So one pet peeve of mine in this fair country is the habit of some people point-blank refusing to understand what I’m saying. I know that at the best of times I speak at the speed of light; I am what I am and I make no apologies. My mama thinks I’m special.
But it irks me when I actually take pains to slow my speech to a condescending rate and some people still wilfully refuse to understand me. Even if I carefully enunciate, wrapping my tongue around words with all the delicacy of gift wrap on a Tiffany’s box on Christmas Eve, some bright sparks will still say, “Eh hehn, wetin you dey talk? This your grammar, o”. Most times I will repeat myself before someone even requests it; that blank, glassy look is all the prompt I need.
I refuse to believe that the standard London accent is unintelligible to some Nigerians. That means when Hugh Grant, Christiane Amanpour, Richard Quest or Piers Morgan speaks, legions of people must stare on bemused. Movies must be enigmas; plotlines discerned by body language and soundtrack alone. That ‘Game of Thrones’ could go ununderstood must be the single greatest tragedy of the modern age.
No. This is a world I cannot accept. I will acknowledge that for some, foreign accents are difficult to understand due to lack of exposure in a largely homogenous society. However, I question those who watch Zee World on the regs and understand the complicated storylines through emotional voiceovers just fine, then gape at me fish-like. I think they’re a different breed entirely. They’re just stubborn AF.
Now, I try as much as possible to avoid sweeping generalisms but sometimes I will say that if the shoe fits…it’s a duck. So I will take the liberty of surmising that this stubborn group loosely falls into three categories:
This first category is annoying but not offensive. They are actually fully capable of understanding you but a fear or expectation of incomprehensibility precludes them from trying. One too many times, people have walked off after a simple “hello” claiming it’s too difficult to understand me and refusing to listen any more. Imagine this scenario:
Waitress: Good morning, ma.
Lovely British-Nigerian Lady: Good morning.
Waitress: [Awkward pause] What do you want to order?
LBNL: I’ll have the… [Peruses menu] African Breakfast special, please.
Waitress: It’s finished, ma.
LBNL: Of course. What do you have?
Waitress: I don’t get you, ma. [Walks away shaking head]
LBNL: Wait! Come back!
There’s a second clear category: the person who just likes to hear you speak. Their ethos? “What’s an accent like yours doing in a place like this?” This surprise persists despite the country having hosted a decent number of foreigners for decades now. Ultimately, this category is harmless but can really eat into your time; asking you questions as if a) you were the Queen’s spokesperson b) you had nowhere else to be c) they were assessing your KV (kidnap value).
They can ask your life history, your mother’s life history and the life story your third cousin once removed in a bid to enjoy the novelty but a little longer. Be warned, their favourite joke is, “Are you from ‘innit’?” Yawn. I don’t know about you but there’s something so sad about watching someone crack a turd of a joke and wait expectantly for the laugh that will never come, so I just titter kindly.
All in all, Sweet but invasive.
Now this heinous stratum really gets my goat going. They’re xenophobic (I think that’s the best term). To be fair, they resent the common attitude that anything foreign is superior to Nigeria, be it goods or people. It’s annoying. Got it. But you shouldn’t overdo! There’s a difference between someone assuming an American accent when they haven’t ever set foot out of Yaba and harassing someone because they sound different to you. It’s bang out of order. Boo! Honestly, it’s a fairly crappy feeling to STILL be a marginalised minority even though you’re in your home country.
Some people upon hearing your accent will give you solid side eye, kiss their teeth as if a particularly tough piece of goat meat was stuck therein and proceed to rain hate. They don’t want to hear your accent at aaaalll. Phone (pronounced fon-neh) is not welcome.
A great example of this was an unfortunate encounter in NYSC orientation camp with a particularly evil drill sergeant. I say unfortunate but time and distance honestly made it slightly funny; camp is all about suffering anyway. 🤷🏾♂ His eyes were as black as his heart, his short salt-and-pepper hair whitened with the souls of the corpers he had consumed. His fiery bark was unmatched by all except his infernal trumpet call, driving droves of white-clad corpers running for cover.
On such a foray into the mammy market, I heard the sergeant coming but refused to run away because I had official business at the photocopying shack. But when I tried to explain to Señor Say-What-Now, he was not having it. My punishment was to sit capless with my captured comrades under the midday sun; the objective: dodgy tan lines and darkened skin (I’ll never marry, oh woe is me!). When he eventually deigned to ask why I didn’t run away, he stopped me in my tracks and demanded I “speak in a way we can understand. Speak the vernacular.”
I found it suspicious that he knew the word “vernacular” but didn’t understand my simple words. When I couldn’t respond in pidgin he left us to bake for another thirty minutes, then another. I don’t know who nominated me as spokesperson. I tearfully groused about discrimination but people gave me that “This is Nigeria” look, laughed at my indignation and pointed out it technically wasn’t racist. Like at all. (I always get so confused on what counts as racism, but that’s a subject for another day.)
Anyway, I couldn’t understand someone hating on you because of how you sounded. Then when you think about people’s reactions to Etonian tones, I guess it wasn’t inconceivable.
Nevertheless, that guy was a jerk.