Language: An African colonial dilemma

By Mkhosana Mathobela Bingweni

Africans have the political option to resort to the use of their many ethnic languages as part of the effort to decolonise their minds and lives, and to put an end to the hegemony of colonial languages such as English and French.

The underside of this political option, however, would be that Africans are further divided along the lines of tribal tongues and ethnic cultures within their respective countries and in the African region at large.

That is the Babel Tower prospect where fellow human beings are turned against each other by the fetish of language, tradition and culture in a way that makes working and living together impossible.

That ghastly Babel Tower prospect has ensured that, ironically, colonial languages have remained the media of African political, cultural and economic unity.

It would sadly seem that Pan-Africanism itself needs European colonial languages for its fruition or else Africa and African countries themselves will be thrown into a Babel of tribal and cultural confusion.

African ethnic and national groups, without the colonial language to help them communicate and cohere, it seems, will be thrown into a Hobbesian state of nature that is a war for all against all.

Neighbours risk becoming strangers to each other as Xhosa’s keep to Xhosa and Vendas to Venda in one country for instance.

In terms of language, much like in the colonial borders and colonial states, Africans have been forced to treasure and respect colonial creations and impositions more than the colonists themselves ever did.

In Europe the Europeans move across their different countries with much fluidity and ease. Even Africans find it easy to travel from Africa to Europe than it is to travel within Africa as border restrictions and some visa requirements are stringent and prohibitive.

It is a continental historical and political paradox that colonial and imperial Europe becomes the cultural and political unifier of Africa, a paradox that threatens to fortify the colonial myth of Europe as a civiliser and developer of Africa, as the benevolent saviour that saved primitive African tribes from annihilating each other.

In this present African historical juncture where decolonisation and decoloniality have returned to political importance the language question as a continental political dilemma cannot be avoided.

The challenge for Africans to develop their languages into languages of education, commerce and regional communication is a challenge that cannot be postponed forever.

Much like the stubborn question of African control of natural resources and that of African political sovereignty the language question is as important as it is urgent.

The cultural life of the continent is not divorced from its political and economic fortunes.

The control of economic and political resources of Africa by Africans is related to the ownership and control of cultural resources and goods such as language and its uses. Frantz Fanon canonically described language as a carrier of the weight of a people’s civilisation.

In that respect, language is not separable from a people’s identity and even destiny.

Language as a human medium of communication, the exchange of messages and meanings, also rests strongly on the matters of a people’s dignity and their very being.

If indeed language and the use of it are the qualities that separate man from beast, then language is a central article of being human, a principal human quality that cannot be left to chance and accident in historical and political affairs.

What remains as the stubborn continental dilemma with colonial languages is how to go about practically decolonising language without dividing peoples and the continent and isolating Africa from the rest of the world where commerce, politics and culture are practiced and experienced in the hegemonic colonial languages.

Thanks to the scourge of cultural imperialism, the cocacolonisation of the world, western languages and western culture at large have become hegemonised and globalised.

Existentially, the marginalisation of other cultures and languages in the world has accompanied the marginalisation and even exploitation of other peoples as disposable peoples and surplus populations.

Languages do not walk alone on two legs, they are carried by living human bodies, and to suppress a language is therefore to suppress some human beings and their lives in the world.

Return to the Mother Tongue

The most prominent intellectual voice for the African return to mother tongues and indigenous languages in the late seventies and early eighties became Ngugi wa Thiongo.

To Ngugi the whole idea of decolonisation and liberation was a nullity if Africans continued to think, speak and write to each other in colonial languages.

Ngugi’s critics were quick to accuse him of Gikuyu supremacy and Kikuyu nationalism at the expense of other Kenyan and African languages and cultures.

He was accused of falsely imagining Gikuyuland to be the whole world and discriminating against other Kenyan and African cultures and traditions. In other words Ngugi was seen as Gikuyu tribalist and nativist.

The critics laughed at the fact that after writing his essays in Gikuyu, Ngugi went on to translate his work to English in order to access the lucrative worldwide market.

