Dr. Barclays Ayakoroma, Executive Secretary of the National Institute for Cultural Orientation (NICO), has contributed his quota to the development of the arts in Nigeria which has attracted wide applause amongst players in the industry. A seasoned playwright, Ayakoroma is also the former executive director of Bayelsa State Council for Arts and Culture leading the state’s delegate to the 2002 edition of the International Children’s Festival of Culture and Art in Tianjin, China. During this interview with IJEOMA EZEIKE, the award-winning literary scholar –speaking with the passion of an artist– opens up about NICO’s campaign to improve cultural perspectives through training and events. Friday Flavour also shares some of the pictures capturing his activities. Excerpts:

As the world celebrates indigenous language day, how has Nigeria fared in sustaining indigenous language usage?

First and foremost, you will agree that most of our indigenous languages are dying. By the last study, we were told we have over 500 indigenous languages and you hardly find a state in Nigeria that is homogenous. We are faced with the challenge of sustaining these languages; most of them are hardly spoken because they do not have the power of survival.

Factors that sustain a language include commerce, military power and of course, the educational system. So, the celebration of the international day for indigenous languages is one of UNESCOs platforms to safeguard some of these indigenous languages. In November 1999, UNESCO declared the International Mother Language day to ensure that countries all over the world embrace the speaking of their own languages. Here in Nigeria, you will recall that there was this WAZOBIA policy an attempt by the government to encourage the speaking of Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo as the three major languages. But the question has been what happened to other languages

What then is NICO doing to preserve the more than 200 languages spoken in this country from extinction?
Here in NICO, what we are trying to do through the indigenous language programme platform is to teach the indigenous languages. The institute started with long vacation programme, so as to give children the opportunity to learn mother tongue because most of our children hardly speak their mother tongue which is very unfortunate. We have a national policy on languages which says that in their first few years, children should be taught in their mother tongue or the language that is spoke in their environment. You know that learning comes with indigenous thinking and scientists have told us that children have the capacity to learn many languages in their early formative years. If in every state a sitting governor says learn you own language and other two languages, we will be raising the next generation of children that will be proficient in the major Nigeria languages and that is what will unify us.

We use the indigenous language platform to offer children and parents an opportunity to learn one or two Nigerian languages. For now, it runs for four weeks and is also a veritable platform for people who are married outside of their tribe. From the long vacation programme, we are graduating to the weekend programme. We are also looking at what is called language in the barracks aimed at taking the indigenous language programme to various military and paramilitary barracks. In every barrack, you will see almost all the ethnic groups in Nigeria and also the intertribal marriage have been on in the military and paramilitary probably because of the nature of their jobs. We have the situation where most of the children from such marriages hardly speak any of the two languages; we are providing a platform for them, through the weekend programme, to learn so that barriers would be broken.

How can speakers balance the use of mother tongue without interfering with the ability to communicate effectively in English, our official lingua franca?
From my personal experience I will say that if you are proficient in your indigenous language, you perform better because you can even do your reasoning in your indigenous language as you write. The association of Nigeria doctors is also trying to look into the angle of writing in indigenous language. I mentioned earlier that if a child starts with indigenous languages he will perform better.

For example, in those days when we were learning the alphabets, we learnt in vernacular, including the spelling process. By the time you learn all these things and can speak the language fluently, it will help you in reasoning because once you learn a language, you are learning the culture, the tradition and at the same time studying the people; it broadens your horizon. But, nowadays, children are just in the strait-jacket English mode of study which is not encouraging. Our children do not go to Russia, China or Europe and just start schooling; they are compelled to go through language study programme for one year or two years. By the time they are through, their field of experience has widened, so that when the conventional studies begin, they will be reasoning as a Chinese or Russian person as the case may be. It is unfortunate that our educational system has not encouraged the learning and speaking of indigenous languages. In NICO training school, we make Nigerian languages compulsory Ðthat is different from your own local dialect and there is need for every individual to learn a language other than his or her own.

What would you like to see changed in school curricula for cultures sake?

Schools should inculcate and enhance the teaching and learning of our indigenous languages. We want a situation whereby these languages would be taught at the beginning of school years. For example, if a child is schooling in Abuja, he should be able to learn Hausa, Bwari and others. Apart from this, the child should be taught Yoruba, Igbo and at least three to four Nigerian languages because that is the time they can learn as many languages as possible. In old age, one may not be able to assimilate these languages.

Lets assume that all state governments now adopt deliberate policies to include Nigerian languages in educational curricula and a child learns all these languages up to secondary school level, by the time he or she finishes secondary school, he or she will be proficient in all these languages. Government has to put in place deliberate policies so that foreign students will be subjected to learning Nigerian languages in the environment he or she is studying. If you dont learn the language, you will not appreciate the people and their culture; so there has to be an acceptable language policy that will be implemented.

