Parallels
4:00 am
Sat March 15, 2014

U.S. Ambassador Speaks Pidgin English; Nigerians Love It

Originally published on Sat March 15, 2014 10:32 am

It's not often that a broadcast interview by a diplomat wows listeners, but a recent conversation involving the American ambassador to Nigeria, James F. Entwistle, is causing a buzz – and winning applause.

The praise is not so much for the content of the interview or the pressing issues the ambassador discusses. It's more for the language in which he chose to express himself: pidgin English.

Pidgin, or broken English, is the popular lingua franca spoken throughout West Africa. The patois cuts across Nigeria, the continent's most populous nation, which is home to hundreds of local languages, making it easier for millions of Nigerians from different parts of the country to communicate.

Entwistle was recently interviewed by Nigeria's Wazobia FM, the first radio station in Nigeria to broadcast in pidgin English. He was asked about Nigeria's controversial new anti-gay legislation and whether the U.S. might impose sanctions.

"The U.S. government no say sanction go dey for Nigeria, because of same-sex palava-o," Entwistle said.

In other words, the U.S. is not going to impose sanctions on Nigeria for passing a law criminalizing same-sex marriages.

A Surprise Call From The Embassy

It's not often that Westerners learn to speak, and master, pidgin.

So Onimisi "OJ" Adaba, the coordinating manager of Wazobia FM, says he was surprised when he received a call from the American Embassy suggesting the live studio interview in pidgin with the new ambassador.

"I'm like, 'Wait a minute, Wazobia? I mean, we're talking about the U.S. ambassador! Does he speak pidgin in the first place?'" Adaba said.

Adaba was told the ambassador was practicing, trying to pick up things from here and there. "And I'm like, 'OK, it's worth giving a shot,'" he said.

Omotunde "Lolo" David, the host, was delighted to converse in pidgin with the American diplomat live on the air. She's a self-confessed aficionado of pidgin and says, though it may not be the language of diplomacy, it reaches people at the grassroots level.

"When we're talking about reaching everyone, pidgin English is a language just like our culture; a language like the beautiful clothing that we wear, very colorful, very expressive. It's a very beautiful language," David said.

David says pidgin is inventive, humorous, clever and curious — a rich language that eschews class and creed and is spoken by everyone in Nigeria, with regional variations.

"It's an evolving language," she said, "a language that has a life of its own."

And it's the language that Entwistle chose to speak, he says, because "if you want people to understand the United States and where we're coming from, you have to go where they live linguistically speaking. You have to be able to communicate."

Handling A Range Of Questions

Sometimes as a diplomat, Entwistle says, "you get stuck in this government-dealing-with-government rut."

"You have to remember that your job is also to get out and understand the country and the people," he says.

And so, David and Wazobia FM callers asked the American ambassador a range of questions – including one about next year's much-anticipated elections in Nigeria. Incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan's party is expected to be pushed hard by the opposition, and they wanted to know the U.S. position on the vote.

His answer?

"Make I tell you say U.S. no get any candidate for mind. The only ting wey go sweet us be say make the election dey transparent, credible and concluded," Entwistle said in Pidgin. "Make Nigerians pick candidates wey go sweet their belle, wey go do well well for them."

Did you get that? Here's a translation:

"Washington does not have a preferred presidential candidate. Just let Nigeria's elections be transparent and credible, and Nigerians should choose a candidate who will do them proud."

Sounds rather bland in translation, doesn't it? There's no mention of something literally making your stomach sweet (i.e., that you like it) or repetition of the word "well" for emphasis.

Wazobia's David and Adaba both praised the ambassador for being a good sport and for making the effort.

"He sold himself into the hearts of many Nigerians," David says. "That's quite a plus for the American Embassy."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Now staying in Africa, diplomats who are posted there, as elsewhere, are expected to be multi-lingual, but this?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: U.S. government no say sanction go dey for Nigeria because of same-sex palava-o.

LYDEN: America's ambassador to Nigeria recently gave an interview in Pidgin English, which is a second language for tens of millions of Nigerians. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, as NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports from Lagos.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Wazobia FM.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: All right, 95.1 Wazobia FM...

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Wazobia FM is the first radio station in Nigeria to broadcast in the popular lingua franca called Pidgin or broken English. The patois cuts across Africa's most populous nation, home to hundreds of languages, making it easier for Nigerians from different parts of the country to communicate. But it's not often that Westerners master Pidgin English, so imagine the surprise of Wazobia FM's coordinating manager, Onimisi "OJ" Adaba, when he got this request from the American Embassy about the new ambassador, James Entwistle.

ONIMISI OJ ADABA: I'm telling you when she notices, he's not just a regular one. He wants to be on Wazobia. I'm like wait a minute. Wazobia? I mean, we're talking about the U.S. ambassador. Does he speak Pidgin in the first place? Said no, no, no, no, but he's learning one or two things here. He's trying to pick up from here and there. And I'm like OK. It's worth giving a shot.

QUIST-ARCTON: Wazobia host Lolo David and callers asked the American ambassador about next year's much anticipated elections in Nigeria when incumbent President Goodluck Jonathan's party is expected to be pushed hard by the opposition, plus, of course, the U.S. position on the vote.

AMBASSADOR JAMES ENTWISTLE: First, make I tell you say U.S. no get any candidate for mind.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

ENTWISTLE: The only thing, the only thing wey go sweet us be say make the election dey transparent and credible. Make Nigerians pick candidates wey go sweet their belle, wey go do well for them.

QUIST-ARCTON: Did you get that? Washington does not have a preferred presidential candidate. Just let Nigeria's elections be transparent and credible. And Nigerians should choose a candidate who will do them proud. Lolo David says she was delighted with the conversation.

LOLO DAVID: It's an amazing experience and the interview's generating a lot of buzz as we are speaking 'cause nobody would believe an ambassador would bring himself to speak Pidgin. Ha. What we talking about reaching everyone, Pidgin English, it's just a language that is like our culture, a language like the beautiful clothing that we wear, very colorful, very expressive. So it's very beautiful language.

QUIST-ARCTON: Another question wondered about the U.S. reaction to Nigeria's recent controversial anti-gay rights bill. Here's the ambassador's response.

ENTWISTLE: U.S. government no say sanction go dey for Nigeria because of same-sex palava-o.

QUIST-ARCTON: In other words, the U.S. is not going to impose sanctions on Nigeria for passing a law criminalizing same-sex marriages. James Entwistle told NPR why he chose to speak Pidgin English on Wazobia FM.

ENTWISTLE: If you want people to understand the United States and where we're coming from, you have to, you know, you have to go where they live, linguistically speaking. You have to be able to communicate. So this was great.

QUIST-ARCTON: Wazobia's Lolo David says the ambassador's interview immediately began trending on Twitter and Facebook.

DAVID: Everybody didn't believe it at first, you know, like, are you see-ree-os? That was him.

QUIST-ARCTON: She says, what listeners really appreciate is Entwistle's enterprise and willingness to give it a go.

DAVID: But, you know, he put it across so people were like, wow, sir, we salute you, doing an amazing job at Wazobia. You know, de guy de try, honestly, he dey wow us. A-a Oga, we know even believe say he go fit. You know that kind thing. Twale. Respect. All it's in there. In fact, he sold himself to the hearts of many Nigerians, and that's quite a plus for the American embassy.

QUIST-ARCTON: Apparently, a successful attempt at soft-power diplomacy. Right. Here's my shot at signing off in Pidgin. Ok-o, na Ofeibea-dis, de tak long tolly for NPR News, na Lagos - no be so? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.