Mazi Ogbonna, the Chief Executive Officer, CEO, of the New York, United States of America-based Mother Tongue Academy, MTA, responded to our online questions on issues surrounding his crusade to save indigenous African languages from extinction. Here are excerpts:
Could you please introduce yourself to our readers?
First of all, on behalf of both Mother Tongue Academy and Native Tongue Academy, I wish to thank you. Honestly, I feel greatly honored that your esteemed and widely read publication has found us worthy to be brought to the attention of your world wide audience through this interaction.
Now to the question: At birth I was named Mazi Nnamdi Chinyere Ogbonna. I was born as the first child of Pa Eleweke and Nnenna Ogbonna of Agbonkokoro, Ọbayị, Ovim, Isuikwuatọ, Abia State, Nigeria.
I am married to Nnenna Ogbonna and we are blessed with three sons, Mazi, Ikechukwu and Uchechi Ogbonna. I and my wife are also grandparents to two adorable grandsons: Mazi nke atọ na nke anọ (Ezekiel and Dominick Ogbonna).
I attended Elementary School at Methodist Central School, Ovim. Thereafter, I proceeded to Methodist College, Uzuakoli where the academic furnace fabricated me to whatever I am today. At Uzuakoli, I was fortunate to have had a firm “moral, social, and cultural” GPS through the effort of numerous no – nonsense and disciplined individuals who were my teachers. Most outstanding amongst them was our dedicated Igbo Language teacher, fondly referred to as “Nna anyi Uche” who, in his admirable dedication to duty, pumped into me a great dosage of Igbo language to last me a life time. Upon my successful graduation from Methodist College, Uzuakoli, I was accepted to study Microbiology at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN). Much later, I transferred to Seattle University, Washington State, USA where I obtained a Master of Science Degree in Transportation Engineering and Planning. I am currently retired from the New York Department of Transportation.
What motivated the founding of your Academy?
The motivations to set up Mother Tongue Academy and Native Tongue Academy draw deeply from my early experiences in life. Firstly, my accident of birth in the Western Region of Nigeria where my father lived and worked as a Nigerian Railway Corporation staff initiated me into Igbo language and Igbo culture at an early stage in my life. My father, Pa Eleweke P. Ogbonna worked seven days a week and barely had time to teach us anything let alone Igbo. Worried that my sister and I could only understand and speak Yoruba language, my father relocated us to our village, Ovim, so that we could learn to speak Igbo language. Before one asks, “why didn’t your mother teach you Igbo?” I discovered sadly that our mother was having bouts of ill health issues which eventually consumed her when I was only seven years old in the village.
The second motivating factor is, should I say, very personal and emotional to me. Half-way into my elementary school stage of education, one of my teachers, who was a religious fanatic came to the classroom one fateful day and decided that all the pupils in his class must all take up English names without the consent of our parents. He claimed the new names would serve as our individual passports to Heaven. When it was my turn on the naming exercise, he distorted my identity by inserting John to my family given Igbo names. According to him, since Chinyere means John by his interpretation, he renamed me John Chinyere Ogbonna and discarded Mazi and Nnamdi. As young as I was, I didn’t find the idea of taking up a strange name funny at all, but had to accept it as it was unthinkable to challenge a class teacher in my days. My family members were visibly upset about the mangling of my identity. When I grew up, I discovered the true reason our class teacher imposed foreign names on us. He was a naïve tool in the hands of some propagandists who portrayed Igbo language and culture as inferior to foreign cultures. I determined that such a line of thought, which I consider a cultural blunder, ought to be reversed in the interest of the survival of Igbo culture. Even though such a false mindset had made some considerable inroads in Igbo society; a change in the right direction is not too late. There is no reason someone whose meaningful beautiful name is Ikechukwu (God’s Power) by birth should prefer to be called “Iyke,” which has no meaning. Others are: Ọka being written as Awka; Ịgbo Ụzọ as Ibusa; Enu Ugwu as Enugu; Ọma Ahịa as Ụmụahịa; Ozuzu Akolị as Uzuakoli. The need to put a halt or draw attention to such mindless corruption of Igbo names is the driving force of our Academy. In summary, Mother Tongue Academy (Native Tongue Academy) is created to help give Igbo language, in particular, and African languages in general, some position of respect in the world setting. Believe it or not, it is the same attitude of dismissal of the Igbo language that has been responsible for non existence of an Igbo version of the novel Things Fall Apart. It is even more painful when faced with the fact that the novel was written by an illustrious Igbo son with international acclaim – Prof. Chinua Achebe and has been translated into 61 languages of the world. This shunning of the Igbo language is extremely very odd to hard core Igbo lovers and enthusiasts like me.
