University of Ibadan, Nigeria
This essay discusses the importance attached to language and texts from other cultures in the rhetoric of My Odyssey, the autobiography of an African politician and nationalist, Nnamdi Azikiwe (November 16, 1904 - May 11, 1996), which was first published in 1970. It explores the autobiographer's focus on cross-cultural/cross-ethnic communication and co-operation, especially in an African nation, and the challenge to cultural homogeneity. It focuses on Azikiwe's representation of the multilingual and multicultural self as a model of the "new" and progressive Nigeria. The journey of the self becomes the journey not only made on behalf of the nation (Nigeria), but also the journey that Nigerians are expected to make mentally to become informed, patriotic, and detribalized; in short, as one speaking the language(s) of the many.
The first indigenous Governor-General/President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and one of the key figures in the struggle for the emancipation of Africa from European colonization, "Zik of Africa", as Azikiwe was often hailed in Nigeria in recognition of his commitment to the liberation of the continent, worked hard to promote a sense of African identity and unity. He was removed from office as President by the military in 1966, but he re-contested for the presidency in 1979 under the platform of the Nigerian People's Party (NPP) and lost to Alhaji Shehu Shagari of the National Party of Nigeria. He was installed as the Owelle of Onitsha by the Onitsha traditional ruling council, and so became one of the powerful people in the Onitsha Kingdom. A well-read political scientist and thinker who ranks with some other popular African leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Leopold Sedar Senghor, and Julius Nyerere, Dr Azikiwe perceived his personal journey in life and by extension the historical "journey" of Black Africa as a struggle between knowledge and ignorance. Through his speeches and writings, which include Renascent Africa (1937), Choose Independence in 1960 or More States: A National Challenge (1960), and Respect for Human Dignity (1960), he tried to raise national consciousness among Nigerians. He also established and used the print media, for instance, African Morning Post and West African Pilot, to promote the project of political education and de-colonization in Africa. His autobiography also seems to have been conceived as a narrative medium of education on the making of the ideal nationalist through encounters across cultural and semiotic/linguistic boundaries.
In many ways, the location of the growing self across cultures and languages is part of the textual construction of self as an ideal leader, a textual strategy that fits into the general representation and celebration of the self in autobiographies as "exemplum", or of one's life as being "exemplary or extraordinary enough to command the other's attention" (Owomoyela, p. 8). As one who, by historical circumstances, was born outside his "Onitsha" Igbo home and whose schooling and growing-up involved moving from one ethno-cultural space in Nigeria to the other, Azikiwe features as a "new" and desirable product of the Nigerian melting pot. He tells us in his story that he could speak Hausa and Yoruba so very well that he was even mistaken as a non-Igbo. In a multilingual Nigerian context where the language that one speaks contributes principally in the assignment of identity to one, and also accounts for the kind of treatment that one gets in social life, Azikiwe's multilinguality and multiculturality even turn out to be an advantage. He writes that because he could speak Hausa fluently early, he was regarded by Hausa passengers on the train in which he traveled to Kaduna in 1917 as "one of them" (p. 24) and so benefited from them in terms of the snacks they bought for him and the warmth of company expected from such practices of inclusion. This supports the idea that he is deliberately writing to deconstruct ethnic and linguistic politics of exclusion which has always been pronounced in Nigeria. Earlier, he has had to report as follows:
Azikiwe is obviously writing to promote Nigerian nationalism, using his own story of his life to prove the possibility and necessity of demolishing barriers to such nationalism. He finds in life-writing as a historical narrative a great resource for moulding perspectives and feelings, especially that of patriotism, in Nigerian readers of the book. Just as his reading of From the Log Cabin to the White House, W.M. Thayer's biography of James A. Garfield, a former President of the United States of America, roused the patriotic spirit in him, his autobiography is positioned also to influence his readers, becoming, perhaps, a "guide to those of the living who may need guidance, either as a warning on the vanity of human wishes, or an encouragement, or both" (pp. xi-xii) as he writes in his preface. That one learns from the lives of others is an obvious fact. Reading about the life of a pioneer may thus become a way of having a sense of the past, of comprehending that idea of "where the rain started beating (us) citizens of postcolonial Nigeria" (an Igbo proverbial saying which has been popularized by the Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe (1975)). One area a Nigerian reader of the autobiography would certainly need this guidance is: how to define or locate one's identity and allegiance in the Nigerian plural linguistic and cultural context. For instance, in the relationship between Yoruba and Igbo ethnic groups that have often been in rivalry, Azikiwe would use his personal experiences of living among Yoruba people and interacting with them to show that the two groups could rise above their mutual ethnic hostility and prejudice:
The fact that my father's colleagues in Zungeru were Nigerians and other West Africans, and that these Nigerians represented various tribes in the northern and southern sectors of the country, taught me a lasting lesson. Although they represented many linguistic groups, yet they worked together and enhanced efficiency in the administrative machinery of government. This was proof that unity could be achieved from diversity, and that tribalism could be contained by the sanctions of authority. (p. 23)
Not that we do not have numerous instances of such friendliness across the Yoruba-Igbo groups, or even mutual inter-ethnic solidarity at the workplace, but it appears illusory to believe that linguistic and ethnic differences are not strong factors that shape behaviour at the workplace in Nigeria. In fact, it is even dangerous for any employee in Nigeria to think that language and ethnic differences do not affect the treatment he or she receives on the job.
