Last August, the BBC launched its Pidgin English Service as part of a new three-language expansion for Nigeria and the West and Central Africa region.
On Monday, the British broadcaster will launch the Igbo and Yoruba Service, the two other languages on the project.
PREMIUM TIMES’ Nicholas Ibekwe spoke to Peter Okwoche, the Nigeria Editorial Lead for the Igbo and Yoruba Services on what would be the focus of the newly launched services and what audiences should expect.
You are launching the Igbo and Yoruba services on Monday. But I would like to start from the launch of the Pidgin English Service last August. How has it been since you launched the Pidgin website? How has the audience engagement been?
It’s being a great experience since August last year and we have accumulated a very young, diverse, digitally-connected, upwardly mobile audience who are now engaging with us on a daily basis, in fact on an hourly basis on our various platforms. Yes, it’s being a great experience with the pidgin service.
People have been engaging on the website and on social media. The thing is, if you have a good story and it’s properly written, people will read it. And in the tradition of the BBC, our standard with BBC pidgin will continue to remain very high; the highest level. So, people are engaging us online as they do on our language services. They visit our website, they stay there, they click from one story to the other. So, they are engaging.
I want to believe the Igbo and Yoruba Services are offshoots of your very popular Hausa Service. What are the similarities and differences between the Hausa Service, on one hand, and the Igbo and Yoruba Services?
The BBC Hausa service started about 60-61 years ago. It began as a radio service because, back then obviously we didn’t have the internet and all that. So, it began as a radio service, it has gone on to have its own online platform – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, it has a news bulletin on TV now, which runs on Youtube. So, in that sense the BBC Hausa service is very well established and very successful. The BBC Igbo and the BBC Yoruba, we are starting with online platforms first. Strictly because research has shown us that most people are beginning to consume their news on their mobile phones.
Hopefully down the line we shall look into radio and look into TV and see how we can develop it and marry all the others so that we have a full-fledge service like the Hausa service. But that notwithstanding, the quality of stories on the Igbo and the Yoruba service will continue to maintain the highest standard of the BBC. For instance, BBC Igbo is launching an exclusive interview with Nnamdi Kanu’s wife, she talks about the whereabouts of her husband and what she knows about that.
On the Yoruba side, we have an exclusive interview with Professor Wole Soyinka. Exclusive in the sense that it is one of the very few interviews, and that is what he has told us, that he has ever given completely in Yoruba. And he talks about the Nigerian politics, leadership in the country and who he thinks should be taking over the leadership of the country and so on and so forth. Very high-quality stories. We are bringing them to you in the indigenous languages of the Igbo and Yoruba people.
The Igbo language particularly is in decline. Many Igbo speakers now speak what is referred to as “Ingirigbo” a coinage of the mixture of Igbo and English. Hardly will you find an Igbo speaker who makes two or three sentences in Igbo without using English words to complement them. Do you think the coming of BBC Igbo Service will help in the revival of the Igbo language?
According to the United Nations, by the year 2050 the Igbo Language will be in serious decline. To stop that you have to get people to start reengaging in the Igbo language. I think this BBC Igbo service will help to do that as well. We are trying to attract a young audience. We have to get our youth to start speaking the Igbo language. So, if they visit our website and say Oh! The BBC has an Igbo website, maybe it is cool to speak Igbo.
But it is not just the BBC. The government has to get involved. Look at the curriculum in schools, maybe the Igbo language needs to be taught for longer period. So, we cannot let the Igbo language to die. It is not just in Nigeria, maybe the world. I don’t think a world which speaks one language will actually be that much of a joy to live in. The more diverse we are the better we are as a human race. Hopefully this will galvanise people to start speaking Igbo the more. Speaking Yoruba and engaging in Yoruba more and as well as in Pidgin English.
Let’s talk about literacy in Igbo and Yoruba. Yoruba, for instance, is laced with a lot of colloquialism, which we can argue is a characteristic of any language. However, many speakers of Igbo and Yoruba still have problems with reading and writing the languages. Are you not worried that the text in your websites wouldn’t gain much readership?
I don’t think so. Before we came out with this venture we spent the last year and a half trying to figure out the percentage of people that can actually read and write Yoruba, a lot of people can. I take myself as an example. I am from Benue State. Nobody ever thought me how to read my language. Because the Bible was printed in my Language in the early 1990s I started reading it and learning. If there is a text, people will learn. If you are already speaking the Language people will learn how to read it and then from there learn how to write it. I think people will engage with it and people will love it and come to see it for what it is – real impassioned news. People will appreciate it and begin to invite people to engage in it.
I understanding you have been running stories in the background in preparation for the formal launch of the Igbo and Yoruba Service. What have you learned during your pilot period? What are the challenges you have encountered? Going forward what changes have you made compared to the time the idea of launching the Igbo and Yoruba services came about?
You are right. We have been piloting for the last two months and it has been a very interesting two months. Now, everybody who works in the Igbo Service is Igbo, but they are not from same part of Igboland. Everybody who works in the Yoruba Service is Yoruba, but they don’t come from the same part of Yorubaland. So what we have realised is that sometimes an accent might change, the spelling of a word might change. A lot of the time these things are not standardised. We are just trying to develop a formula where we make it as standard as possible realising that sometimes we might just have to change an accent or the way the word is spelt to reflect what part of Igboland we are talking about.
I give you a typical example. BBC Pidgin for instance, the way we write Pidgin in Nigeria is not the way Pidgin is written in Ghana. So, when our reporter in Ghana is writing a story, obviously he writes it the way the Ghanaians write it. It would be very unfair for us in Nigeria to change it so that Nigerians will understand it. No. it is written primarily for a Ghanaian audience. So, we just let it go. So, if an Ogbomoso man and a Lagos man are saying one words in two different ways, if that story comes from Ogbomoso we would write it the way the Ogbomoso man will pronounce the word.
What other things do you want your audience to know just before the launch?
We got a lot of stories about politics. We’ve got tech stories, entrepreneurship, science stories, culture, traditions, we are very big on women affairs, women in politics, women in business. Women actually do great things. A lot of people believe it is the women that keep the economic going outside of the oil industry. We want to cover all the great things that women are doing and bring them to the attention of our audience