Tuesday, September 21, 2010

How to Speak Nigerian

Nigerians are very good people.

And never better than when they are dealing with non-Nigerians. It is more or less common knowledge that a Nigerian will bend over backwards (or in most cases, forwards, holding his ankles and willing his butt cheeks to spread) to please a foreigner in our country, shunning all other culturally acceptable practices and even self-respect in order to fulfill the every wish of this visitor to his fatherland.

I haven’t quite determined whether my people do this simply because they want something huge in return and don’t know how else to ask for it, or if they are just natural doormats and can’t help themselves. Whatever the case, the good Lord finally saw me fit to experience a firsthand taste of this brand of obsequiousness.

It was a cool evening in Abuja and I was planning an all-nighter, so I ventured to a coffee shop to purchase a latte (which was surprisingly good. Thank you, enterprising Lebanese people, for introducing this delicious, frothy, steamy beverage to our society). When I walked up to the counter to order my drink, I absently and automatically did something my fellow expats will relate to: I used my formal accent.

If you’re an African who has ever lived abroad, you already know what this means. But for those who may not understand, I shall explain. The African is known for possessing a most unique accent, usually comprised of deep, bass notes, lilting intonations, colorful vernacular. When we speak, we mesmerize (or perhaps, stupefy) foreign listeners, who realize they have never heard English (or French or Spanish or…) spoken quite like this before. Indeed, it sounds so strange to them, they hardly recognize these languages for what they are.

Therefore, in order to accommodate our Western hosts in their native countries, several of us have chosen to adopt a speaking style that mimics theirs, so they will not have to strain their ears and brains in order to engage in simple communications with us. We practice these speech patterns for months, years, imbibing them like smooth whisky, so that we may order our drinks and pick up our prescriptions in peace.

Some, like me, are more fortunate than others: attending school with Americans and Britons since we were children, the accent comes naturally to us. We roll our r’s like experts; when we say innit, additional consonants don’t pop up randomly to turn the word into hinni. In short, we blend in. At least, phonetically. Which is why, when we adopt these foreign speech patterns, Nigerians say we are “speaking foneh [faw-NEH].”

Initially, for me, the need to speak foneh only arose in formal situations, which was usually the only time there was a white person in the room. Over time, this formal accent became my polite accent became the way I spoke when I wasn’t yet comfortable with who I was speaking to, white, black, Asian, Arab….whatever. And now, it just pops out whenever it feels like it, and I’ve stopped trying to figure out why. This is what happened this day, when I opened my mouth to order a latte at this coffee shop somewhere in Abuja, and discovered that, to Nigerians, foneh is the gateway to heaven.

Ah! Foreigners enjoy Nigeria sha. I will never know what it was about the way I ordered this latte, but the lady who took my order was clearly impressed. Her eyes lit up and she leaned in towards me over the counter, soaking in my every word. She smiled at me, and was very attentive, trying to make sure that I received everything I wanted, that I received it promptly and that I would have no complaints about my service. I had to reassure her repeatedly that I was certain I didn’t require anything but a simple latte, no, not a delectable pastry, not even of the caramel variety; no, not extra foam in my milk. When I paid, I gave my money to another attendant, but the order taker traveled the length of the counter to ensure that my change and receipt were handled to me with care and a smile. I have never been wished a good evening by so many Nigerian staff in one shot.

I walked out of the store, high on life and feeling momentarily like a human being until a scruffy-looking policeman stopped me at a checkpoint, gruffly ordering me to “Stop there!” and put on my inner light, reminding me that I am merely Nigerian after all. There was no time to pull out my new secret weapon; I could tell from his red eyes that he wasn’t the sort of man you refer to as ‘officer’ – a man that high should only be called ‘sah’, and preferably with some groveling involved.

The preferential treatment is obviously not right or fair, but I must admit I was ever-so-slightly heartened to discover that my people’s biases have nothing to do with race, which is all I’ve contended with since I moved to America. Here, what separates the wheat from the chaff is money. Money by all its names: ego, owo, cheddar, bread…it spins Nigeria on whatever skewed axis we happen to be on. But for all our faults, it appears anyone can get a chance to hop on that ride.

My lady at the coffee shop has seemingly realized that gone are the days when only non-Nigerians could be considered wealthy – now you never know who is going to help move you up that social ladder. So best to be kind, at least to anyone who sounds like they’ve been where you want to go. Of course, I look forward to the day when I can expect good service just as a matter of principle, but until then, I’m using my cheat sheet: foneh all day, baby!