Azikiwe's excursus into his royal genealogy that is traced back to the ancient Benin Kingdom is also another attempt to demonstrate that his personal identity is no longer homogeneous, which is supported by Edward Said's observation that:
Being both Bini (Iduu) and Igbo by origin, and then having some Yoruba and Hausa, and of course some Britishness (as a colonial subject), Azikiwe obviously suggests his Igboness as being always already imaginary (since it had never really existed as a form of uniqueness). In fact, it is that process of invention and not preservation or restoration that his father engages in when he sends the young Azikiwe back to Onitsha out of the fear that the boy might lose his "Onitsha" culture. And mind you, Azikiwe does not refer to losing "Igbo" culture, since he had already traced Onitsha origin and his own royalty to Bini. Even today, the so-called "Onitsha Igbo" refer to other Igbo derogatorily as "nwa onye Igbo" (offspring of the Igbo), something Azikwe hints at when he writes about the conversation he had with his grandmother on the meaning of the name "Onitsha" as follows:
Then I asked her why we despised others. She patted me on the back and told me that it was due to our aristocratic background and tradition. I insisted that she should explain to me the basis of this supercilious social attitude. She told me that we despised others because we descended from the royal house of Benin, and so regarded ourselves as the superiors of other tribes who had no royal blood in their veins. It was therefore taboo for us to associate with others on a level of social equality. (11)
Adiele Afigbo, one of the foremost authorities in Igbo studies, has, in his Ropes of Sand: Studies in Igbo History and Culture (1981) and recently in Igbo Experience (2001a) and Igbo Enwe Eze: Beyond Onwumechili and Onwuejiogwu (2001b), shown that the Igbo ethnic group is not homogeneous, considering the fact that it has resulted from waves of migrations in the pre-colonial period. The point, however, is that the narrative strategy of presenting aristocratic genealogy of self appears to reinforce the idea of self as being special, as being an elect who is guided by destiny to accomplish a task for the common good. The genealogy as a sub-text serves as a rhetorical proof and testimonial.
The rhetorical function of the presentation of genealogy, which I have viewed as an identification strategy, finds relevance and support from the framing of the story of Azikiwe's life as an "Odyssey". The title recalls Homer's Odyssey (the complement of his Iliad) in which King Odysseus of Ithaca, after defeating the city state of Troy, undergoes series of trials and shipwrecks, entrapped sometimes by witches and supernatural powers, even to the point of descending into Hades (the place of the dead) to find out from the dead blind seer, Tiresias, how he could find his way home. Finally, Odysseus is able to return to Ithaca, changed by circumstances not only in terms of the long period he spent away from home, but also in terms of the superhuman, in fact, godlike qualities he has now acquired. He eventually regains his kingdom after defeating the suitors of his wife Penelope who have virtually taken over his palace.
