Generally, the difference between a man and woman all over the world is their sexes but in Ubang, a rural community in southern Nigeria, it is more than that. In the farming community located between two mountains in Obudu Local Government Area, Cross River State, Nigeria, men and women speak different languages and they understand each other perfectly.
Numbering more than five thousand, inhabitants say the words that form the two languages were given by God, and no one language is superior to the other.
Boys grow up speaking the female language, probably because they spend most of their childhoods with their mothers but by the age of 10, they should be speaking the language of the men.
“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,” Chief Oliver Ibang told BBC in 2018.
“When he starts speaking the men language, you know the maturity is coming into him.”
In Ubang made up of three villages – Okwersing, Ofambe and Okiro – Chief Ibang said that if a child does not move to the correct language by a certain age, they are considered “abnormal.”
But what brought about this uniqueness in language that they are so proud of?
Chief Ibang explained: “God created Adam and Eve and they were Ubang people.”
He said the plan of God was to allocate each ethnic group two languages. However, after creating the two languages for the Ubang, he found that there were not enough languages to go around. So he stopped right there.
“That’s why Ubang has the benefit of two languages – we are different from other people in the world,” he explained.
Ogbe Sylvanus Odobi, an elder from the community had, four years earlier, corroborated Chief Ibang’s story.
Odobi told Niger Delta Voice that God descended on one of the mountains of Okiro village and stood on the rock at the top of the mountain to distribute languages.
“He started with us (Ubang) since it is our mountain that He stood to distribute the languages and His footprint is still etched on that rock till today,” Odobi said.
“It was after God had distributed the languages to the men and women of Ubang that He discovered that the languages would not go round the communities if He continued to give each for both sexes and so He decided to give the other communities one language for both sexes.”
Words used by inhabitants, to date, are completely different, do not sound alike, and do not have the same letters, interestingly. For instance, men call stone ‘okai’ while women call it ‘koka.’ Men call water ‘Amie’ while women call it ‘Banu’. And yam is called ‘iri’ by men but it’s ‘ketung’ for women.
Anthropologist Chi Chi Undie, who has studied the community, explained their language difference from an anthropological background.
“This is a dual-sex culture,” she told BBC.
“Men and women operate in almost two separate spheres. It’s like they’re in separate worlds, but sometimes those worlds come together and you see that pattern in the language as well.”
“I call it a theory but it’s weak.”
“Because in Nigeria there are lots of dual-sex systems and yet we don’t have this kind of language culture.”
The Ubang community, which is mostly Christian with an interest in cocoa farming, has no plans of merging the two languages until God comes down to direct otherwise, the elders say.
These elders are also optimistic that the languages will survive despite the rise in the use of the English language among the community’s young people who are expected to pass their mother tongues down to their children.
In schools in Ubang, students are forced to speak English instead of their native languages. The fear is that Ubang languages may disappear as with other indigenous African languages that are on the verge of extinction.
Recent studies have shown a steady decline in the use of indigenous African languages, and there are fears that most African countries will soon speak English as a first, and perhaps the only language, leading to a loss of culture and identity.
Human rights experts have advised countries to “recognize, protect and promote indigenous languages through legislation, policies and other strategies in full cooperation with indigenous peoples.”