Ubang: The village where men and women speak different languages

In Ubang, a farming community in southern Nigeria, men and women speak different languages.
They view this unique difference as “a blessing from God”, but as more young people leave for greener pastures and the English language becomes more popular, there are concerns it won’t survive, reports the BBC’s Yemisi Adegoke.
Dressed in a brightly coloured traditional outfit, a red chief’s cap and holding a staff, Chief Oliver Ibang calls over his two young children, eager to demonstrate the different languages.
He holds up a yam and asks his daughter what it is called.
“It’s ‘irui’,” she says, without hesitating.
But in Ubang’s “male language” the word for yam, one of Nigeria’s staple foods, is “itong”.
And there are many other examples, such as the word for clothing, which is “nki” for men and “ariga” for women.
It is not clear exactly what proportion of words are different in the two languages and there is no pattern, such as whether the words are commonly used, related or linked to traditional roles for men or women.
“It’s almost like two different lexicons,” says anthropologist Chi Chi Undie, who has studied the community.
“There are a lot of words that men and women share in common, then there are others which are totally different depending on your sex.
They don’t sound alike, they don’t have the same letters, they are completely different words.” ‘Sign of maturity’ She says the differences are far greater than, for example, British and American versions of English.
However, both men and women are able to understand each other perfectly – or as well as anywhere else in the world.
This might be partly because boys grow up speaking the female language, as they spend most of their childhoods with their mothers and other women, as Chief Ibang explains.
By the age of 10, boys are expected to speak the “male language”, he says.
“There is a stage the male will reach and he discovers he is not using his rightful language.
Nobody will tell him he should change to the male language.” “When he starts speaking the men language, you know the maturity is coming into him.” If a child does not switch to the correct language by a certain age, they are considered “abnormal”, he says.
Ubang people are immensely proud of their language difference and see it as a sign of their uniqueness.
But there are different theories about how it happened.
Most of the community offer a Biblical explanation.
Caught between traditions and modernity But in Namibia, the Hamba people are caught between traditions and modernity.
Having survived genocide by German troops in the 1900s, Namibia’s Himba people are now facing a bigger threat to their way of life – encroaching modernity.
Little has changed in Omuhoro village for generations – people live off the land and are closed off from the rest of the world.
At day break, it is milking time – one of the daily duties of the village’s women.
The days are long but everyone has a role to play.
The older women walk for kilometres to collect firewood and water, while another group focuses on cooking enough food to feed the 30 or so mouths in this homestead.
The boys mainly look after the cattle and goats while the young girls help with taking care of the many children running around – there is a great sense of shared responsibility.
But since Namibia’s independence in the early 1990s, a different lifestyle has begun to filter through.
‘The children feel shame’ A steady stream of young men and women has been opting to leave the slow village life in exchange for a fast-paced modern world.
Now some are worried this move will eventually spell the death of Himba culture.
Owen Kataparo, a Himba man who grew up in Omuhoro, has taken me back to the Kunene region, an arid and rural area in north-east Namibia to show me how his community is changing.
We are welcomed by village head Chief Nongaba.
He has four wives and 19 children – he is a small man but exudes authority.
Three of his children attend school – some villagers think this is a bad idea.
They say they’ve seen how school changes their children.
Mr Kataparo agrees.
“When these children get into school, most of the children feel shame.
They think most of the children are talking about them, that they are not looking so beautiful,” he tells me.
Looking the part The Himba are known for their red matted braids, which are painstakingly made by mixing animal fat, ash and ground ochre, a stone found locally.
A few steps from where we are sitting, a group of women are bonding.
They are smearing their bodies with the same ochre mixture.
Their mahogany skin glistens under the Namibian sun.
They tell me this is their beautification ritual, and one of their distinguishing features.
It strikes me that Mr Kataparo is in western clothing – khaki shorts and a blue check shirt.
The irony is not lost on him – now a successful businessman, Mr Kataparo says he feels he needs to assimilate to fit in.
“When I’m in traditional clothes outside the village, I get strange looks.
I have a few businesses and people treat me with more respect when I look like them, they take me more seriously,” he says.
The young men in this village see him as a sign of success – a poster boy of what’s possible.
He is torn by this influence, he says.
“A lot of boys leave the village and go down into the town to try to find a job,” he says.
“Some of the boys find a job, some of the boys don’t find a job, and then some of them decide to take alcohol.
They end up abusing their life.” For those taking the leap, the closest town is Opuwo, an hour’s drive away and the capital of this region.
It’s nothing to marvel at but its restaurants, supermarkets and bars offer the first taste of a completely different life.
Problem drinking One of the most popular hangouts for the Himba living in Opuwo is the Arsenal Bar owned by a Himba man, Seblon Nghiphangelwa, a friend of Mr Kataparo.
It is one of 15 in the region and they all belong to him.
Here they come to shed the responsibilities that come with traditional living, in this world it is everyone for themselves.

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