Atiku and the mean­ing of an “or­phan” in Eng­lish

Sunday Trust - - ART & IDEAS - [Twit­ter: fa­rooqkper­[email protected] @fa­rooqkper­ogi <https://twit­ter.com/fa­rooqkper­ogi> with

In his pre-recorded ini­tia­tory pres­i­den­tial cam­paign speech on No­vem­ber 19, 2018, for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent and PDP pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Atiku Abubakar de­scribed him­self as hav­ing grown up an “or­phan.” “I started out as an or­phan sell­ing fire­wood on the streets of Jada in Adamawa, but God, through the Nige­rian state, in­vested in me and here I am to­day,” he said.

Pres­i­dent Buhari’s so­cial me­dia aide by the name of Lau­retta Onochie led a cho­rus of Buhari sup­port­ers on Twit­ter to pooh­pooh Atiku’s claim to or­phan­hood. She said Atiku wasn’t an or­phan be­cause he didn’t lose both par­ents. This ig­nited a fren­zied so­cial me­dia con­ver­sa­tion about the mean­ing of an or­phan. Below is Onochie’s tweet that set off the de­bate:

“Atiku can­not be trusted; I started life as an Or­phan in Jada”Abubakar Atiku (BIG FAT LIE) “OR­PHAN - a child whose par­ents (Fa­ther and mother) are dead. In his book, MY LIFE (2013 pg 30) refers [sic]: Atiku said his mother died in 1984. This was when he was 38 years. He was old enough to buy mum a house.

“What’s the point of this lie? To de­ceive Nige­ri­ans and get their sym­pa­thy? It’s dis­re­spect­ful and in­sult­ing to Nige­ri­ans for a can­di­date or any­one to lie to them.

“He is say­ing we are too gullible to find out the truth. No, we are not. Pres­i­dent Buhari nor [sic] Vice Pres­i­dent Os­in­bajo will never lie to Nige­ri­ans.”

What this se­man­tic con­tes­ta­tion cap­tures is a clash of so­cio-lin­guis­tic cul­tures. As I pointed out in my May 4, 2014 col­umn ti­tled “Q and A on Pop­u­lar Nige­rian Eng­lish Ex­pres­sions, Word Us­age and Gram­mar,” my first daugh­ter had a sim­i­lar ar­gu­ment with her teacher nearly seven years ago. I lost my wife to a car crash in June 2010 in Nige­ria and brought my then 6-year-old first daugh­ter to live with me here in the United States the same year.

One day in class, she told her teacher that she was an “or­phan.” Her teacher, who knew me, said my daugh­ter couldn’t pos­si­bly be an or­phan since her fa­ther was alive. My daugh­ter, who had be­come lin­guis­ti­cally Amer­i­can but still cul­tur­ally Nige­rian, in­sisted that the death of her mother was suf­fi­cient to qual­ify her as an or­phan. Their ar­gu­ment wasn’t re­solved, so she came home to ask me if she was wrong to call her­self an or­phan.

I told her she was right from the per­spec­tive of African cul­tures and UNICEF’s clas­si­fi­ca­tion of or­phans, but that her teacher was right from the per­spec­tive of con­ven­tional Eng­lish.

Dif­fer­ent Cul­tural Sig­ni­fi­ca­tions of “Or­phan”

In many African-and other non­not Western cul­tures- an or­phan is un­der­stood as a child who has lost one or both par­ents be­fore the age of ma­tu­rity. In Is­lam, an or­phan is a child who has lost only a fa­ther be­fore the age of ma­tu­rity. The usual Ara­bic word for an or­phan is “ya­teem” (or al-ya­teem), which lit­er­ally de­notes “some­thing that is sin­gu­lar and alone.” But the word’s canon­i­cal and con­no­ta­tive mean­ing in con­tem­po­rary Ara­bic and in Is­lamic ju­rispru­dence is, “a mi­nor who has lost his or her fa­ther.”

Nev­er­the­less, other rarely used words ex­ist in Ara­bic to de­note an or­phan: al-La­teem is a child who has lost both par­ents while al-’iji is a child who has lost only a mother. Note, how­ever, that ya­teem is the word used in the Qur’an to re­fer to an or­phan, which is why peo­ple who are so­cial­ized in Mus­lim cul­tures de­fine and un­der­stand an or­phan as some­one whose fa­ther died be­fore the age of pu­berty. Atiku is a Mus­lim who grew up in a Mus­lim cul­tural en­vi­ron­ment. There is no rea­son why he should use Western cul­tural lenses to de­scribe him­self.

Un­til I re­lo­cated to Amer­ica, I too had no idea that in con­ven­tional Eng­lish, an or­phan is gen­er­ally un­der­stood as a child who lost both par­ents. Cu­ri­ously, the mean­ing of the word changes when it is ap­plied to an an­i­mal: An an­i­mal is re­garded as an or­phan only if loses its mother, per­haps be­cause an­i­mals have fa­thers only in a re­pro­duc­tive, but

For­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Atiku Abubakar

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