They are called Olukumis. They equally speak Olukumi language akin to the Yoruba language as their mother tongue and they are in seven communities deep in the heart of Igbo-speaking Aniocha North Local Government Area of Delta State. They traced their history to Owo in Ondo State via a sojourn in Edo State before finally settling down at their present location surrounded by hills and mineral resources like kaolin and coal. With a population of about 13,750 according to the 2006 national population census, the people inhabit the rich agricultural belt of Ugbodu, Ukwu-Nzu (originally called Eko-Efun because of huge deposit of chalk), Ubulubu, Ugboba, Idumogo, Ogodor and Anioma.
Although the people are one, in some quarters of the communities like Ubulubu, Ukwu- Nzu, some persons don’t even speak the language. Two prominent personalities who made Nigeria proud within the beauty and sports spaces are proud Olukumis from Ugbodu. They are Miss Nigeria 1958, Helen Anyamelune of blessed memory and Captain of the Eaglets in 1985, Nduka Ugbade, who also is the coach of the victorious Golden Eaglets at the WAFU Cup in Cape Coast, Ghana 2022.
The Olukumi language which is closely related to Yoruba has over the years been infused with Igbo and Edo words as a result of the influences of the languages of the neighbouring communities. The uniqueness of the language, the number of the speakers and their location in the midst of non-Olukumis are, however, placing the language in such a tenuous position as to threaten its existence. As at today the language is not taught in schools but the people are deliberate in their efforts to stimulate and ensure that the language is sustained as it remains the first language the people speak among themselves in their respective communities before diverting to Igbo or Pidgin if they are convinced the next person doesn’t understand the language.
It’s on this premise of identity and sustainability of the language that the people decided to come up with an Olukumi dictionary and a translation of the New Testament of the Holy Bible. The bilingual Olukumi-English and English-Olukumi Dictionary is authored by Dr Bolanle Elizabeth Arokoyo, a lecturer in the Department of Linguistics and Nigerian Languages, University of Ilorin, who had been documenting Olukumi language since 2011, and Olamide Mabodu of the same department. According to the traditional ruler of Ugbodu, the Oloza of Ugbodu, Ayo Isiyemenze, in his forward to the dictionary, “this work represents a prime example of academic interests in the Olukumi language and its preservation.”
Isiyemenze said: “This dictionary will prove valuable to the speakers of Olukumi desirous of improving their Olukumi vocabulary. It will also serve as a veritable resource for students of linguistics willing to undertake a study of the Olukumi language.”
In 2015, the Nigerian Tribune visited Ugbodu and three other communities where the derivative of Yoruba language is the same. The people revealed that they were settlers from Owo in Ondo State and stated how they finally arrived in the area. The Nigerian Tribune report, written by Banji Aluko is reproduced here: “Knocking at the door at the first point of call in Ugbodu, a young lady emerged from the building and replied, ta ni yen? Hearing the reply, one thought it was a mere coincidence.” Of course, there was every reason to be surprised since the community was not anywhere near the Yoruba enclave where such a reply can be anticipated. While trying to decipher why the lady gave such a reply, what further followed was more confusing.
A girl of about five appeared and said, “Mo fe ra biscuit.”
“Are you Yoruba? What is the meaning of “ta ni yen?” she was asked. Reluctantly, she answered, “I am not Yoruba, o, I am just speaking my language.” Apparently, she was not unaware of the similarity between her language and Yoruba language. The lady refused to entertain more questions about her language but said further questions should be directed to the king’s palace or to the elders.
At the palace, the elders still would not talk about the similarity between their language and Yoruba. They said it is only the king that can speak on the people, their language and their history. The period of waiting for the king afforded one time to listen to the conversation and the discovery was nonetheless remarkable. Following closely the conversation between some elderly men and with a deep knowledge of Yoruba, one could establish a nexus between their speech and actions. In fact, some words and expressions could be understood.
Following their conversation with rapt attention, expressions such as Gbemuwa (bring palm wine); me wanani (I didn’t come yesterday); me ri e (I didn’t see you); mu beer okawa (bring one beer) etc could be heard, albeit with an intonation slightly different from that of the Yorubas. Seeing the desire to follow their talk, one man finally volunteered to explain the similarity between their language and Yoruba. “I believe you are a Yoruba man,” he said. He continued: “We are Oluku mi speakers but we speak a language that is very similar to Yoruba.” This he demonstrated by pointing out some words and expressions in their language (Olukumi) which denote the same meanings as Yoruba.
He gave some examples such as ita – pepper; ogedelila – plantain; ogedekeke – banana; kuwu se – what are you doing?; ule – house; osa – market; oma – child; o dowuo – see you tomorrow, e bo – welcome. After explaining some similarities between the languages, he still refused to talk about how the people of Ugbodu, in the middle of Igbo speaking neighbours, came about Olukumi. Like others, he maintained that only the traditional ruler of the town can speak about how Olukumi became their language.
But after waiting endlessly for the king, his brother, Prince Adebowale Ochei, who later arrived on the scene, volunteered to speak on behalf of the king, H.R.M. Ayo Isinyemeze, the Oloza (Obi) of Ugbodu. According to him, history has it that the Ugbodu Olukumi-speaking people migrated from Owo/Akure in the present day Ondo State between 9th and 11th century AD to settle in Benin during the reign of King Ogiso. He continued: “At this period in the history of the Benin Kingdom, the most neglected of the wives of the Ogiso gave birth to the heir apparent to the throne. After the woman gave birth to the child, a male, the nobles consulted the oracle and said that the oracle told them that the child should be killed for peace to reign in Benin Kingdom. At the end, the child was not killed as it was said that the child was too handsome to be killed, so a fowl was killed in his place.”