One can immediately see the connection that Azikiwe is trying to make between the experiences of Odysseus and his own. Just as Odysseus goes through series of sufferings (even going to the place of the dead!), Azikiwe suffers tremendously in his journey towards acquisition of intellectual powers and wisdom with which he would defeat the British colonialist and secure independence for Nigeria. As it has been observed by Oha (1999), Azikiwe was indeed mythologized in popular discourses by some ordinary Igbos as somebody with godlike and intellectual qualities, as a saviour that is immortal. Homer's Odysseus, too, is transformed by his truncated journey and sufferings into a divine ruler. The intertextuality here appears to authenticate the career of "Zik of Africa", enabling readers, who are presupposed to have reading competence in the classics, to see his life in terms of that of Odysseus. This kind of cross-cultural framing of identity may be seen as part of the expression of postcolonial hybridity.
Indeed, many Nigerian politicians and intellectuals, especially the earlier generation, find it necessary to do things with forms of knowledge from Western cultures, and this also involves "doing things with words with people", to borrow Willis Edmondson's (1981) interesting extension of J.L. Austin's famous title, How To Do Things With Words (1962), which theorizes language as action. Given that language itself is knowledge as well as a means of transmitting knowledge, Nigerian politicians and intellectuals that write their autobiographies in the English language the language of the country's former colonizer may be seen as being involved in a project of articulating self from the in-between of cross-cultural engagement and semiotic reconstruction. In the Austinian pragmatic framework, language is closely tied to human experience and personal intervention or acting in the social process. Although the speech acts theory articulated by Austin in terms of the distinction between performatives and constatives had serious weaknesses which he himself recognized, leading to his revision of the theory, one could lean slightly on that framework and view an autobiographical text as a rhetorical attempt at re-inventing one's significance in a world of people and events. Such a re-invention is also a means of doing things about personal identity, using other identities (in fact, re-imagining Self in the framework of the cultural Other). By "using the other identities" I mean the appropriation of the narrative or text of the Other - a consumption of the Other - to produce tropes that advertise that significance of self.
There are obvious reasons for a politician using his or her life-writing to construct an acceptable image of self. A politician needs support, and has to justify aims, correct some unfavourable impressions, and present credentials that confirm his or her acceptability. These are best accomplished where the politician is able to tell his or her own story, such as in the case of an autobiography that exposes the value that is placed on rhetoric, more specifically language, in the sketching of the image of self. It is thus worth the while exploring the cultural, philosophical, and semiotic dimensions of language in the autobiography of an African politician, taking into account the historical and political contexts. In this regard, Zik's autobiography is engaged in the construction of his heroism in Nigerian nationalist politics and is centred partly on performance in the language of the colonial master - which was still believed to symbolize the new Western knowledge and white man's magic of controlling and governing the other, and on his vision.
Classical rhetoric and narratives, especially the Hellenic, as a matter of fact, have been influencing African art, in the same way that African philosophies had impact on Hellenic philosophy as argued by some African philosophers, for instance Henry Olela (1998). One reason for this influence is that many African elite had a form of formal colonial education in which the classics were emphasized and were elevated to a position of authority as far as the production and transmission of knowledge is concerned. Classical thought was considered original and unparalleled, such that to connect to it intertextually in speech or writing meant a self-authentication of knowledge and of the self as a knowing subject. Consider, for instance, African creative writers like Wole Soyinka (who has sought a parallel of the Greek pantheon with the Yoruba pantheon) and also in his autobiography; similarly, Ola Rotimi (who has sought to re-write and Africanize Euripides' Oedipus Rex as The Gods Are Not to Blame, is another who makes an obvious attempt to translate his cultural experiences through the Greek voice. Moreover, reflections of the knowledge of the classics, especially of a language of classical world, speak clearly about transcultural translation and representation of self as a knower. It also suggests an egocentricity, or rather an ego-logocentricity, by which I mean the construction of the pride of self through the word, in this case, the classical word. This ego-logocentricity also features in the framing of personal visions and experiences from classical images, or the adoption of classical paradigms in the representation of personal experience.