In order words, state governments can enact policies to stimulate certain positive cultural practices?

You know state governments superintend over primary and secondary schools in the country and of course, whatever a state government wants is what will stand. What we expect is for government to come up with basic policy on education and national policy on languages. I am aware that Nigerias Educational Research Development Council is currently working on a language policy for which NICO is a stakeholder and we are making input to that effect.

We want a situation where a state government comes out with implementable policies to enhance the state of our indigenous languages. The constitution gives provision for legislative houses to deliberate in their indigenous languages especially homogenous statesÐ but these are not implemented. We know that few states devote one day in a week deliberating in indigenous language and I am aware that Anambra State does that every Wednesday. We believe that our dress culture is also an important aspect that is very critical to this country; we have attires that can look good anywhere in the world. Recently, some of my directors were at a workshop in Malaysia and I was told one of the directors was adjudged the best-dressed participant. This was a workshop that drew people from Europe and Asia and they marvelled at one of us because of the way he was dressed at the end of the day, they gave him a prize. That says by the time we patronise our attires, we look different. If you go to London wearing jeans and a t-shirt, nobody will look at you twice but wear an agbada or etibor or woko and everybody will stare at you; that is cultural diplomacy. You are imposing your dress culture and promoting it to the outside world.

We undermine what we have by not promoting our dress culture and which is why NICO is championing its use. In our office, every staff wears local fabrics three times in a week. We are trusting that the Federal Executive Council (FEC), will eventually approve our memo asking that civil servants and public servants, even at the FEC level and legislative houses, should dress Nigerian when they have sittings. That will surely promote the dress culture and textile industry. We expect that Nigeria will continue to patronise the local fabric industry so the sector can boom again.

Already, the nation gives holidays for religious festivals; what about states or LGAs setting aside holidays to mark significant cultural dates?

Unfortunately, we have not elevated our cultural activities to that level where government will declare public holidays. But the interesting thing is that in our traditional society, festivals are days when people stayed at home. It is usual for people to declare public holidays, in the local context, when festivals are held and it is also possible for government to do that. For example, if the Abuja carnival is holding, it is possible for government to declare half day of work so that people can go and watch the carnival in the evening. I’m looking forward to a time where Abuja carnival will draw 30 or 40 foreign countries; once that happens, they will be our cultural ambassadors. Whatever negative stories have been told about Nigeria will be countered by these people who have seen things by themselves.

Incidentally, theatre history tells us that the Feast of Dionysus in Greece and the Ludi Festival in Rome were elevated national events. On those days, prisoners were allowed to come and watch events then, after the event, returned to the prison. Unfortunately, for us as a people, we attach no importance to festivals; the culture sector is not looked upon as a viable sector. If you talk about culture, people take it as those who sing and dance. It is unfortunate that the culture sector has not received the much-needed attention from successive government; but one thing we need to know is that oil will dry up one day.

Culture is very viable and our festivals, cultural practices that are edifying, could be explored; visitors would come to see. Look at the Calabar carnival; imagine the crowd that streams into the state for the festival just because of the vision of former state governor Donald Duke. He has left a legacy for the state and I am happy that Senator Liyel Imoke is sustaining it; Calabar would always be the hub. Other states need to borrow a leaf and lift standards to a level where it will attract people. Once your cultural sites attract people, tourism has come and once tourism comes in, the local economy will improve.

The traditional dress code debate has been on; how far has NICO come with getting it passed into law?

We have a memo that has been approved by the national council on culture and tourism. We are waiting for the ministry to forward it to FEC for deliberation and approval and once that is done, there has to be a bill in the National Assembly for it to be an enabling law. If it is approved, then on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, every civil and public servant should appear in Nigerian dress. If it is extended to our tertiary institutions, of course, the various chancellors and principal officers will now ensure that it is obeyed because the spate of indecent dressing is alarming and the school system is not helping matters. We are also writing to the Governor of Central Bank to look at this area of dress code on Fridays in the banking sector. We believe that in no distant time, our memo on Dress Nigerian would receive serious attention.

What will you regard as NICOs biggest achievement under your administration?

It is not for me to say, but we are trying; NICO has gained some higher level of visibility since my assumption of office. But it is embarrassing when people ask me, where has NICO been all these years? We have also gone a long way in the area of capacity building organising management retreat (which has never happened before), so that people will now have a sense of belonging and direction as far as the vision and mission of NICO is concerned. Staff now have some level of confidence and identity with the institute; they are proud to work with NICO and that is very essential in the development of an organisation.

Our zonal offices are improving; they are very active. We have animated the art of writing through our media workshop for art writers and editors. Just recently, we were in Gombe state and next, we are going to be in Akwa Ibom state trying to expose art writers to the rudiments of their desks and of course exposing them to the state of culture and tourism sector in various states.

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