New Internationalist

Using our own languages is the first step towards an African Renaissance

Schoolchildren in Kenya [Related Image]
African children must be taught their mother tongue. Greg Westfall under a Creative Commons Licence

There has never been a better time than now to return to our African linguistic roots. The 1884 ‘Scramble for Africa’ (also called the Partition of Africa) brought us unforeseen divisions and rivalries whereby we are explicitly known as Francophone, Lusophone, Anglophone and Italophone, respectively. At any given moment, whether it is a conflicting issue that needs resolution, African states leaning toward the axis of Anglophone orientation gang up against the Francophone, or it could be Afrolusophone versus Afroitalophone, muddling it up over matters of economic interests. It is not a question of whether we are enriching European languages with our ingenuity; rather, it is a call to put our authenticity in perspective, that we will never discover our true genius by continuing to use other people’s languages. We could still enrich foreign languages by way of translation; a true literary work of genius could get noticed at any instance the word is out. Literary works such as Camara Laye’s The Dark Child, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Weep Not, Child, are exceptionally rare works of intelligence. Indeed, those are true gems of literature, but could they have done more? To put it another way: was their ingenuity complete, or was it in fragments? What if there are still some undiscovered geniuses lingering in the hades of unfamiliarity with these foreign languages?

When Europe was mired in a debacle of the dark ages, it didn’t have the enlightening period called the Renaissance until it discarded Latin. For an African Renaissance to take off, going back to our native languages is the first step towards launching a dawn of a new era. Our native languages are rich with a burgeoning tradition of progress; for no matter how mesmerizing the foreign languages are, we do not have a deeper understanding of their sly ways. We have an exuberant attachment to our native languages, almost spiritual. That connection makes it easy for us to wade through impossibilities, and in the midst of this scuffle, we and our languages have fused into one thing, becoming inseparable over time. It is not just our genius that we are trying to unearth from our native languages; myths, fables, and even knowledge of ecosystems and species of both plants and animals, and their interactions with our domiciling environments, could all be lost if we do not come up with a swift answer to this nagging hurdle. Every once in a while, a scientist would appear and state, ‘I have discovered this species of plant, and I have discovered that species.’ What these scientists always avoid taking into account before rushing to publications of their discoveries, is failing to ask the indigenous communities if they knew anything about the species in question. It turns out that, most of the time, the names of the species of plants and animals they are belatedly discovering were already commonplace in the local languages of said communities. Not only that, many of today’s indigenous communities have the ability to derive certain medicines and medicinal herbs from the varied wild species of plants and animals they have been interacting with for centuries in their ecosystem milieu.

In the foreseeable future, it is predicted that hegemonic languages, that are less prone to the domineering effects of less influential languages, are going to take centre stage. As times goes on, more and more languages are going to bow to pressures of the most influential languages. Many more languages are going to disappear altogether from the face of the earth. Language as a medium to carry one culture from one pocket of the globe to another cultural hub is going to be more prominent than ever. And since we have no idea of where the next hegemonic all-conquering languages are going to hail from, shouldn’t we put our house in order right now, before the sun calls it a day?

This is where our return to our native languages comes shouting hard on our necks. Our native languages were only taken for a ride by the imperial capitalist West. They were only taken for a nightmarish ride up to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, but they were eventually returned to us, changed, and needing a new system of mothering. The wells of our native languages are still wet, they haven’t entirely been laid to waste by the poisonous fangs of the European languages. All they yearn for is the constant nourishment by the beloved sons and daughters of the continent. Our world is increasingly becoming smaller, and all we have to do is to return to systems so familiar, systems we have all known along, but have neglected for far too long: our mother tongues. Be it a Dinka of South Sudan, Shona of Zimbabwe, or Yoruba of Nigeria – we call for systems that have our authenticity written all over them; capacities that will carry our unique experience to the world stage. It is time to wake up our hibernating and greying native languages from the chambers of our granaries, where the termites have been eating their way into their hearts for quite some time now. Once the world finally succumbs to the common phrase called the ‘global village’, it would not be in our interest to gloat over how much we have achieved as a race; rather, our humble preoccupation would be to contribute our unique experience to the global plate; where it can improve the futuristic aspirations of humankind. Our world is ever-changing, and we are always in need of ingenuity to rescue us from moments of frustration, even experiences of life and death. It is time to invest more of our efforts and resources into our native languages, entities that hold sacred followings, in a sense, analogous to the spiritual attachment of the land of Africa itself. In any case, if we fail to pay heed to this urgent call, we won’t have much to contribute to the betterment of humankind, since we will only be playing on the unfamiliar grounds of European languages, which are bound to produce second-rate ingenuity, if at all

I am a South Sudanese currently living in the United States. I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in Social Sciences from the Evergreen State College. I am a lifelong learner: meaning I indulge myself in books once I do get a little time off from work.

This blog originally appeared on the Paanluel Wel website. Crossposted with permission of the author.

Read more: the June 2014 issue of New Internationalist on ‘Save our Speech!’ The Politics of Language Loss.

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