Atiku and the meaning of an “orphan” in English
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