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Tortuous journey to preserve Ogu language

By Anote Ajeluorou
13 May 2015   |   6:13 am
The Faneyes are an uncommon breed. Back in 1916, Faneye senior saw well ahead of his time. He reckoned that Ogu language as spoken in Badagry and its environs and across the Nigerian border in Seme, Cotonou, Lome and even in the Diaspora in parts of Haiti would suffer a hiatus. Although an Egba man…


The Faneyes are an uncommon breed. Back in 1916, Faneye senior saw well ahead of his time. He reckoned that Ogu language as spoken in Badagry and its environs and across the Nigerian border in Seme, Cotonou, Lome and even in the Diaspora in parts of Haiti would suffer a hiatus. Although an Egba man from Abeokuta, out of curiosity, he began to undertake the task of developing a grammar book for Ogu. At that point in time up until 1929, the holy bible was the only literature written in Ogu. Till date, there’s no other book on Ogu.

This is how John Ogunjimi Faneye’s journey into writing the grammar of Ogu language started. Back in 1916, he was a student at Oke-Are Seminary, Ibadan. He had two friends – Joseph Aina Seno and Ignatius Ogabi – who spoke a strange language whenever they were alone, a language that wasn’t Yoruba or English. Faneye became curious. He got to know it was Ogu; but he wanted more. “How do you say good morning in Ogu,” he asked his friends. They told him, but when he repeated it the next morning, what he got was a slap instead. His friends had been mischievous; they gave him the wrong code. Faneye would have lost interest, but he didn’t.

When next he travelled, it was to Badagry to see the former Akran before the current one (His Majesty, De Wheno Aholu Menu-Toyi I). He also saw a reverend gentleman, G.O. Henry, who was preaching in Ogu, who gave him Ogu bible. It introduced Faneye to the written form of Ogu language. From that bible began an academic exercise that took all of a lifetime. He diligently read the bible and from it began to deduce the grammar of Ogu. He completed the task in 1982, but had constraints publishing it. By 1984, Faneye senior passed on and was unable to see the fruition of his long labour on behalf of Ogu people.

But his son, James Olujimi Faneye would not liked his father’s labour to be in vain. Although he can’t speak Ogu the way his father did and wrote a grammar book on it, he said the affinity of the language to Yoruba by way of its diacritic or accent and cadence made him develop interest in it. And since 1996, he said, he’s been working hard to get his father’s book published. He got himself a computer, but it crashed and he lost what he’d done. He had to start all over again. He enlisted the help of his son in United States to get him a software that would enable him get the accents right, but it didn’t work the magic either.

According to Faneye, “Before you move with any group of people, you have to be initiated, which was what the two friends did to my father. He retired as a Chief Court Registrar in 1945. He gave me the manuscript and said it had been completed in 1982. I didn’t do anything ever since, but I kept reflecting on it and then I bought a typewriter. I thought the work should not be lost, but because of the special symbols it has it was hard for anyone to handle it. It was taken to the U.S., but it didn’t work out. The manuscript is a massive work. To produce the book has not been easy.

“My father had love for languages. He travelled a lot to cover cases across Nigeria. He sometimes doubled as interpreter in many languages. He was 82 when he completed the book. Language is a part of culture and there’s no book for learning and teaching Ogu. Ogu is dying because the children now speak Yoruba; Yoruba is corrupting the language.”

Titled Ogugbe Dagbe: First Grammar of Ogu Language, the book was launched in Badagry last Saturday. If the attendance of guests at the launch was any indication of the dire situation confronting Ogu language, then the threat of extinction couldn’t be more real. If since 1929, the only other literature on Ogu is Ogugbe Dagbe, then something desperate needs to be done to rescue the language from extinction, as is the case with many other minority Nigerian languages. Faneye’s hope is that the book would be adopted into schools along the Badagry, Seme, Cotonou, Lome and the Diaspora.

But this seems a tall order. Only about five chiefs or so came from the Akran palace in Badagry. What was worse, only a Special Assistant to Governor Babatunde Fashola on Rural Development, Mr. Babatunde Hunpe, represented the governor. There was no official from the state Ministry of Education that could give effect to Ogu being incorporated into the curriculum. But Faneye anticipated the problem. With Badagry having the largest population of speakers of Ogu on the Nigerian side, he hopes a committee would be set up to facilitate the revival of the language.

As he put it, “I spoke to the Akran that there should be a committee to pursue the goal of teaching and learning Ogu. We want to make sure our language is related to our culture and environment. My father wanted Ogu to be treated like Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa that are being taught in schools. The book is not only for Ogun people, but anyone interested in Ogu. It will open your knowledge and understanding of the language.”

On his part, Special Assistant to Fashola, Hunpe, who hails from Badagry, expressed disappointment at the poor attendance, which led to the late start of the event. He expressed his gratitude to the Faneyes for their efforts, saying, “We thank Olujimi a lot for bringing the book out. On behalf of Ogu people, we thank you. Don’t be disappointed by the poor attendance today. God will reward you. To you, Ogu people, wake up and be alive to the preservation of your language. Don’t allow it to die”.

Babatunde also appealed to Lagos State Government not to forget Badagry people, adding, “We’re backward even though everything started here.”

What was worse, the launch of Ogugbe Dagbe was interrupted by three Zangbeto masquerades that stormed Badagry Town Hall and effectively took over and refused to leave. They brought the proceedings to an abrupt halt, effectively becoming a nuisance to a process being held to revive their language tottering towards extinction.
Faneyes… tortuous journey to preserve Ogu language.