Language question in post-colonial Africa


A PROBLEMATIC area which remains largely unresolved since the attainment of independence is the use of colonial languages as official languages in most parts of Africa.
For instance, those countries which used to be controlled by Portugal decided to continue using Portuguese as the official language for Government business, for instruction in schools, colleges and universities as well as for media and public communication purposes.
Similarly, those countries formerly colonised by France and Britain opted to use French and English respectively, as official languages.
The official status and role accorded these imported languages largely explains why descriptions such as ‘Lusophone’, ‘Anglophone’ and ‘Francophone’ have remained an embarrassing identity label for large parts of independent Africa.
The momentous decision to adopt colonial languages as official national languages may have appeared natural and commonsensical to most of those nationalist leaders who championed the independence movements in Africa since most of them were educated and fluent in these languages.
Most had mastered these languages and subsequently used them as weapons with which they formulated powerful arguments directed against European powers who had colonised Africa and looted its resources for long.
Nationalists used these colonial languages to win moral, intellectual and social-cum-cultural arguments directed at an international audience.
They did so on behalf of the colonised populace as part of the struggle for independence.
However, in order to motivate, mobilise and rally the same populace against the oppressive white colonial regimes, the nationalist leadership found it necessary and indeed indispensable to deploy on a massive scale anti-colonial narratives which relied heavily on the use of indigenous languages.
And the reason is obvious.
In these languages were embedded collective memories, folktales, fables, myths and legends, even proverbs and idioms which in one way or other either embodied a comparable vision of life before colonisation or interrogated life as part of a problematic colonial modernity lacking in freedom, justice and human dignity.
In this sense, the nationalist struggles against the imperial West became more or less invincible with the ultimate result that colonial powers had no other choice, but to withdraw from Africa, at least on the political level.
However, many decades after the attainment of independence and after many numerous attempts to develop their countries and not succeeding as much as they would have wished, many are beginning to question the wisdom of adopting these colonial languages as appropriate tools for development.
Fundamental questions in need of answers are now coming to the fore.
Some of these come in the form of a challenge.
For instance, Mawuna Koutonin taunts us by saying: “Give me one country which developed to a powerful Nation using a foreign colonial language as official language.”
The painful truth here is, there is no such country on earth.
In a sense therefore, Africa is trying to do the impossible.
It is trying to develop using imported foreign languages which are largely spoken by local elites and not necessarily by the majority who reside in our countries.
If we are to inspire these majorities to dream big dreams centred on development is it not easier to do so in our own languages rather than in alien toungues?
If during the nationalist struggles we used our languages to mobilise ourselves against the foreign powers who exploited our labour and looted our natural resources, why should we not use the same languages to develop ourselves?
Koutonin argues again: “We Africans are just lazy and so well brainwashed to believe that our education and political system should be in European languages to be modern!”
Indeed the Japanese are modern and developed, but at no time did they forsake their own language.
The same applies to the Chinese, Malaysians, Singaporeans, Koreans, Indians, Iranians and Russians.
The common denominator here is that all these peoples have not made the monumental mistake which Africa made by downgrading the role of its indigenous languages and adopting European languages whose cultural significance does not resonate with our own cultural and socio-economic environment.
This belief which is particularly dominant in Zimbabwe that in order to develop one has to become Western first and foremost, one has to ‘de-Africanise’ first, is a costly fallacy and unnecessary as illustrated by the Japanese and Chinese examples.
Put differently, to forsake our languages, to marginalise them in favour of foreign languages, is to forsake our cultures and our inherited worldviews and value systems; all these are part of a heritage which has been bequeathed to us by our ancestors over many centuries.
There is no way we can develop to become a great continent unless we build on the foundation we have inherited while at the same time remaining open-minded and selectively receptive to what hails from the larger world.
The question is: Why should we concern ourselves about culture when it comes to development?
And the answer is simple.
We now realise that one of the reasons many Western-sponsored development models, projects and programmes fail in Africa is that development is not only a technical issue, an issue about capacity and available resources, it is also about available knowledge and more significantly, about culture and its accompanying belief systems.
Most of us now realise that development is not something which can be engineered and imposed by outsiders; it has to involve all our people who are motivated from within, preferably relying on those cultural resources and knowledge garnered from within and from without.
All these and more go on to determine how a people can go on to transform their material and social situation to a level that is considered as developed.
If indeed culture is a factor in human development, it also means language itself should be regarded an integral part of development, because in that language are embedded social and cultural values, belief systems, world views and ideals which in one way or other go on to influence the manner and trajectory of human development.
In many parts of Africa we remain addicted to speaking and writing in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish.
We do this at our ever increasing number of colleges and universities, but universities whose research agendas appear captive to the West.
We do this in Government offices, churches and schools, but the stubborn fact remains that the languages spoken by the majorities in our homes and villages are indigenous, the mother tongues that matter most at the beginning of our lives.
One of the many dilemmas we face here is how to make our knowledge everyone’s knowledge, how to make our scholarly discoveries and research outcomes an integral part of the commonplace knowledge which belongs to everyone and not just to a few privileged elites as is the case all over Africa.
One way of making knowledge commonplace is to use languages which belong to us and which define us as a people and not languages which divide us and alienate us from each other.
This means we need to think seriously about how to study subjects such as physics, medicine, maths, chemistry, history in our own languages.
The British did it by getting rid of Latin and French which in the past dominated their elite circles in favour of Anglo-Saxon.
So did the French who got rid of Latin imposed by ancient Romans.
The Chinese do study science using Mandarin and Cantonese and not some fanciful foreign language imported from elsewhere like a talisman of some sort.
Why can we not do the same here in Africa?
To conclude, here is how one writer, Marimba Ani, puts it: “Your culture is your immune system, once it is taken away, you become defenceless, vulnerable.
“That is why the enemies of Africa are investing so much in destroying its immune system.”
One might as well add: Using the education systems.


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