BENNETH Nnaedozie Okpala is an architect, lawyer, author and Igbo language promoter, but now devotes his time to promoting the latter because it embodies his cultural identity which means so much to him.
The Oko, Anambra State born Igbo language crusader would make available effort and resources at his disposal to sustain the language. He is quick to tell you that Igbo culture depends on the language and that makes it vital for promoting the language.
Omenawanyo, as he is fondly called, is a crusader of good causes. As an employee of the Houston City Planning Department, he took his employees to court, for their racial tendencies, in particular, black Africans. The Department systematically tried to disengage them from service, which could make them not pensionable. While he battled his employers in court, he enrolled for a law degree. He eventually won the case and became pensionable after retirement.
And now from his base in Houston, he leads the crusade in diaspora to make every Igbo person identify with the language, while championing the cause to entrench Igbo language sustainability at home.
For Okpala, education is not about speaking English, ”whether here or in the diaspora, our people don’t show that they love their language. We have this mentality that education is about speaking English. Anybody who claims to be an Igbo person must sustain the language. Igbo culture depends on Igbo language. We cannot break kola nuts with any other language than Igbo, else, it won’t be kola nuts. Our people are not proud of our language.”
Okpala is saddened by the attitude of some Igbo children in Nigeria and diaspora communicating among themselves in English. He argues that ndi Igbo are deeply jeopardised regarding their language. ”We in the diaspora don’t want our children to forget their roots. We want to show them who we are. We want to show them what home is.”
He maintained that the chief reason why those in diaspora take the language more seriously than people in Nigeria is that ”we in foreign lands feel disconnected by distance with no attachment to our cultural roots, so it is like fighting to sustain the language on two ends.
Children in foreign lands tend to forget the language a generation or two after their parents. We don’t have to be slaves, we have roots and must apply ourselves to them. This is what we want to inculcate in our children. We don’t want our children to start looking for their roots 40 years from now.”
”We must do everything necessary, available, even the ones not available to play our part. Until we know what we are losing, we don’t take it seriously enough to do what we can not to lose what we have. The only thing we can give our children is not what we have in our banks accounts but our language.”
Okpala, a strong voice in the Igbo cultural wilderness calling on ndi Igbo to retrace their roots, embrace the language and promote it, started his primary education at Central Primary School, Oko. He had his Secondary education at Agulu Boys’ Secondary School, Agulu. His first tertiary education was at Alvan Ikoku Federal College of Education, where he obtained National Certificate in Education (NCE) in mathematics and physics.
To further his education, he travelled to the United States, York College, Nebraska, for a general course programme. He studied briefly at A and M University, Alabama, before transferring to the University of Houston, where he obtained a degree in Architecture.
He returned to Nigeria after his studies in 1982, for the mandatory National Youth Service Corps programme with an architectural firm in Jos, Plateau State. He was in Jos, until the December 31, 1983 coup d’état. After his youth service, his company wanted to retain him but as an expatriate, so that he can earn higher wages. He objected to such a policy to work in Nigeria as an expatriate.
”How can a Nigerian who returned to serve the country gain superior employment do so other than be an expatriate? I refused to buy that idea,” he said.
The coup forced him to return to the United States. In the US, he enrolled at Texas Southern University for his Master’s degree. After his programme, he gained employment with the City of Houston Planning Department. He worked with the organisation for 21 years before retiring as Senior Planner in 2006.
On retirement, he resolved to dedicate his life to teaching and advancing Igbo language with Igbo people in Houston, and spreading it to other parts of the world.
Under the NdiIchie Cultural Club, he created the NdiIchie Youth Cultural Foundation to propagate Igbo culture and values among Igbo youths and adults alike. He added a block to the All Saints Anglican Church, Houston, to start Igbo school, which he largely built.
Okpala, argues that Igbo culture was well established before the coming of the Europeans. He points out that the colonial lords established the divide and rule policy to tell us most of the things to do: ”No human being made by God is superior to an Igbo person,” he said.
He buttressed this with his experience at York College, ”It’s not that I disrespect people. When I was at York College, there was this white student who, supposedly, was intelligent. One day, we had differential equations in a Mathematics lecture. After he solved a question, I stood up and said it was wrong. I went to the board and solved the question. I dismissed him so much. You know they have this psychology that anything white is superior. They are not superior. In my next life, I will be only Igbo.
