Nigeria’s Art of Flowery Language

In a series of letters from African journalists to the BBC, novelist Tricia Adaobi Nwaubani touched on the art of Nigerian verbosity.  First published on BBC Africa on February 5, 2017.

By: Tricia Adaobi Nwaubani

My friends in the international media are perplexed by the flowery language often used in press releases from Nigerian officials.

The pretentious diction, dying metaphors, and padded sentences would make George Orwell somersault in his grave.

Take, for example, this paragraph from a press release by the Nigerian parliament:

“The seminar is aimed at making good the promise of the National Assembly that we are on the same page with the President Buhari led administration and in line with the legislative agenda, that there is a synergy between the National Assembly and the Presidency in the fight against corruption.

“It is to reaffirm the point that you cannot clap with one hand. It is our way of saying that there must be a legislative strength to back the anti-corruption stance of the present administration.”

Here is another example, this time a paragraph from a Nigerian military press release:

“The Nigerian Army in synergy with other security agencies under its constitutional mandates… acted responsively in order to de-escalate the deteriorating security scenario in-situ.

“Instructively, the military and other security agencies exercised maximum restraints against the odds of provocative and inexplicable violence that were employed against them…

“It is rather inconceivable for any individual or group to have decided to inundate the general public with an anecdote of unverified narratives in order to discredit the Nigerian Army in the course of carrying out its constitutional duties despite the inexplicable premeditated and unprovoked attacks…”

Such long-winded passages can also be found in the local press, which commonly use expressions such as “the remains of the deceased have been deposited in the mortuary”, “men of the underworld”, “hoodlums” and “tantamount to insubordination”.

question-mark-2123969__340

Foreigners wonder why Nigerian government officials do not opt for simpler language.

Are they intentionally trying to confuse the public or to conceal information?

Well, these press releases are simply following an age-old Nigerian tradition of verbal ornamentation.

For us, important information has always been best conveyed with grandiloquence.

Writing a love letter

Back in my teenage years, long before the era of texting and sexting, there was only one way for a Nigerian boy to prove his sincere feelings for a girl: By writing a love letter.

Any boy serious about catching the attention of the girl he fancied knew better than to do it in simple English. He had to find the right big words.

exam-success

If his vocabulary was lacking, there was always that nerdish classmate of his who, for a fee in cash or kind, could take on the role of scribe plenipotentiary.

Either that or the boy could copy verbatim from a love letter already written by someone else.

And so, the typical love letter that many of us Nigerian girls received went something like this:

“My dearest, sweetest, most magnificent, paragon of beauty, I hope this letter finds you in a current state of sound body and mind.

“My principal reason for writing this epistle is to gravitate your mind towards an issue that has been troubling my soul.

“Even as I put pen to paper, my adrenalin is ascending on the Richter scale, my temperature is rising, the mirror in my eyes have only your divine reflection, the wind vane of my mind is pointing north, south and east at the same time.

“Indeed, when I sleep, you are the only thought in my medulla oblongata and I dream about you…”

If these sweet nothings were from a boy in whom you had absolutely no interest, the thing to do was to set his letter ablaze, enclose the ashes in an envelope and promptly return to sender.

Nigeria’s notorious 419 internet scammers adopted this same tradition of using high-sounding words.

Persuading gullible foreigners to part with millions of dollars and pounds is serious business, definitely not a task for everyday words and simple sentences.

A typical excerpt from a 419 scam letter reads something like this:

“Dear Sir,

“I do not come to you by chance.

“Upon my quest for a trusted and reliable foreign businessman, I was given your contact by the Nigerian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. I hope that you can be trusted to handle a transaction of this magnitude.

“It is risk-free, as all modalities have been put in place for a smooth and successful conclusion.

“Thus, I crave your distinguished indulgence and honest cooperation to guarantee that this mutual transaction will be executed under a legitimate agreement that will benefit you and lend credence to my humble belief in your honesty and trustworthiness.”

Like the 419 scammers and the love-struck lads, many Nigerian government officials choose the path of verbosity, expansiveness, and repetition in their press releases.

Of course, it is tempting to, as usual, blame the British for all this, for bringing us their English language and their pen and paper.

But then, communication was not any less complicated in the days before Nigerians learned to write press releases in English.

‘Wear out your listeners’

As veteran Nigerian journalist and author Peter Enahoro noted in his 1966 classic, How to be a Nigerian, the power of Nigerian oratory is measured by the strength of the speaker’s legs – and what better way to ensure that your speech never ends than to punctuate every sentence with a proverb or parable about the tortoise or the monkey.

According to Enahoro: “A sprinkling of logical conclusions is permissible but not vital… If there are two ways of making a point, one short, the other long, plug for the longer route… The idea is to wear out your listeners because the power of your oratory will be determined by the strength of your endurance.