According to Ochei, this was the reason the Ugbodu people left Benin. “They felt that if a crown prince could be ordered for execution just like that, they could do worse things to strangers in their midst. As a result, they left Benin and came to Ewohimi, an Esan-speaking community in the present-day Edo State. Due to intra-tribal wars, they later left the place to settle down here in Ugbodu which is a shortened form of Ugbodumila, which literally means ‘bush saved me’ in English Language.”
He pointed out differences between Olukumi and Yoruba, saying that one notable difference is the changing of letter “j” in Yoruba words to “z” in Olukumi as seen in words like oloja or oja which are rendered as oloza or oza and joko as soko. With the movement of the people was the consequent dilution in their language as shown in their names. According to records compiled by Prince Humphrey Ojeabu Ochei, the immediate Olihen of Ugbodu, the first six Olozas bore Yoruba names: Adeola, Aderemi, Ariyo, Odofin, Adetunji and Oyetunde. These early kings bore typical Yoruba names years and decades after the establishment of the Ugbodu Kingdom.
As the people gradually lost contact with their kinsmen back home, they began to gravitate towards the Benin and Edo communities. The resulting acculturative process gradually led to the adoption of Edo names among the people.
Hence names such as Ogbomon, Ozolua, Izebuwa, Ogbelaka, Izedonwen, Osakpolor, Esigie, Igbinadolor, Osaloua, Osamewamen and Ebor emerged as Olozas. Since Ugbodu is surrounded by Igbo-speaking kingdoms, it did not take long before the Igbo Language started to interfere in the people’s language. Accordingly, Igbo influence steadily and progressively made what has now become a permanent inroad and considerable impact on the socio-cultural life as well as linguistic orientation of the Ugbodu people. With this, the Edo influence began to wane, resulting in the adoption of Igbo names in preference to Edo names. Thus from the middle of the 19th century, the general shift was from Edo to Igbo names. This can be seen in the names of Olozas, who ruled between the middle of the 19th Century and late 20th Century such as Dike, Ochei, Ezenweani and Isinyemeze.
At nearby Ukwu-Nzu, the language is not also different. Although, the people are less emphatic about their history, nonetheless, the similarity between their language and Yoruba is evident in their names and greetings. “Oju e ma won ke,”literallymeaning your face is scarce in Yoruba. This was what a man said to his friend he met on the road. (We haven’t seen you in a long while!) When approached, the man, who gave his name as Ayo Oke, shed light on his language and provided more examples between Olukumi and Yoruba Language. He said that “instead of saying e kaabo, we say e bo, meaning “welcome” and wani we yi, meaning “come here;” He also gave examples of words which virtually have the same meanings as the Yoruba language. Some of these include obe – stew; oni – today; ola – tomorrow; otunla – next tomorrow (day after tomorrow) etc.
Another elder in the town said that the name of Ukwu-Nzu before the Igbo Language “infiltrated” their language was EkoEfun (Efun means chalk in Yoruba Language). He also attributed the efun in the name of their town to the rich presence of white chalk in the town which he said the community was richly blessed with.
Presently, the biggest challenge for the people of Ugbodu and other Olukumi-speaking communities is how to protect their language and culture in general. According to a native of Ugbodu, “the elders are more connected to the original Olukumi language than the youth. In fact, we have lost the real Olukumi and what we have now is an Olukumi that has been greatly altered by Igbo language. Most of the people who can really speak the language right now are the elders. Ordinarily, the real Olukumi is like the Yoruba that is spoken in Owo in Ondo State. Someone from that place is expected to understand the language perfectly but right now someone from Owo might not be able to understand more than 50 per cent of our language. This language may die if care is not taken,” he said.
Another factor that also contributed to the decline of Olukumi, according to findings, is that there was a time in the past when an understanding of the Edo or Igbo language, was considered as a status symbol. According to an elder in the town, “An Oluku mi who spoke the two languages then was considered superior to others because it meant that he had travelled wide. This was the inferiority complex our people unwittingly created for themselves which we are trying to correct now.”
In protecting their language which is gradually being threatened, a revival process has been started. Part of this is that some of them now choose to give their children Olukumi names and to sing and say prayers in Olukumi. In some cases, some radical reformers and revivalists changed the names given to them by their parents from Igbo to Olukumi. The climax of the restoration process of their linguistic ethos and identity was the christening of the incumbent Oloza with an Olukumi name, Ayo.
Reacting to efforts aimed at protecting Olukumi, Prince Adebowale, said, “I am an Olukumi man and I am proud of my language. I am not happy that Igbo language is interfering with our language. We are trying our best to correct the situation and part of that is what my brother (the Oloza) is doing by organising an Olukumi recitation contest. We want to know the people who can speak the real Olukumi without mixing it with Igbo or English.” Adebowale said because the Olukumis don’t want their language to go into extinction in decades to come, the people embarked on the production of a dictionary and translated the Bible. “With this, children unborn will meet a legacy that will continue to keep the language alive.”
Speaking to Saturday Tribune, the Enomatichin-Oloza 1 ofUgbodu, Chief IfeanyiOkolie, along with the Ede of the town, Chief StephenAnyamelune and the Uwolo, Chief Sunday Stephen Okolie, were unanimous that the language will continue to grow. “The means of communication here between mother and child, adults, first and foremost is Olukumi. We speak Igbo generally in meetings where our neighbors are present.”
According to them, the revival of the Olukumi language has started in earnest. The Bible and dictionary production is a major step. (Sunday Tribune)