Omenawanyo acknowledges the effort of people like Prof. Pita Ejiofor and others in sustaining the language, but admits more has to be done. ”I don’t know what our children will tell their children. Some of us cannot read Igbo. The interest of our children is diminishing in the language. As one generation goes, another comes. We are a generation to pass on our heritage to another.”
He insists that lack of pride in the Igbo language remains the missing link in not advancing the language. ”We are losing such a marvellous aspect of ourselves because we are not proud of our language. A typical example was when my talking book, The Digital Igbo Book was created in Nigeria.
The people who produced it had some works done in Yoruba, Hausa, even Spanish, with no work in the Igbo language. When I approached them to do my work, they declined. They argued that Igbo people don’t like their language and won’t recoup their money from the project. They only agreed to embark on it if I can pay upfront. I paid them close to N1.3 million before they could do my work.”
On the formation of the World Igbo Congress, he stated, ”what many people didn’t know was that the World Igbo Congress (WIC) was a baby of the Igbo People’s Congress (ICPC). He said, ”NdiIchie Cultural Club is a premier organisation in Houston. We have over 50 different Igbo associations at a time in Houston, Texas. And it was decided to have a community for ndi Igbo in Houston. Some people came to me because NdiIchie Cultural Club was a premier organisation.
”From that, we created Igbo People’s Congress (IPC) in Houston of which I became the leader and served as the two term president of the association. Under my leadership, we created the World Igbo Congress for the global Igbo community to serve as an umbrella organisation for all people of Igbo descent who live outside Nigeria, primarily those that live in the United States.
His biggest challenge in advancing the Igbo language is in Igbo women. He noted that even those who are not literate, communicate in broken English to their children. ”Naturally, children are closer to their mother. That influence of communication is there. They see Igbo language as inferior and bans their children from communicating in the language.”
Any regret so far in life, he beams with smiles that none exists. At almost 70 years of age, he said he has nothing to regret about life, ”Not looking at the past, but into the future since I have so much to accomplish in life. I’m preoccupied with the pictures of attaining new heights with Igbo language in future.”
”Teaching people to be proud of who we are, and do everything to sustain who we are for posterity. We can only do this if we transmit our language to our children.”
To keep Igbo language alive, which he described as ”God given unique language,” he urged ndi Igbo to keep expanding the language horizons by advancing in its written and spoken forms.
”Sustaining Igbo language gives us the claim that we want to sustain our culture. Without our language, we are no people. The dynamism is that Igbo language is rich. So rich, that the more you go into it, you discover it adapts to currency of the time as every other language.”
Okpala gave credit to the late Dr Alex Ekwueme, the former vice president of Nigeria as the greatest influence in his life, the reason he studied architecture and maybe, read law as Dr Ekwueme did.
Omenawanyo preaches loving your neighbour as yourself as his philosophy of life. ”What this simply means is to be Christ-like. Simplistic as it may look like, that is my philosophy of life.
He detests lies. It puts him off. He likes a straightforward relationship, good or bad. Humility turns him on.
Okpala has published the following books: Toasting the Bride: Memoirs of Milestones to Manhood, ”I self-published it and gave a copy to the Houston public library. They took it to Austin, the capital of Texas.
”The Texas legislature approved for it to be archived. The Bride has been legally inducted into Texas Historical Archive in 2001 by the Texas Legislature and made part of Texas history. As far as I know, this is the only book written here by a Nigerian archived in any library in the United States. Even a thousand years after my death, you will still find the book there.”
His second book was, The Shadow knows. After his second book, he wrote an Igbo curriculum book called Bunu Bunu Ibuanyi Danda. The book is a concept that can help anyone beyond a university degree learn Igbo Language.
It goes into the substance of the fundamental Igbo language, it deals with tones, change of tones, signs and meaning of the Igbo language. An actual practical way of accommodating every aspect of the dialect of the Igbo language. We have to collectively carry the Igbo language to sustain it so that the value of the Igbo language will survive us.
Other of his books include, Onyen’Uche Ya (Akwukwo The Shadow knows n’asusu Igbo) and Usoro Ihenkuzi Igbo: A Practical Approach to Teaching Igbo Language, Culture and Tradition
He is married to Rita Okpala. He described her fondly as a person of strong character. They are happily married with two boys and a girl.
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