BBC Pidgin takes to the airwaves in Nigeria
Imagine a language without an alphabet, held together without grammar or spelling, which changes every day but is nonetheless spoken and understood by more than 75 million Nigerians.
So how would a global mega-broadcaster like the BBC go about reaching this vast, young and un-tapped audience?
On Monday the British media giant will launch an online portal that will be entirely in Pidgin and feature text news, features and podcasts.
“It’s a challenging, exciting experiment,” said Bilkisu Labaran, the corporation’s editor-in-chief in Lagos, the commercial capital of the west African powerhouse.
Labaran and her 15-strong team, which includes web designers, journalists and social media experts, are seeking to transform Nigeria’s use of Pidgin, under the banner “make dem hear”.
“We want to be pioneers in what written Pidgin can be,” she told AFP.
“There is no harmonisation — but that’s the opportunity to have the conversation. We expect debate with our readers on what Pidgin should be. It’s like entering an unknown world.”
The project marks a shift for Labaran for whom speaking Pidgin at home while still a child would have earned her a stern parental rebuke.
Previously, Pidgin was considered a language for the impoverished lower classes.
Pidgin takes inspiration from Portuguese, the first European language to reach Nigeria’s shores, English, the enduring colonial-era language, as well as Jamaican patois imported by former slaves returning to the continent.
The language has shifted and evolved uninterrupted since its inception.
‘The man don delete’
Today it is spoken across Nigeria, where it traverses ethnicities and co-exists alongside some 500 other local languages, as well as in Cameroon, Sierra Leone and Ghana.
In all of these countries, Pidgin is becoming the lingua franca of cool.
An oral language, Pidgin has traditionally thrived on the country’s crowded radio waves, popularised by the music of the king of Afrobeat, Fela Kuti, and Davido, an American-Nigerian artist currently enjoying huge success.
When Wazobia FM, the first local Pidgin station, launched ten years ago, it was greeted with howls of derision by language puritans who predicted that the project would fail spectacularly.
How could a broadcaster discuss serious issues in street slang, the pedants asked.
The star host of the station’s breakfast show Mayowa Lambe said she “was struggling a bit at the beginning” to lose her English accent after years using the language.
“But the truth is, not everyone is educated in the country, and we have so many ethnic groups and so many languages. Everyone with a minimal level of education understands us, and can be informed,” she said.
“I love to listen to the news in Pidgin English — mainly because it makes it less tragic,” added Nigerian blogger Uduak Ubak.
“A good example is when the word ‘died’ is replaced with ‘delete’. When used in a sentence, we have something like ‘the man don delete’, meaning ‘the man has died’.”
And to commit a massacre is to “do-badness-to-people”.
The English word “kill is” reserved for a different context setting altogether.
In one of Lagos’ renowned mega clubs, a reveller might be heard to say “she dey kill me wit her mini-skirt o”, meaning they love the garment.
‘A language that belongs to nobody’
Wazobia FM, and many other stations like it, has meant a new level of recognition for Pidgin and its many speakers.
And for once it is the well-heeled, well-educated community scrambling to catch up.
“It’s a language that belongs to nobody at the same time as belonging to everybody,” said Bernard Caron, a linguist specialising in Nigeria at France’s CNRS research institute. “It’s also something that will unite the country, a way of reappropriating English while asserting its own identity.”
Labaran says she feels like she is delving into the history of the language since her studio began using the medium.
“It’s going to be a defining point for the language,” she said.
And for Nigeria’s relationship with its colonial past?
“I didn’t put it that way. But…” she smiled.