As African metros grow dramatically, and as custom and culture diffuse across the many different physical, geographic, and social borders that mark the continent, one element seems to have achieved some constancy despite such change; a language called “pidgin”. A fusion of English and different traditional languages, “pidgin” is popular across Nigeria.
In almost any setting and in any scene, pidgin is a linguistic element that translates effortlessly across class, age, educational level and tribe. While shopping, at work or school, or in any of many other environments, Naija pidgin can be overheard peppering everyday speech with a sweetly symphonic flavor, tying the dish that is daily dialogue together quite savorily.
From the most spirited “how you dey?” to the most melancholy “haba!”, and from the tongues of school-children, area boys, or even grandmothers, pidgin is a well-embedded, well-embraced, and ever-evolving facet of Nigerian society, as natural (and as necessary) as oxygen. Pidgin even supersedes speech, like a living thing it adapts and grows as the climate around it changes.
Even in the United States, where I have lived my entire life, pidgin and some of its variants can be heard among African communities from all reaches of the continent.
I recall during my first year of college, at a meeting of the African Student Organization, most of the groups assembled were speaking pidgin, or something close enough to it that was still understood.
The simple “how now?” that met me at the door was indicative to me of a deeply rooted cultural spirit, a showing of pride displayed as proudly as the blackness of our skin.
Friends I met at this meeting continue to remain dear to my heart, even now as I go into my last year of school and prepare for a career afterward. The sincerity of that simple welcome, and the familiarity and camaraderie that it instantaneously sparked from strangers assured me that though I was away from home, my ties to it were not severable.
Despite the cultural differences between Africans in the US, the sound of pidgin is always familiar, stirring memories of home and reminding us of our place in the amazing cultural fabric from which we all are woven.
In a recent article in The Guardian newspaper regarding pidgin, the dialect is again acknowledged as a unifying element. Writer Monica Mark quotes Nigerian pianist Funsho Ogundipe, who worked with legendary musician Fela Kuti and who once stated, “Fela [Kuti] said it a long time ago – the one language that can unify every Nigerian is pidgin.” Fela, who at a point did performances exclusively in pidgin, understood its power to unify and empower diverse groups, reinforcing belief in the power of African unity.
While it does not take a doctoral degree or musical mind to comprehend the symphony that is pidgin, it is clear (even from a cursory observation) that pidgin is a core thread in the very intricate tapestry that is Nigerian and African culture, one of many threads tying together the fabric that beautifully binds us.