By Banji Aluko
Deep in the heart of the Igbo-speaking people in Aniocha North Local Government Area of Delta State are Ugbodu and three other communities where Oluku mi, a derivative of Yoruba language, is the language of the people. BANJI ALUKO, who visited the communities, examines how close Oluku mi actually is to the Yoruba language and traces how the people came about the language.
HELLO, this writer said, while knocking at the door, and a young lady, emerging from the building, replied, ta ni yen? When the writer heard the reply, he taught it was a mere coincidence or that his ears were deceiving him. Of course, he had every reason to be surprised since he was not anywhere near the Yoruba enclave where such a reply can only be anticipated. After all, he was more than 100 kilometres away from the nearest Yoruba community; he was in Ugbodu, a town in Aniocha North Local government Area of Delta State.
While trying to decipher why the lady gave such a reply, what further followed put the writer in a more confused position. A girl of about five appeared and said, “mo fe ra biscuit.” Perhaps, the people are part of the Yoruba community living in the town, the writer guessed as he tried to find out from the lady.
“Are you a Yoruba woman; what is the meaning of ta ni yen?” The writer asked the questions at once. Reluctantly, she answered, “I am not Yoruba o, I am just speaking my language.” Apparently, she was not unaware of the similarity between her language and Yoruba language. The lady refused to entertain any further question about her language and asked him to go to the king’s palace or to the elders if he wanted to know more about the language.
At the palace, the elders still would not talk about the similarity between their language and Yoruba. They asked the writer to wait for the arrival of the king, who they said can only speak on the people, their language and their history.
The period of waiting for the king afforded one time to listen to the conversation and the discovery was nonetheless remarkable. Following closely the conversation between some elderly men and with a deep knowledge of Yoruba, one could establish a nexus between their speech and actions. In fact, some words and expressions could be understood.
Following their conversation with rapt attention, expressions such as Gbemu wa—bring palm wine, me wa nani—I didn’t come yesterday, me ri e—I didn’t see you, mu beer oka wa—bring one beer etc could be heard, albeit with an intonation slightly different from that of the Yorubas.
Seeing the desire of this writer to follow their talk, one man finally volunteered to explain the similarity between their language and Yoruba. “I believe you are a Yoruba man,” he said. He continued: “We are Oluku mi speakers but we speak a language that is very similar to Yoruba.” This he demonstrated by pointing out some words and expressions in their language (Oluku mi) which denote the same meanings as Yoruba.
He gave some examples such as ita—pepper, ogede lila—plantain, ogede keke—banana; ku wu se—what are you doing; ule house; osa – market; oma—child; o dowuo—see you tomorrow, e bo—welcome. After explaining some similarities between the languages, he still refused to talk about how the people of Ugbodu, in the middle of other Igbo speaking neighbours, came about Oluku mi. Like others, he maintained that only the traditional ruler of the town can speak about how Oluku mi became their language.
But after waiting endlessly for the king, his brother, Prince Adebowale Ochei, who later arrived the scene, volunteered to speak on behalf of the king, H.R.M. Ayo Isinyemeze, the Oloza (Obi) of Ugbodu. According to him, history gave it that the Ugbodu Oluku mi speaking people migrated from Owo/Akure axis in the present Ondo State between 9th and 11th century AD to settle down in Benin during the reign of King Ogiso of Benin.
He continued: “At this period in the history of the Benin Kingdom, the most neglected of the wife of the Ogiso gave birth to the heir apparent to the throne. After the woman gave birth to the child, a male, the nobles consulted the oracle and said that the oracle told them that the child should be killed for peace to reign in Benin Kingdom. At the end, the child was not killed as it was said that the child was too handsome to be killed, so a fowl was killed in his place.”
According to Ochei, this was the reason the Ugbodu people left Benin. “They felt that if a crown prince could be ordered for execution just like that, they could do worse things to strangers in their midst. As a result, they left Benin and came to Ewohimi, an Ishan speaking community in Edo State. Due to intra-tribal wars, they later left the place to settle down here in Ugbodu which is a shortened form of Ugbodumila, which means bush saved me in English Language.”
He further pointed out differences between Oluku mi and Yoruba. He said one notable difference is the changing of letter “j” in Yoruba words to “s” in Oluku mi as seen in words like oloja or oja which are rendered as olosa or osa and joko as soko.