“If your listeners save their sanity and survive you, then you have made a poor speech.”

Despite modern technology, the general rules of Nigerian communication have obviously not changed much since Enahoro’s observations.

Many still hold on to the ancient belief that complexity of message is proof of power, intellect, and influence.

That supposed proof is probably more important to the Nigerian government official than whether or not you understand what he is trying to say.

Advertisements

Now that the chips are down, Defiant Black Stars must earn their keep

No rally, no barrage, just a meek wilt, and surrender: The Black Stars have a lot of soul-searching to do going forward.

Defiance.

It’s not the worst tool in the box, but it could be when wielded wrongly.

Three years ago, Ghana’s senior national team misused it spectacularly, defying the powers-that-be — and logic itself — in holding the nation to ransom at the Fifa World Cup in Brazil, refusing to play a minute of football till huge appearance fees owed them were paid in full.

It was a show of defiance the boys would get condemned for by their countrymen; an ill-timed, ill-advised display of guts they’ll pay for till this hurt and scarred generation is replaced by the next. The Black Stars have tried all they could in quest of redemption: they’ve been contrite, resolute, even brilliant on occasion. Heck, they even attempted winning the 2015 Africa Cup of Nations — coming desperately close, in fact — just to reclaim some love!

Black-STARS111

What they hadn’t tried, though, was the one thing which got them entangled in this mess in the first place: defiance. They had a couple of chances building up to this failure to secure a World Cup berth in Russia next year to right their wrongs and perhaps warm their way into the hearts of Ghanaians again; the first – most probably the biggest – of which came against Rwanda in their final Afcon 2017 qualifier. It wasn’t an opportunity they were expecting, however, only one afforded them unwittingly by the Ministry of Youth and Sports’ reluctance to provide the usual luxuries on offer when international assignments were due.

Armed with the excuse that Ghana’s place at the following year’s Nations Cup in Gabon had already been booked, and that the result versus the visiting Amavubi would be no threat to the hosts’ position as Group H leaders/winners, the State arbitrarily decided to withhold funds allocated to be spent on the players’ ticket fares from their respective stations overseas (reasoning that such expenses could be spared if local players were called up instead, for the game) while slashing the usual winning bonus in half.

Were the already invited foreign-based professionals going to be coughing up their own travel costs? And were they even going to bother being at their best in a game which offered so ‘little’ in any actual gain (financial or otherwise)?

Well, to their credit, they did — and an expression of bloody-minded defiance was key, though for all the right reasons this time. The boys didn’t just show up against the Rwandans. They came with intent to win — even if Grant didn’t exactly put his strongest team out there, perhaps in assessing what alternatives he had with respect to squad depth ahead of an upcoming Russia 2018 qualifying game — and only a late equaliser from the east Africans robbed Ghana of a third straight home win in the Afcon 2017 qualifying series.

Not everyone was impressed, of course; an overwhelming majority of Ghanaians probably still considered the team a bunch of spoilt brats ever so willing to have their way. Still, they’d won some over, hadn’t they?

One venue the Black Stars felt they commanded a fair bit of goodwill was the Tamale Stadium which was going to be the ground the team was hoping get their World Cup Qualifying campaign off to a brilliant start. It wasn’t to be, as the doggedness of their first group opponents – the Cranes of Uganda – coupled with the harsh afternoon sun as one would expect at any venue in Northern Ghana – temperatures topping 37˚C as some points – meant the best Ghana could get from that game was a goalless soulless draw.

Not the kind of result you’d expect from a team with any fighting chance of making a Mundial more so, when Egypt – also housed in the same group and have been absent that the world stage for nearly three decades – was breathing down their necks, hellbent on wrestling that sole ticket the group had to offer from Ghana. A subsequent, almost inevitable defeat to Egypt in Alexandria were all the signs the Nation needed to realise situation was dire and that the time had come for everybody to put their shoulder to the plough and rescue our ‘beloved’ Black Stars from the quicksand it was in however traitorous we feel the team had been in the past.

FBL-AFR-2013-BUR-GHA-MATCH30

The nonchalance and a resolve not to forgive the players by a large section of the Ghanaian media and the general populace might have overstayed their welcome and probably left a tad bit too late when the final nail was all but driven into the Stars’ coffin after yet another damning draw at home to group minnows Congo Brazzaville. Now, with nothing to play for, a new-look Black Stars’ fight and defiance in Kampala in the penultimate group game won a few more admirers and left many feeling they could have done a bit more to help the team fight. Ghana has now finished the 2018 World Cup Qualifying series in third place – behind Egypt and Uganda – drawing four, winning one and losing the other.  Now the chips are down. Time to dress the wounds and pick the best balm to soothe and bring some relief going forward.