The demand for the centralisation of the mother tongue and indigenous culture that Ngugi made was widely laughed off as political posturing and name building of an ambitious African writer who however could not resist the trappings and temptations of the Western world that he wanted to be known for debunking.

Domesticating the colonial languages

Another prominent African novelist and essayist, Chinua Achebe radically differed with Ngugi wa Thiongo.

The political wisdom, in the well defended view of Chinua Achebe, was to adopt the colonial languages, domesticate and discipline them, and use them to unite Africa and to confront colonialism and imperialism, rebuke the coloniser and challenge him in his own tongue.

Like Shakespeare’s Caliban who learnt to curse Prospero with the same language that he gave him, the African was to decolonise his continent and his life using the cultural tools of the coloniser.

Once the English language was loaded with African proverbs and idioms, equipped with African wisdom and sensibility, it was no longer the usual English language of the coloniser but it had become a potent cultural and political weapon in the hands of the decoloniser.

Achebe’s argument was forcefully persuasive even as Ngugi and others thought equipping the English language with African proverbs and idioms was enriching the language and the culture of the imperialists and robbing Africa of its cultural goods.

In his classic book, A Dying Colonialism, which was published in 1959 and documents of the Algerian war against French occupation, Frantz Fanon recognised the revolutionary uses of the French language in fighting French colonialism.

Said Fanon; “The occupation authorities have not measured the importance of the new attitude of the Algerian towards the French language,” because “expressing oneself in French, understanding French was no longer tantamount to treason or to an impoverishing identification with the occupier.”

Instead Fanon observed, “used by the voice of the combatants, conveying in a positive way the message of the revolution, the French language also becomes an instrument of liberation.”

To Fanon as it was to Achebe, what is colonial about a language is the attitude with which it is used, the content of the message that it carries and the purpose for which is used.

Bankole Omotoso documents that some Empire builders and Christian missionaries were not comfortable with Africans mastering the colonial languages, especially if the Africans began to be creative and resourceful in the use of the languages subverting their grammar and inventing new forms and modes that were culturally disobedient and politically revolutionary.

Achebe himself boasted that as Africans “we will do unheard of things” with the English language in service of decolonisation and liberation.

In other words language, any language becomes the property of all humanity and is as good and as bad as how, and for what, it is being used.

Decolonising colonial languages in Africa: two approaches.

Achebe also made an important point when he argued that decolonisers can sometimes learn from the gravitas and determination of the colonisers.

Empire builders and missionaries that invaded Africa were so serious about colonisation and changing the world of the African forever.

If the African is to decolonise Africa he needs to deploy the same or more hardihood and gravitas or forget and flow with the river of death.

The Afrikaners of South Africa, from 1913 developed their dialect into a written language and today the Afrikaners have professionals and technicians who write and speak only in Afrikaans and their culture is prosperous for it.

From scratch the Boer nationalists built a language and equipped it with social and intellectual vocabulary, African states and institutions can learn from that example and invest in the building and the development of African languages from tribal and ethnic languages to languages of education and commerce nationally and regionally. Languages are not just born; they are purposely built and developed.

There is need for African political will to develop African languages and give them political and intellectual currency in the world. The second approach is that of doing “unheard of things” with the colonial languages.

These languages need to be used with a decolonial attitude, their grammar and semiotics deployed towards the dignity and liberation of the African.

Decolonially speaking, some African languages are now African in name and form as their content has become colonial and imperial.

A language is as good as its content and essence not just its diction and grammar. It is for that reason that missionaries had to quickly learn African languages in order to do their evangelisation and indoctrination with success in native languages.

English, French, German and other colonial languages can no longer be erased in Africa but their deployment and employment can be powered by a decolonial attitude, they can be used to unite Africans and to tell the world including the western world the story of Africa in a humanising and empowering way.

As recently as 2012, Ngugi wa Thiongo in his classic collection of essays, Globalectics, stated that “translation is the language of the world” in so far as it allows human beings to communicate across continents and cultures. To decolonise language, any language, is to render it to the service of humanity and liberation and not domination and oppression of the other.

• Mkhosana Mathobela Bingweni writes from South Africa.

August 2017
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