The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in November 1999 set aside every 21st February for the celebration of International Mother Tongue Day. The day was proclaimed by UNESCO as part of global effort aimed at, amongst others, keeping local language alive by promoting the preservation and protection of all languages used by people of the world.
There is a general concensus that the lofty idea of celebrating our languages is very important in view of the fact that mother tongue is not just one in which the first words are uttered and individual thought expressed, but it is also the foundation for the history and culture of an individual.
Furthermore, languages are most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage as they serve as vehicles through which we communicate our culture, values and ethics.
The language of a people defines and gives them a unique identity; therefore, when we lose our mother tongue, we lose an important element of our cultural heritage.
It is against this backdrop that the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, while celebrating this year’s International Mother Language Day, chose the Ekpeye language in Rivers State for UNESCO. The choice of Ekpeye language was due to its peculiarities.
The ethnological classification of the Ekpeye language places it among the lower Niger group of languages. It is spoken between the Orashi and Sombriero Rivers. The language is predominantly spoken by the Ekpeye people that are found in the Ahoada-East and Ahoada-West local government areas of Rivers State.
Professor Kay Williamson, a renowned linguist, once asserted that the Ekpeye, Ogba, Ikwerre, Etche and Igbo languages belong to a cluster or related languages.
Though the Ekpeye language is classified as Igboid, the occurrence of Edoid complex in the language lends historical credence to the origin of the Ekpeye nation. The migration of the Ekpeye people from the Benin Empire through the Abo in Kwale areas in present day Delta State supports the claims that over the centuries, most of the people in Ekpeye had lost their original mother tongue to the alien language that they now speak in their present location.
The Curator, National Museum, Port Harcourt, Mr Fadamijo Omolayo, in his welcome address, said the need to celebrate the Ekpeye language became most apparent considering the fact that the language is facing extinction due to low patronage. According to him, the event will awaken the consciousness of the users to this fact and spur in them the desire to conserve the language for posterity.
“Language remains one of the best vehicles of mutual understanding and tolerance, and respect for all languages is a key factor for ensuring peaceful co-existence. But until we come to appreciate and embrace with passion our own mother tongues, we cannot have respect for other peoples’ languages. And herein lies one of the root causes of conflicts that we have witnessed in our various communities”, he stressed.
Omolayo noted that the objective of the International Mother Tongue Day is to create awareness of the eminent danger of extinction which our languages face in this culturally challenging global village as well as drum support for sustained campaign so that we can have a generation of people who proudly identify with their culture by speaking their mother tongues.
He added that this year’s language day focused on Ekpeye language and that the massage is the same for all other languages.
Speaking as Mother of the Day, the wife of Rivers State Governor, Justice Suzette Eberechi Nyesom Wike, said that mother language is generally viewed as the most powerful instrument of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage.
She disclosed that Rivers State has 23 unique mother languages which invariably promote their cultural diversity, values and traditional knowledge.
“Today is aimed at promoting the dissemination of mother languages which not only encourages linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also inspires solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue amongst our different communities, thereby creating a more peaceful, inclusive and sustainable society,” the Rivers State first lady said.
According to her, the basic skills of reading, writing and numeracy are better understood, through the mother tongue, adding that it also enhances dialogue and interaction between the learner and the teacher by allowing genuine communication right from the beginning.
Most of the historical knowledge of our ancestral background, she said, is acquired through our mother tongue.
In his speech, the paramount ruler of Ekpeye Kingdom, Eze Ekpeye Logbo II, His Royal Majesty, Robinson O. Robinson , regretted that most people were losing their mother tongues due to negligence, stressing the need for people to show patriotism by promoting their mother tongues.
He said that showcasing Ekpeye language in the International Mother Tongue Day 2017 has reminded the people of the need to ensure that their language does not go into extinction, pointing out that the celebration of Ekpeye language and culture would be made an annual event. The royal father further stressed the need for Ekpeye and other ethnic nationalities in Rivers State to identify and defend their identities.
In a paper titled, “Factors Militating Against Ekpeye Language and the Way Forward”, Dr Imo, a university don, identified obvious lack of Ekpeye consciousness, lack of instructional materials and the recklessness of parents in teaching their children their mother tongue”.
Other factors, he identified, included religious interference, weak inculcation of Ekpeye cultural values in language as well as lack of public awareness campaign over time, among others.
Imo tasked Ekpeye people to imbibe and be proud of their language, stressing the need to encourage and inculcate the Ekpeye language in the educational curriculum of schools in Ekpeyeland. He also stressed the need for them to conduct church services in their language as well as translate the Bible and Hymn books into the language.
The university lecturer recommended a routine refresher course for Ekpeye traditional rulers and elders an annual summit to revive and sustain the cultural and language values of the Ekpeye man, saying anyone who does not know the Ekpeye culture and language should not be conferred with a chieftaincy title.
In his remark as chairman of the occasion, Senator Osinakachukwu Ideozu, noted that Ekpeye language is third in Rivers State, saying that the language is so important that it cannot be ignored in terms of communication.
One interesting aspect of the event is that Ekpeye language was used in conducting all the activities of the programme. The master of ceremony used the language all through and all the speeches were delivered in Ekpeye language.
Highlights of the event were the exhibition of cultural artifacts and books written in Ekpeye language, cultural dance display and Ekpeye language competition by eight secondary schools in Ekpeyeland.
At the end of the competition, GOCSS, Odiemerenyi, clinched the first position while Western Ahoada County High School, Ahoada, came second with CSS, Odiagbidi, grabbing the third position. The trio were presented with trophies.
It is hoped that the UNESCO, through the National Commission for Museum and Monuments, would make the event an annual one to bring other mother languages in not only Rivers State but other states to limelight.