Apart from the above, the last straw was my daily observation that children, even in remote villages do not speak their mother Tongues or their native vernacular. For Igbo children, it is disheartening to hear a kid respond “Fine” when asked “Kedu?”
How much ground have you covered since inauguration of the Academy?
This is a tough question because I don’t know the exact barometer to use in measuring the extent of the ground we have covered so far. Nevertheless, I will say I have developed French and Spanish Online platforms in the past. I started with those to give me the training and understanding for originating an easier method of teaching Igbo language and other African languages. So my short answer is that I have gone far considering I am like a one-man Army.
What level of support have you been getting from parents and organizations?
A lot of moral support like “Jisie ike” and “A dala mba.” With such encouragement, I am determined to carry my own share of the Cross to the ‘Finish Line’ successfully.
How far do you intend to go with this novel Academy?
My dream is to develop the easiest Methods for learning and speaking of most African languages. At a minimum, I intend to beat the 61 languages in which Things Fall Apart has been interpreted into. This, hopefully, will be the forerunner to the translation of the novel, Things Fall Apart into the Igbo Language. I hope Ndigbo are paying attention to the slight against our rich Igbo Language.
Are you in touch with such socio-cultural organizations as Ohanaeze, Afenifere, etc and international bodies like UNESCO and UNICEF?
No! These organizations are too political for me to wade in given my bad experiences in 1991 after founding the iconic Igbo Organization Inc, New York. That Igbo organization was formed with the noble intention to unite Ndigbo and for the sole purpose of propagating and promoting Igbo language and culture. I birthed the teaching of Igbo language and culture by publishing a magazine called “Olu Umu Igbo” in Igbo and English languages. Today, the drift from the original game plan is disheartening, to put it mildly. In my Igbo language, they say the bird without a strong neck does not engage in a peck and swallow competition. “Nwa nnụnụ olu ya akaghi aka, anaghi aga na-ọtụrụ o loo.” To me, Ọhanaeze Ndigbo is a socio-cultural entity for those who have arrived as Doctors, Nzes, Ezes, Chiefs, numerous titled individuals and what have you. Mother Tongue Academy intends to propagate Igbo Language like evangelism, based on one person at a time trajectory.
What challenges have you faced since starting?
Numerous and centering around lack of WILL and INTEREST by Ndigbo. A majority is steeped in excuses which are too numerous for me to list here. Additionally, most Ndigbo with children and grand children are not high tech savvy. Thus they are stumbling blocks to reaching their “Tech Savvy” children or grand children who will easily latch on and run with Igbo Online due to the easy learning methodology instituted by Mother Town Academy.
How are you tackling the problems? What are the solutions to the challenges of this Academy?
I intend not to stress these problems. The solutions, I believe, will come one day by Divine Intervention. Since the prophet is not popular in his environ, hopefully, when we launch the Yoruba Online within the next month, Ndigbo may begin to pay more attention than they are doing now.
Is the issue of difference in dialects of major indigenous languages e.g. Igbo and Yoruba a problem?
No because every language has differences in dialects. But determined societies find a way to harmonize the differences.
Some people have suggested the adoption of a single language as a common language for all Africans e.g. Swahili. (A) Is this practicable or feasible?