If the team’s rebelliousness in the past implied they didn’t give a damn about national interests, they’ve now oozed the same trait to show they do care after all.

With so many more battles to be fought — versus a fandom which remains largely skeptical of the Stars’ motives, a sports ministry growing increasingly hostile towards the team, and an FA caught in-between — in going forward, they’d have to ooze some more of that.

Defiance.

Teach Us To Number Our Days Oh Lord!

Being unable to cure death, wretchedness, and ignorance men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things.”(1)

It is a rare gift, in this age of distractions, to have five minutes to rest and reflect. Recently, I had the opportunity to take an entire afternoon and do nothing. I was sat in the botanical gardens of the University of Ghana, Legon, Accra surrounded by huge trees, and the singing of birds. As I looked out over the contrasting horizon of azure sky and the green earth, I was struck by my own insignificance—something I rarely allow myself to think about as I routinely fill my days with a kind of busyness to make me feel important. That topography of sky and bird and the greenery had been there long before I arrived and would surely remain long after I had departed—both from my visit and upon my departure from this world.

14132568613_881f048539_b

Despite this more sobering thought, the gift of undistracted space nourished me. I could revel in the symphony of songbirds all around me; marvel at the cataclysmic forces of nature that formed the mountains and valleys around the globe. I could wonder at my place in the vastness of the creation and feel my smallness and my transience. Having this kind of time to sit and to reflect is a rarity, and was just as fleeting as the birds that flew around me.

Though writing hundreds of years ago, Blaise Pascal serves as a prophet for this contemporary age. With the transience of life and the specter of death facing all, most seek lives of distraction. Whether or not we recognize that the fear of death is an underlying, albeit unconscious motivation, we nevertheless recognize how often we fill our lives in order to obscure these realities. Whether it is in juggling endless priorities, the relentless busyness of our age, or perpetual media noise, our lives are so full that we rarely find space or time to reflect honestly about anything. Particularly in this day and age, mindless consumption numbs us to the eventuality of our mortal condition and our finitude. The advertising industry is not unaware of our propensity to consumptive distraction. Marketers spent over 295 billion dollars in total media advertising in 2007.(2) Perhaps they know that humans mistakenly equate vitality with the ability to consume.

It is easy to understand how the fear of death and suffering would compel human beings to live lives of distraction. Yet, the cost of that distraction is a pervasive and deadening apathy—apathy not simply as the inability to care about anything deeply, but the diminishment for engagement that comes from caring about the wrong things. Kathleen Norris laments:

It is indeed apathy’s world when we have so many choices that we grow indifferent to them even as we hunger for still more novelty. We discard real relationships in favor of virtual ones and scarcely notice that being overly concerned with the thread count of cotton sheets and the exotic ingredients of gourmet meals can render us less able to care about those who scrounge for food and have no bed but the streets.

The ancient Hebrew poets, while meditating on the brevity of life, prayed: Teach us to number our days that we may present to you a heart of wisdom. It was the inevitability of death that motivated this prayer for wisdom. This was a wisdom that didn’t try to hide from the realities of life—be they joys or sorrows—but rather sought to keep finitude ever before it. Indeed, the poem ends with a cry for God to confirm the work of human hands. Whether a cry of despair over finitude or a cry of affirmation, numbering life’s days can lead to meaningful engagement in the world and in human work—and this was the mark of wisdom.

end

As I pondered the beauty around me, I thought of dear loved ones, both family, and friends, who will not look on this earthly horizon anymore. I counted myself among them for one day my own eyes will cease to behold this kind of earthly beauty. Despite the temptation to disengage or distract myself from the pain of these thoughts, contemplation reminded me that I too must number my days. In dealing with significant loss and pain it is certainly understandable how one would long for escape, but facing mortality and attending to it is the way to develop a heart of wisdom. Only then can one be open to the possibility of meaning and confirmation.

Jesus, himself, faced his own death with intention and purpose. “I am the Good Shepherd…and I lay down my life for the sheep… No one has taken it away from me, but I lay it down on my own initiative.”(3)

READ: MAKING CHRIST KNOWN

The way of wisdom demonstrated in the life of Jesus gives flesh and new possibility to the ancient psalmist’s exhortation. As he numbered his days, he calls those who would follow to engage mortality as a catalyst for purposeful, actual living. While following Jesus insists on laying down our lives in his service, it can be done in the hope that creation’s abundant life is truly made new even in the darkest of places. For the one who laid his life down is the one who was raised. He is the one who declared, “I am the resurrection and the life; the one who believes in me will live even though he dies.”

 

 

(1) Blaise Pascal, Pensees, (New York: Penguin Books:, 1966), 37.
(2) As referenced by Allan Sloan in “Fuzzy Bush Math,” CNN Money, September 4, 2007, money.cnn.com, accessed October 15, 2009.
(3) John 10:14a-18.