Widely referred to as the “father” of decolonisation in Africa and the world, renowned Kenyan author and academic, Professor Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o delivered a memorable lecture on the very subject in Johannesburg this week. Here is the full lecture below.
On 18th January this year, a Great South African Intellectual , died at his hom
Peter Abrahams belongs to the great pantheon of black South African intellectuals that go all the way back to Tiyo Soga, Charlotte Maxeke, Walter Rubusana, Solomon Plaatje, S E K Mqhayi, the Dhlomo and B-enedict Viiakazi, and continued in Eskia Mphahlele, Alex la Guma, Lewis Nkosi, Bloke Modisane, Dennis Brutus and Mazisisi Kunene, to mention those who have passed on.
Abrahams was important not only for his contribution to South African writing but to African writing as a whole. In my memoir, In the House of the Interpreter, I have described how the very title of his memoir, Tell Freedom, spoke to me, a high s
As the first prime Minister of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, was always aware of the necessity of securing the African continent as base for all peoples of African origins. He had a vision of an Africa as a dominant industrial power in the world, but he was also aware that this had to go hand in hand with decolonized minds. In 1962, Kwame Nkrumah, gave the opening addresses to the First International Congress of Africanists in Accra Ghana in 1962, which is instructive in its contemporary relevance.
His speech carried the hope that the congress would be a major step towards an Africa-centered view of itself, its history and culture. For him, the knowledge existing in African languages
He came back to the same theme when a year later he gave another speech at the opening of the Institute of African Studies, where he talked about the study of African history, culture, and institutions, languages and arts, as necessary in the Afri
African languages were central in African scholarship, development and its relationsh
It is fair to pause and ask; after fifty years, have we regained the cu
Hegelian Africa, enveloped in the dark mantle of the night, and that of Trevor Roper for whom the continent had only darkness to exhibit and darkness could not be the subject of history, is gone for ever, thanks to this scholarship. But have we fulfilled the Nkrumahist vision?
Unfortunately, African scholarship has achieved this great visibility in the world by the tremendous feat of making itself invisible to Africa. African scholarship wears a linguistic mask with the magic quality of making it invisible to the majority in Africa and simultaneously visible to those with the key made in Europe. Thus we arrive at a position that is the opposite of that envisioned in Kwame Nkrumah's speech. We can only
In the same speech Nkrumah posed the question: are we really sure that our students are in touch with the life of the nation? Perhaps we should rephrase the question. Are we sure that after fifty years of modem African scholarship we are in touch with the nation, the continent, African peoples? Or more basic and consequential, is the independent African state, now in existence for the same fifty years, in touch with its people?
How can it be, when it has embraced European languages, spoken and used by only ten percent of the population, as the language of power, commerce, education, of Law and Justice? The fact is in any independent African nation today the majority are rendered linguistically deaf and mute by government policies that have set European languages as the normative measure of worth in every aspect of national life.
This situation is not the consequence of an accident of history: it is the fulfilme
Among other penalties, the 1366 Statute of Kilkenny, threatened to confiscate any lands of any English or any Irish living among them who would use "Irish among themselves, contrary to the ordnance.
By 16th Century the ordnances had failed to achieve their desired end, that is, the subjugation of the Irish. Enter Spencer of the shepherd's calendar and the Fairie Queenie, a settler- planter in Munster Ireland. In 1598 Spenser published his book, A View of Ireland at the present time, a dialogic manifesto on how to tame the Irish thru the erasure of their memory. Naming, yes names, and language were the suggested instruments to that end, for, as one of the interlocutors in the dialogue says, "it hath ever been the use of the conqueror to despise the language of the conquered, and to force him by all means to learn his.”
The book and the sentiment are significant because they come a time when the nascent European nation states have emerged from the linguistic hegemony of Latin and the religious hegemony of the Catholic church, rival nationalisms are on the rise, and mercantile capitalism is turning imperial and colonial, with the black body at the centre of the emerging commerce. This follows Europe'
Walter Raleigh was Spenser's settler neighbour in Munster and he would go on to found Virginia, the first truly English colony in the Americas . In the American- slave- plantatio
Though I have not come across evidence of actual banning of African languages on the continent, but each of the post-Berlin colonising nations put their languages at the center of their imperial universe.
I want to emphasise this is a colonial phenomena, not a black and white issue. Imperial Japan, when in 1910 it annexed Korea, made Koreans take on Japanese names and language, a policy reversed after the defeat of Japanese colonialism. When the USA annexed Hawaii, it banned the use of Hawaiian language, until 1978. In all such cases of colonial conquest, Language was meant to complete what the sword had started; do to the mind what the sword had done to the body. In one of my classes on Europhonism and Post-colonialism at the University of California, Irvine, we read some harrowing narratives of how native American children were snatched from their community, and forced into Boarding schools, where they were given European names and then immersed in English.
