Nigeria is multi-ethnic and one of the ways we identify and differentiate ourselves from other ethnic groups is to label them with stereotypes in a way to mark superiority. The Yoruba man thinks of the Igbo man as crude and clannish; the Igbo man thinks of the Yoruba as dishonest and lazy. It’s only natural that these divisions are reflected in the films produced by Nigerian filmmakers. A popular screen caricature is the Igbo man.
Give him an Igbotic (read rural) accent, put him in the most garish outfit, and have him express his love for money now and again, and you will have your audience rolling on the floor. It has worked so well that we can now describe it as a trope of Nollywood films. Check the latest Nollywood release; that crude Igbo man character is there.
In the 2021 Nollywood film “Prophetess,” Uzor Arukwe plays the greedy owner of a betting company. There isn’t much to say about this character other than he’s Igbo and obsessed with money. In that same year, Arukwe was a crude Igbo tailor in “Progressive Tailors Club,” performing the character with the same idiosyncrasies as the betting company owner in “Prophetess.” Arukwe couldn’t have interpreted those characters any differently because they are the same character, just in a different costume and reading different lines.
Other examples include Greg Ojefua in “Smart Money Woman”; Keppy Ekpeyong in the “Blood Sisters series”; and Alex Ekkubo in “Bling Lagosians.”
Igbo female characters are now also written as caricatures: Eucharia Anunobi in “Man of God”; Chioma Chukwuka in “Lockdown”; Bisola Aiyeola in “Breaded Life”; I could go on.
If there are two things we must learn from this piece: one, the English accent of Nigerians is influenced by the speech pattern of their local language. Secondly, this accounts for the variants of the Nigerian English accent, leaving those who grew up in rural areas with an unrefined version of the accent distinctive to their region. Thus, among Igbo people, for instance, there are those who confuse their Ls for Rs and overstress their vowels.
Nollywood’s crime is making a caricature of that accent an identifying mark of crude, primitive behavior in its stereotypical depiction of the “money-loving” Igbo man.
When you situate an Igbo character in stories with characters from other tribes while making that caricatured behavior their only distinguishing attribute, you are saying this is how people from that region speak and behave.
And, as a result, this is what most marveled a food blogger from Lagos who was recently on a tour of Enugu, exploring the Igbo city and trying out local dishes: “Biggest culture shock for me in Enugu is not everyone speaks with an Igbo accent. I legit assumed everyone in the east would have a sprinkle of Igbo accent here and there but I’ve met a lot of people who speak regular Nigerian accent English. We learn everyday,” he shared on his Instagram story.
If we can ignore the idiocy of sentence framing, what we truly learn is how storytelling builds perception. This food blogger’s “culture shock” of finding out Igbo people speak with “regular Nigerian accent English” is akin to the white man’s patronizing “your English is good” upon his encounter with an African. Just like the white man, whatever he has gleaned about Igbo people prior to his visit was from popular culture.
The second thing we learn from this piece is that Igbo people do not sound the way they have been portrayed in Nollywood films. In 2015 Hollywood made “Concussion,” a film about a Nigerian doctor (Bennet Omalu played by Will Smith) who tries to create awareness about the presence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Nigerians criticized the American actor’s atrocious accent. It was the same generic African accent Hollywood uses for all its African characters. To put simply, Nigerians told Hollywood, this is not how we speak.
If we as a people can call out other entertainment industries when they produce dishonest depictions of us, it becomes hypocritical and embarrassing when we cannot portray ourselves authentically. Nollywood filmmakers should be more responsible.
You can argue that there’s no crime since Nollywood hasn’t suggested that those caricatures are representative of the entire Igbo people. After all, many other Igbo characters in Nollywood films are not those stereotypes. But when you write diverse characters — a pastor, a businessman, a landlord, a filmmaker, a housekeeper, a nurse, a young school graduate — and, through manner and speech, portray them as a stereotype, you are implicitly saying something.
However, the Igbo man caricature trope like most storytelling problems with Nollywood points to a larger philosophical and imagination problem.
Nollywood and its hub, Lagos, drive the mainstream narrative of the country’s cultures. The Igbo and Yoruba are the major ethnic groups of Southern Nigeria where the burgeoning film industry finds its roots. Filmmakers and actors from both ethnic groups are responsible for and complicit in propagating stereotypes of theirs and those of other ethnic groups.
For years, the only time Nollywood ventured into the northern part of the country to pull characters from, was to situate them at the gate as security men for comic relief. If you watch Nollywood films you can already picture it: a scrawny-looking Hausa man mixing up both tenses and pronouns while amusing and frustrating guests of the big Oga who was often Igbo.
That character, typically named Musa or Mohammed, was deployed in many Nollywood films for years because they guaranteed the audience laughter no matter how wonky the film’s storytelling is.
Other Nollywood caricatures have included, notably, the Efik Ekaette house girl; and the illiterate, tribal-marked Yoruba woman not only mixing up her tenses but manufacturing pronunciations for common everyday English words.
In essence, Nollywood needs to start thinking about storytelling better, about how it portrays its characters and how those portrayals leave impressions on the minds of Nigerians.
When a people are constantly depicted as one thing, it’s easy for the ignorant to assume that they are only but that thing — as was the case with the food blogger from Lagos.
And when we stop writing our characters as stereotypes, it allows room for nuance and more in-depth explorations of the character. Take Netflix’s and Ebonylife’s “Blood Sisters” for instance; if Keppy Ekpenyong-Bassey’s character, Ifeanyi Duru, was written as anything other than Igbo or from a different ethnic group, maybe the writers would have tried to explore his obsession with money and selling off his daughter for marriage, which would have allowed for an understanding of the character’s motivations, no matter how selfish. It wouldn’t have just been enough to leave him as a man whose value was money and just money, as “your typical Igbo man” stereotype.
Nollywood has always written stock, one-dimensional characters. In the early 2000s, characters were mostly either good or bad. Mothers-in-law were nothing other than wicked. Female undergraduates were often written as promiscuous. Housewives were saintly. The male characters even had less depth. The male protagonist’s life goal was to attain wealth. In a different film, he is pining for a woman outside of his social class. These characters could not develop into anything else because they were so thinly written.
Of course, this isn’t the entire present-day Nollywood story, but whether it’s a film about marriage or a business on the brink of failure, Nollywood still writes stock characters that are also just one-dimensional. It is for this same reason that the crude Igbo man or woman stereotype has become a Nollywood trope.
And this applies to all our ethnic caricature depictions. Nigeria is multiethnic and multicultural and what we learn about people from regions outside of our home is from popular images.
So before you write that caricatured stereotype, ask yourself: how central is the Igbotic accent to the story other than to serve as a cheap, lazy tool for laughs?
Dika Ofoma is a Nigerian writer and filmmaker.