With the movement of the people was the consequent change in their language as shown in their names. According to records compiled by Prince Humphrey Ojeabu Ochei, the immediate Olihen of Ugbodu, the first six Olozas bore Yoruba names namely Adeola, Aderemi, Ariyo, Odofin, Adetunji and Oyetunde. These early kings bore typical Yoruba names years and decades after the establishment of the Ugbodu Kingdom.
As the people gradually lost contact with their kinsmen back home, they began to gravitate towards the Benin and Edo communities. The resulting acculturative process gradually led to the adoption of Edo names among the people. Hence names such as Ogbomon, Ozolua, Izebuwa, Ogbelaka, Izedonwen, Osakpolor, Esigie Igbinadolor, Osaloua, Osamewamen and Ebor emerged as Olozas.
Since Ugbodu is surrounded by the Igbo-speaking Aniomas, it did not take much time before the Igbo Language started to interfere greatly on the people’s language. Accordingly, Igbo influence steadily and progressively made what has now become permanent inroad and considerable impact on the socio-cultural life as well as linguistic orientation of the Ugbodu people. With this, the Edo influence began to wane, resulting in the adoption of Igbo names in preference to Edo names. Thus from the middle of the 19th century, the general shift was from Edo to Igbo names. This can be seen in the names of Olozas, who ruled between the middle of the 19th century and late 20th century such as Dike, Ochei, Ezenweani and Isinyemeze.
Investigations conducted revealed that Ugbodu is not the only community where Oluku mi is spoken in Aniocha North Local Government as the language is also spoken in Ukwu-Nzu (Eko Efun), Ubulubu and Ogodo.
At Ukwu-Nzu, only few kilometres away from Ugbodu, the language is not also different. Although, the people are less emphatic about their history, nonetheless, the similarity between their language and Yoruba is evident in their names and greetings. “Oju e ma won ke,” meaning your face is scarce in Yoruba, was what a man said to his friend he accosted on the road. When Sunday Tribune approached the man, who gave his name as Ayo Oke, he shed light on his language and provided more examples between Oluku mi and Yoruba Language.
He said that “instead of saying e kaabo, we say e bo, meaning welcome and wa ni we yi, meaning come here;” He also gave example of words which virtually have the same meanings as the Yoruba language. Some of these include obe—stew; oni—today; ola—tomorrow; otunla—next tomorrow etc.
Another elder in the town, who spoke with Sunday Tribune, said that the name of Ukwu-Nzu before the Igbo Language “infiltrated” their language was Eko Efun (efun means chalk in Yoruba Language). He also attributed the efun in the name of their town to the rich prescence of white chalk in the town which he said the community was richly blessed with.
Presently, the biggest challenge for the people of Ugbodu and other Oluku mi-speaking communities is how to protect their language and culture in general. According to a native of Ugbodu, “the elders are more connected to the original Olukumi language than the youth. In fact, we have lost the real Oluku mi and what we have now is an Oluku mi that has been greatly altered by Igbo language. Most of the people who can really speak the language right now are the elders. Ordinarily, the real Oluku mi is like the Yoruba that is spoken in Owo in Ondo State. Someone from that place is expected to understand the language perfectly but right now someone from Owo might not be able to understand more than 50 per cent of our language. This language may die if care is not taken,” he said.
Another factor that also contributed to the decline of Olukumi, according to findings, is that there was a time in the past when an understanding of the Edo or Igbo language, was considered as a status symbol. According to an elder in the town, “An Oluku mi who spoke the two languages then was considered superior to others because it meant that he had travelled wide. This was the inferiority complex our people unwittingly created for themselves which we are trying to correct now.”
In protecting their language which is gradually being threatened, a revival process has been started. Part of this is that some of them now choose to give their children Oluku mi names and to sing and say prayers in Oluku mi. In some cases, some radical reformers and revivalists changed the names given to them by their parents from Igbo to Olukumi. The climax of the restoration process of their linguistic ethos and identity was the christening of the incumbent Oloza with an Olukumi name, Ayo.
Reacting to efforts aimed at protecting Oluku mi, Prince Adebowale said, “I am an Oluku mi man and I am proud of my language. I am not happy that Igbo language is interfering with our language. We are trying our best to correct the situation and part of that is what my brother (the Oloza) is doing by organising an Oluku mi reciting competition. We want to know the people who can speak the real Oluku mi without mixing it with Igbo or English.” As laudable as the task of protecting Oluku mi by the people of Ugbodu(mila) is, only time will tell how far they can go.