Classicism in My Odyssey however appears to be plural, for although the title suggests a dominant aristocratic adventure, there is also a sub-text of the narrative on the journey made by Jason and the Argonauts to obtain the golden fleece which has healing powers. This sub-text is in fact offered in the final advice given to Zik by his father before his departure to America for further studies. He quotes his father as saying:
Being in possession of the golden fleece itself implies a transformation. From being an imagined "gentleman" and British citizen, Azikiwe transforms into a manual labourer who suffers so that he would be able to use his head and his heart as a nationalist. His pursuit of relevant ideological education is verbalized in terms of other voices (of his human guardians and supporters) that he keeps in mind and draws our attention to in the autobiography. One such case is Dr J. Stanley Durkey's heartwarming advice that he should "... work hard, keep cheerful, trust implicitly in God ... and whistle (his) way through" (p. 89). The expression "working and whistling my way through" (p. 111) becomes a major doctrine that Azikiwe adopts so that his life is clearly "translated" pragmatically. Even right from the point he enters America, this ideological transformation commences with his re-articulation of the symbolism of John Brown's commitment to emancipation in America. From the song on John Brown's hanging "John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his soul goes marching on", he articulates his own resilience, foregrounding the expression "(my) soul goes marching on" as being applicable to him too.
But this American context of the translation of Azikiwe's life also contributes to his misery, not only because he has to struggle to comprehend the American verbal semiotic (like his not calling a camp box a trunk and being laughed at (pp. 83-84)), but mainly in the discrimination and loss of job he suffers because of his possession of an Oxford accent of English. He writes:
Those of us from the Third World, especially Africa, who have traveled to the United States of America, would attest to the fact that the way we speak English amuses the American listeners; indeed such entertainment (now "infotainment"!) has already been appropriated by the Voice of America in its use of Africans with peculiar accents of English in presenting its programme, "Africa World Tonight", something relevant to A. Pennycook's (1994) arguments about how the adoption of English as an international language ties into the global systems of disempowerment (of non-native speakers and their native languages). The African speaker becomes an entertainer (in fact, an American confessed to me that she "enjoyed" the way Africans spoke English). Even then, the cost of such entertainment is much where it is considered a distraction or an embarrassment but where one has to work to survive. Speaking and acting "American" becomes a shibboleth used in determining inclusion and exclusion.
Perhaps with the internationalization of English coinciding with an Americanization of the world, American English not only features as a language of power and economic life in America, but also a dialect that tends to subvert and transform the context of the parent British English. As Azikiwe travels from America to Britain to spend some time there , he discovers how extensive this Americanization has become, which seems to suggest that American English and culture may eventually become the global language and culture.
Obviously, a Nigerian politician like Zik would find rhetorical displays useful, even to be able to bamboozle and impress people. Speaking to be different, or speaking what is not (well) understood appears to become part of the communication of the authentic odyssean figure who is in a position to deliver his own. Another pioneer Nigerian politician, Peter Enahoro, has humorously represented the oratory of a Nigerian (politician) as follows:
Not that this is entirely true of every Nigerian orator, but in many cases, especially in politics, we find the truth of the poet's assertion that:
Be that as it may, Zik's style of language in My Odyssey also moves towards the poetic, especially at the juncture where he has been acculturated in America and when he becomes bitter about his unemployment status. The literariness and poetic precision is remarkably displayed in the following:
The treatment he received is effectively represented in these simple sentences, the first three which have the parallel structure of (S)ubject + (P)redicator, while the last is (S)ubject + (P)redicator + (C)omplement + (A)djunct. In fact, the beauty of the lines lies in the parallelism of the (S)ubjects of the four sentences and progressive and extension of sentence length, which creates a poetic rhythm. Interestingly, too, all the "Ss" in the sentences foreground the organizations that behaved in objectionable ways, according to the narrative: the similarity of their responses tends to agree with the similarity of the structure of the nominal group/subject that identifies them (see italicized elements in the excerpt above). Also, the verbal groups that identify their actions/responses, such as "hedged", "dodged", and "gave me the cold shoulder", all suggest the insincerity/hypocrisy that appears common to all the religious groups mentioned.
Understandably, Zik was a poet, too, and even includes some of his early poems in the autobiography as a way of showing the shaping of his passions in his misery, as well as an elevated articulation of his (political) ideals. Although such poems are not particularly sophisticated, they nevertheless represent a choice of effective means of expressing oneself in difficult situation. In one of the poems, he writes:
It is noteworthy that the poems, just like the main autobiographical narrative within which they function as sub-texts, are produced within the context of the colonial (master's) literary tradition and language. This perhaps represents the inevitable subjectivity to the colonial tradition; something Zik struggles to shed, according to the narrative, but has not succeeded entirely. Linked to the issue of the need for effective cross-cultural communication in Nigeria, and perhaps to the inevitable use of English as Nigeria's official language today, one finds that the autobiography verbalizes the plurality of the post/colonial subjectivity and identity.