Whether practicable or not, I do not support such efforts. People should be able to speak the dialect or language God handed to them in addition to others. It is very important that we do not throw ours away in favor of others. The more the merrier.
Will adoption of a single language lead to faster extinction of other indigenous languages?
Every language or dialect should be spoken proudly as long as it came from God. No language should be regarded as superior no matter the economic derivate associated with that language. Only God knows why humans are not created with one language. So nobody should claim any superiority over other languages. On the other hand, no culture should abandon its language to go into extinction. It is abominable and Mother Tongue Academy will continue to fight to prevent the demise of Igbo Language and Culture. So help us God!
A project such as yours must be capital intensive if the goals are to be achieved.
Yes! Your thinking is very right. From the start to currently, my family has been absorbing the capital intensity. My wife gets the greater credit for her commitment and support to see to the success of the projects. Everything being equal, we will prevail in the long run. Our unchanging mantras are “Forward ever; backward never” and “ONYE KWE, CHI YA EKWE” !!!!
How is the Academy and its activities being funded?
Entirely from my meagre retirement funds with my wife bridging many gaps.
From which sources do you expect funds for your activities?
From sympathetic individuals who believe in “ACTION” than in “Lip Services,” because if Lip Services were horses, Mother Tongue Academy will definitely ride.
Are children in urban cities in Nigeria and other African countries also affected by the problem of lack of interest in indigenous languages and are they likely to also benefit from your services?
Yes! Too many children all over the world are abandoning their Mother’s tongue because their parents have the wrong mind sets from that of my father. In hindsight my father was very visionary to insist that “Charity should begin from Home.”
What message do you have for Nigerians and other African leaders, as well as parents, wealthy individuals, local and international organizations concerning the campaign to save vanishing indigenous languages?
According to the United Nations, ‘the Igbo language and many African languages are tending towards extinction’ – because a majority have abandoned their languages and cultures in pursuit of other foreign languages and cultures. An individual’s Language embodies his/her essence. A language serves as a crucial link or connection to self-identity, a family, community, and society. A loss of Language is a loss of culture and identity because ‘Our language is our identity and badge of honor to wear forever’.
This disturbing trend MUST be stopped now before it is too late for our children to be a “Lost Battalion” in Africa and foreign lands. Any child who cannot speak or appreciate the God-given language and culture of his/her parents will regrettably be lost and/or confused within a very short TIME period in a foreign land and beyond.
To reverse this ugly prediction by the UN and others, and make hay while the sun shines, Mother Tongue Academy (MTA) has created the EASIEST and FASTEST ONLINE METHOD to learn the Igbo language and other languages. Our unique Trade Mark method involves the use of only the first five Igbo Alphabets, namely (A B CH D E) and borrowing “M” to teach how to speak Igbo within a one hour interval. Similar Methods are being developed to be applied to our other language projects. Additionally, our Online Lessons contain African names and their meanings and pronunciations as well as extended Vocabulary tabulated alphabetically. MTA has left no stones unturned!
For the above reason and more, Mother Tongue Academy will appreciate a cooperation and/or partnership which will bring all hands on deck, teaching our children, youths and our foreign families our rich African languages and cultures. I wish also to emphasize that the most appropriate time to teach children languages and core values that matter in life is when they are still young and thirsty for knowledge and skills for a life time journey!
Please, Igbo parents, nay African parents should start speaking their God given languages to their children and grand children starting from today. Do not be worried about confusing them because children are like “sponges” capable of absorbing a lot innocently at early stages of their lives. Such a gesture will be a long lasting LEGACY that will embolden our children for any challenges in future. Our failures now will be highly regrettable in future when our children will wonder “what were we thinking?” Each child deserves a moral, religious, economic, social and language COMPASS!
Ndigbo, let’s do our BEST now to hew success out of our impending failure and neglect of our Language and culture.
Ndigbo KWENU! Mụọ nụ, Zụọ nụ! Ya gazie!