mother would try to speak to him in and get him to understand Ibibio language. I often said to her, ‘mummy, yak eyen mmi, ke owo isemme Ibibio ke United Nations. Kpeeb ammo French afo’ke’kpeppe ndito owo’fen’. [teach them the French you taught other people’s children. No one speaks Ibibio at the United Nations]. I remember how I got her to stop harassing me about teaching them my local dialect and mother tongue. I threatened I was going to restrict her access to them if she didn’t stop. Well, in Ibibio land, that kind of threat would check any grandparent, so she stopped doing it when I was around but kept trying to speak to them when I left them with her.

She did not record much success because whatever progress would have been possible in the little time they spent with her would be reversed by my policy of no Ibibio in my house. Why? I did not want my children to speak with the thick ‘Calabar’ accent that I resented. I spoke the Queen’s English and was determined my children would too.

In the mid-2000s, I went to Law School in Bagauda and met a man whose name was Effiong. I remember vividly because I would later secretly dub him, ‘Effiong Ikor Mbakara’. He worked at the library. Every day I saw him at the library, I would say to him, ‘sir amesiere’, to which he would reply, ‘good morning’.

Then I stopped saying anything to him. I was angry. He complained to another of our townsmen that I was arrogant and rude and never said good morning. Then, I went to him and said to him. “You hear when I speak with other people, and you should know if I have a deficiency, it is not the English Language. My being here alone is proof of that, because I would not have written my degree exams in Ibibio. I see other people greet members of staff from their place in their local language and they start up and sustain a conversation in that language. You know that in this place even if my father is the DG, if I haven’t done all that I should, I cannot proceed, and you also know that once I do all that I need to, I can make all the progress available, no matter if all the world is my enemy, so you know it’s not about currying favour. How can you be responding a mean, measly ‘morning’ to my cheerful ‘amesiere’. I decided not to greet you again”.

We were both surprised at my tirade. I was not aware that I was that deeply pained.  He had not been aware that he was doing that.  He had so internalized the English language that it was an automatic response. Even when he was speaking to me, and trying to communicate in Ibibio, English phrases, and sometimes, whole sentences kept slipping in. I forgave him. It wasn’t deliberate on his part. But over the years, I slowly morphed into another Affiong Iko Mbakara without realizing it.

Fast forward about ten years later when I travelled with my children to North America. Once we arrived Frankfurt, everyone brought their language from their hand luggage and displayed it. I was the ONLY mother who was communicating with her children in English. I sat beside another lady with whom I constantly spoke my language. When she couldn’t hold the curiosity anymore, she asked if they truly were my children to which I replied yes. She said she would not have asked except that they kept calling me mummy. She would have assumed I was travelling with other people’s children. Why did they not understand Ibibio when I obviously spoke it so fluently? I had no tangible answer. Even before she asked me, I had noted how I was the odd mother. This was our first time travelling outside the shores and my fluent English-speaking children did not understand a word of Ibibio.

We got to Toronto and I shrunk further. Each time my children threw tantrums in public, I was almost helpless as I was made aware that you couldn’t threaten them. But other mothers spoke sharp foreign words to children who immediately remembered their manners. I could only cajole since any threat delivered in my language would not work, and I wasn’t willing to face the law if I threatened them in the only language they spoke- English.

Some other things happened in North America. First, I worked in two industries whose Nigerian counterparts place a premium on the English language and I was supervised by people who spoke English so thickly accented I had to read one in every three words in context.

That was after I worked under another person who did not speak more than a pageful of the English language. He always said, ‘no English, go supervisor’ to any query I had, but I reported to him in a facility in North America. And no, he did not speak French either, which was the other official language of Canada.

I would work with all kinds of nationals with ‘cut-and-join’ English. Most of them had English vocabularies that were only a paragraph in length. They earned more money than me and were almost always ahead of me at the workplace. This was Toronto, Canada. English was not only the official language, it was the native language.

Then one day, while at work, I was speaking with a fellow Nigerian when a North American lady came and said to us, ‘oh! You have British accents’. My fellow said, ‘thank you’, but the lady looked at me with a furrowed brow.

Why was he saying thank you? I had an idea, and if the lady had been inclined to think like me, ‘if people say thank you, that means they think you did them a favour, accept it for when you might need a favour from them’, and say, ‘you are welcome’, that would have been the end of that interaction. But she didn’t and asked him, ‘what for?’

“You just said I speak with a British accent’, he replied.

‘But that is a statement of fact’, she countered.

None of them understood the other but I understood them both.

I jumped into the conversation, ‘we were colonized by the British. Maybe that’s why’.

A year ago, I too would have swelled fit to burst with pride at the ‘compliment’, but I had matured language-wise and was more aware of what was important.

That interaction solidified a nascent idea that had been growing in my head – all this ‘Queen’s English’ I was speaking was in actuality, just a British accent. Even the original owner of the language had an accent. Why was I afraid of accents? I had heard Africans and Asians make presentations to world audiences in their thick accents, and the accent did not detract from the message. Why was I afraid of accents?

Then I lived with a Yoruba woman who watched so many Yoruba movies subtitled in English. I soon learnt to converse with her in Yoruba, and she would be so excited each time I tried, so much so that she took it upon herself to teach me. I was one more number swelling the ranks of Yoruba speakers, and that, ndito eka, is how a language gets to the place of international acceptance: a large population of speakers. I have met immigrants of many ethnic nationalities here.

Three, four generations of Asians and Eastern Europeans still speak their native languages fluently. There’s even some employment where the vacancy posting says fluency in Cantonese or Punjabi or Spanish or Italian or Russian would be an added advantage. I see a second generation of Igbo and Yoruba migrants still able to speak and understand their native language, the Hausa man speaks his language even if he is a tenth-generation immigrant, but mkpo iso mmi, even the first generation forgets the mother tongue at the transit terminal. By the time the second generation comes around, they are answering English names and have no known ties to the homeland.

Well, that was how I determined that I was not going to be bothered by accents. I would speak Ibibio as often as I could and get my children to do so and whoever had a problem with our accents could ko an yum in de lakoon.  And I am lucky, I had this revelation when they are still young and can easily learn new languages, because that is what it means, they are learning my language as a new language.

So my new policy: No English in my home. They will speak enough of that when they get to school, where the teachers and administrators are only too eager to raise queen’s English speaking prodigies.

We will speak Ibibio at home and if you don’t understand, the code is, ‘abo die?’


Barr UnyimeAbasi  Odong is an internationally trained professional with extensive experience and expertise in researching, analyzing and developing policy options on various issues including privacy, technology, governance and compliance.

Leave a comment