Language is an important part of the journey Azikiwe makes to a new intellectual and patriotic selfhood in My Odyssey. At one level, as I have noted, he draws attention to how the ability to speak the language of the ethnic/cultural other creates opportunities for self, and minimizes the distance between self and the other. But the questions that arise are: Is the other similarly disposed to learn and speak the language with which the self invents identity? Is speaking the language of the other so as to be included not assimilatory, and sometimes exploitative? As seen in Azikiwe's loss of the job of elevator operator for his use of the "wrong" accent of English, speaking the language of the other re-assures the other, but it also evidences the attempt at eliminating the self's different identity to the benefit of the other. Giles Gunn's (2001) has argued that:
Difference needs not be a stopping point, but a beginning in the approach and entry into the space of the other, as Martin Heidegger, cited in Bhabha (1995, p.1) has pointed out: "A boundary is not that at which something stops but as the Greeks recognized, the boundary is that from which something begins its presencing." In the same vein, Gunn (2002) has noted that moving beyond group solidarity is not only desirable in inter-cultural relationships, but has already been inevitably achieved in the production and use of knowledge.
Nnamdi Azikiwe's focus on language and group identity in his autobiography may seem to corroborate James Olney's (1993) argument that African autobiographies tend to celebrate the group (or interest of the group), especially because of the use of languages by groups to construct their identities. Language remains social and inter-ACTIONAL. But then, there is a meeting point between Olney's view and that expressed by Owomoyela (2002), namely, that African autobiographers are not different from their Western counterparts; that they do also celebrate "the self as exemplum": "... the same desire that induces a Western individual to his/her autobiography is operative in the case of the African who decides to write his/her life story" (p. 13). The celebration of self as a scion of the (heritage of the) group, or as the guide or pride of the group, represents a convergence of group and self interests, although it may seem as if the self merely uses the group to construct its significance, in which case it is the self that is foregrounded.
At the more stylistic level, one observes a rhetorical process whereby the self that traverses cultural boundaries speaks on behalf of his (colonized) African population. In this case, the story of self also becomes the story of the group. Furthermore, Azikiwe's language in the narrative is partly confessional (in fact, he confesses his initial weaknesses and mis-education), but he also appropriates this confession to refocus the story to celebrate himself as one of the heroes (Argonauts!) of knowledge that have vanquished the dragon of ignorance on behalf of their African people.
 The names "Nnamdi Azikiwe", "Azikiwe", and "Zik" refer to the same person in this essay. "Zik", as we are informed in My Odyssey, was the short form created by Americans for "Azikiwe". Short forms are, of course, typical of American communicative life. Interestingly, the morphological transformation of the name "Azikiwe" to "Zik", as an instance of cultural translation of the journeying self, would coincide with transformations of his attitude to work, knowledge, and the pursuit of freedom.
information on the life and times of Nnamdi Azikiwe is available at:
https://www.greatepicbooks.com/epics/november98.html [Consulté en février 2003]
https://www.greatepicbooks.com/epics/february99.html [Consulté en février 2003]
https://amillionlives.com/ind_a.html [Consulté en février 2003]
https://www.oau-creation.com/PAGE%204.htm [Consulté en février 2003]
 Incidentally, this novel appeared in 1960, the year Nigeria won political independence from Britain, and within the period when "Zikism" and the magic of high-sounding rhetoric were popular in Eastern Nigeria.
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|Obododimma Oha teaches Stylistics in the Department of English at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. He has published a number of articles on aspects of media semiotics, gender linguistics, cultural politics, and literary style in international journals and anthologies. His article, "This is what they now call reality: Otherness and the rhetoric of the hyperreal", was published in Mots Pluriels number 18 (August 2001). Obododimma Oha's most current publication is "Net/Works of the Text: From Barthes to Cyberpoetics", which appeared in Poetics of the Text (2002) edited by Zuzana Fabianova, Gabriela Missikova, Daniela Petrikova, Alena Smieskova, and Tibor Zilka at the University of Constantine the Philosopher in Nitra.|