It is 5.47am in Ostana, Cuneo, a small town in Italy (close to the border with France). It has only seventy-four inhabitants, and became world-famous earlier this year from the arrival of a baby, Pablo, its first in 28 years. It is also regarded as one of the most beautiful Italian towns. I am here all the way from Lagos, Nigeria, in order to receive a “Special Prize” called the Il Premio Ostana in Lingua Madre (The Premio Ostana Prize for Mother tongue Literature), organised by a small community organisation who has, for eight years, organised cultural and literary art activities in celebration of the language of the region, Occitan, and other minority languages of the world.
Although it is barely six am, it is already bright, and the view from my room overlooking some of the tallest mountains in the Alps is breathtaking. The mountain closest to me, shaped like a pyramid with a paramount top, is called Monviso, or “my face” because of the way it is arranged with other peaks around it to look like the human face. The name of the mountain is in Occitan, like many phrases one hears thrown around this place. When the clouds are not covering its peaks as they have done for much of my time here, we see its caps, dotted with greens from trees, and patches of black from the face of rock formations from hundreds of years back. Down at the foot of the hill from where I sit on my bed, a man of middle age is tending a small garden with a long hoe. If I open the glass windows, fresh breeze as cold as fifteen degrees, wafts into the room forcing us to hug the bed covers a little tighter.
The trip from the airport in Turin was a fascinating one, taking about two hours, and journeying through some of the most beautiful views of Italy. Travellers in Nigeria would have felt a similar sense of wonder traveling to parts of Nassarawa, or Ondo states where rocks and hills line each side of the road like guardian masquerades. But this is not Idanre, as the clashing of tongues around one’s ears will immediately reveal. This is the Italian Alps, in a region that once was autonomous as “Occitania”, spanning the land from this north-western part of Italy into the other part of southeastern France, united by a common language and culture. Over time, as the nation of France and Italy formed a stronger national identity, they imposed an artificial border that divided Occitania into two, one part staying in France and the other in Italy. And over time, the influence of the stronger languages and culture began to intrude until Occitan became just an endangered minority language needing protection.
This, in many ways is similar to the story of many African languages, from Yorùbá to Hausa to Swahili, forcibly broken down and eventually watered down by colonial boundaries that kept its speakers having to learn a bigger, more imposing language at the expense of the local one. Where the difference lies is in what has been done over time to acknowledge and mitigate the problem of endangerment by the people who care about it. In Ostana, for the last eight years, concerned stakeholders have come to this mountainous region to celebrate the language, and – more importantly – to celebrate other people working on other endangered languages around the world, making resources and networks available for a shared approach to keeping the languages alive.
Yesterday, at a public panel, Nigerian writer Lola Shoneyin described the state of languages in Nigeria, the history of our regressive attitude to mother tongue education, and the problem that has caused in both our educational and also, sadly, in our political culture. She cited the Ife Six-Year Primary Project, headed by Professor Babatunde Fafunwa the result of which proved that students can and should be educated in their mother tongues for a better educational experience, and how that ideal is now totally lost, and the research result swept under the carpet by succeeding government administrations. During the Question and Answer segment where I was interviewed by a member of the event’s organising body, I also pointed to the ideals that were written in our constitution and our National Policy on Education encouraging education to be conducted in the mother tongue for a few first years of the child’s life, and how that had ended up being just a suggestion rather than a policy statement, and how the National Institute of Nigerian Languages (NINLA) – a body established to train language teachers from every part of the country – had become just a toothless tiger. Members in attendance were appalled to know that over the last thirty years, the Nigerian educational system (particularly in the South) has slowly degenerated from a time when subject can even be taught in the mother tongue in a number of government primary schools, to now when Nigerian languages – even as subjects no longer exist in the syllabi. “It is the opposite here,” someone volunteered. Thirty years ago, no one spoke Occitan, but now it has come back as a language of common use. I got the same experience in Wales, just a few months ago, where Welsh-medium schools have sprung up to supplant and surpass many English-only schools, with impressive results.
Around me in Ostana are varying tongues. Our driver from the Turin airport spoke English as a fourth language, after Provinçale (French version of Occitan), Italian, and French. His colleague spoke only French and Italian. The conversation in his car consisted of him making a point and then running into a language block, unable to remember what English word he needed to use to communicate a point. He’d then translate himself into Italian for his colleague who sometimes then gave him the word in French. My wife and I speak a smattering of French and we’d sometimes then understand it, suggesting the appropriate word in English. Or we won’t get the word right and the conversation would move on only for the process to repeat itself again in a few minutes. For a linguist, it was the ultimate beautiful thing, especially since none of these occasional misunderstandings prevented us from fully bonding and sharing other less untranslatable experiences among ourselves. But it was also a celebration of the beauty in the diversity of our tongues and worldviews. My wife noted halfway into the trip, with mock wonder, how it was that none of the road signs we had seen was written in English. Welcome to Italy. But also, welcome to the real world where education and enlightenment isn’t judged only on the basis of competence in just that one language.
I wondered myself a few minutes later what would be said of a town in any part of Nigeria where all the signs there are written in the one language common to the speakers living in the area, and how we’d have resorted to that common pejorative in order to tarnish that hypothetical village: “tribalism”. We would have reacted as though the town is saying to outsiders: “Do not come in here because you speak a different language. We hate you!” But we would be wrong. The experience I have had traveling all over the world, especially in places where value is placed on the local language, from Kenya to Wales to Ostana, leads me to a better understanding of this hypothetical town’s message to the world: “Come here and share with us the experience of our language and culture. Bring your language with you, by all means, but come in ready to share in ours, in celebration of life and this important diversity.”
And from that, we can learn a whole lot!
First published on Premium Times on June 3, 2016.