An article by Adam R Beach has argued that even the 18th century struggles for the standardisation of English had both a national and an imperial intent: A Standardised English would become the building block of ...a metaphysical empire, an empire of language and literature that would outlive the actual British/physical Empire.
Was this just a fantasy? It was put into practical language politics in 19th century in India when in the famous minutes on Indian education in 1934, Macaulay advocated. E
The same was happening in those spheres under the other European powers; the French and the Portuguese called their version of the Macauleyan process, assimilation. Language was the key factor in assimilation. But neither the French, the Portuguese nor the British went through this exercise for the aesthetics of assimilation. As Macauley put it bluntly, it was to create a linguistically westernised middlemen who would automatically carry
In thee case of the French, a founder of the Alliance Francaise, a Mr Pierre Foncin, said that it was "necessary to attach the colonies to the Metropole by a very solid psychological bond against the day when their progressive emancipation ends
So along with the economic and political empires, Europe simultaneously and consciously created empires of the mind through la
They gave us their accents in exchange for their access to our resources. Or let me put it this way: Europe gave Africa the resources of their accent; Africa gave Europe Access to the Resources of the Continent. So when African intellectuals and leadership were busy perfecting their borrowed
Has the metaphysical empire, or the empire of the mind, outlived the physical empire as envisioned by the advocates of the language spread? The success of the empires of the mind, or colonies of the mind, can be seen in the very defenders of the dominance of European languages over those of areas and regions outside Europe: the defence does not necessarily come from its exporters but rather from the importers. In Africa today, the defenders are African intellectuals and policy makers. Some of them act as if it is the English and European languages whose existence is being threatened by African languages: African languages interfere with the English accent.
Again, this is not new or unique to Africa. The defenders of English and arguments in favour of its dominance, come from the intellectual of the colonised periphery as a whole. In the case of English, this phenomenon first manifested itself in England's Northern neighbour Scotland. The eminent intellectuals of the 18th century Scottish enlightenment, Hume, Smith, et al waxed ecstatic about standardisation of English and its virtues for national formation and even as an imperial export. But even among the Irish the greatest defenders of the language were latter-day Irish intellectuals.
Of course there is nothing wrong in wanting to take English or any other language as one's own. I have always argued that each language, big or small, has its unique musicality; there is no language, whose musicality and cognitive potential, is inherently better than another.
African languages with all their different and unique musicalities are still in everyday use. What seems to horrify these intellectuals, the policy makers and the international financial services behind them, is the call for vigorous literary intellectual and eve scholarly reflection of that reality. Availability of more information, more knowledge, more skills in those languages otherwise in daily oral use will break up the nation. But the concentration of the same in English or French will somehow cement the nation. The result: Pamper European languages; Pauperize African languages.
The entire African language speaking majorities are taxed directly or indirectly so that 90 percent of the resources available for language education can go to English accents. In some countries African language have been unceremoniously axed out of the curriculum or made into electives. Some advocates of English dominance not only want it so but would actually like to see the literary disappearance of native languages altogether.
The explanation of this desire, death wish for one’s own language and the simultaneous categorical embrace of the dominant other, has to go beyond the uses or not of the languages in question. It probably lies in how that sense of dominance was brought about.
A common thread in the export of English in Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Africa was the constant association of extreme humiliation and negativity with native languages and the corresponding value and prestige associated with English in colonial education factories. Corporal punishment, physical violence, was often meted to children caught speaking mother tongues in the school compounds, and additionally, made to perform acts of shame like carrying objects that proclaimed their stupidity or made to swallow filth in some cases. One set of languages was associated with defeat, shame, incoherence, savagery even, and the other with modernity and science, with the human and conquest. No wonder people would want to bask in the sunshine of the language of glory and hide from those of shame and defeat.
Experiments have done with rats, where a group is subject electrical shocks if they go certain spaces, and rewarded i
Whatever the explanations, ori
African languages tarnish their rightful seat in the global table. We need the globe, we are told, and that globe can only hear us in English. The English accent blinds them to the reality that what they are getting from the global table are simply the remnants of the global a
Fortunately, even within the current tide of apparent defeat, resistance
Writing in Africa languages continues but Despite these efforts, it is the Europhone tradition that has the visibility, nationally and
Surely universities like this ought be full of scholars who know and even work in several African languages; translators into African languages; theorists of African languages in African languages. Then we can share our finds in whatever languages we may have in common, including Engl
Every African University should beco
We should work with popular performances. The various national bureaus would then be constituents member of an African union based Pan Africa Bureau of African languages. Above all, make knowledge of an African language count in awarding degrees and in . promotions, at the university, civil service. A knowledge of an Africa language should count in evaluating teachers from Abroad. Make it both cool and clever to know an African language.
This does not and should never mean retreating into linguistic self-isolation. If you know all the languages of the world and you don’t know your mother tongue or the language of your culture, that is ensla
* This paper will be part of a longer book project.