When Ngugi wa Thiongo renounced english, christianity, his christian name (he was baptized as James Ngugi) and started writing in his native Gikuyu and Swahili, I thought it was a little extreme given his radical fanonist convictions. I thought it was impractical. But in his book ‘Decolonising the mind’ he argues, and I should say convincingly, that language is a carrier of culture and a society’s collective memory. ‘Because erasure of memory is a condition for successful assimilation, the burial of African languages by Africans themselves ensured that the assimilation process into colonial culture was complete’. That is powerful. I related to this deep insight this week. Let me explain.
At 1957Hrs on a Friday evening I jumped into a train (the Swiss have weird departure times). With Shaaban Robert’s autobiographical ‘Maisha Yangu’ in my hands, I was heading home after a fruitful day at work. On my way my phone rings. I am happy that mom is calling, but it is when I pick the phone that I realize how inept I am. Because I want my conversation with mama to not be understood by those around me, I make a deliberate effort to use Kiswahili all the way, not a single english word. This opens my eyes.
I realized that my swahili vocabulary is thin (even more apparent when reading Shaaban Robert). I literary have to search the corners of my mind to form coherent thought in unbroken Swahili. Of course I am not saying that I am not fluent in Swahili, but the fact that I have put an effort not to switch into English surprised me. Once in a while I had to lean on an english conjunction to make point. Does that sound familiar? I suppose it is if you watch the Tanzanian parliamentary sessions. I was genuinely embarrassed. The truth is more and more of our young people, especially those who have had the privilege of higher education, are becoming less and less fluent in our local languages, let alone kiswahili.
There is a scene in Khaled Hosseini’s epic novel, And the Mountains Echoed, (you won’t waste your time reading it). Abdul, an Afghani who immigrated to the US insists that his American born children learn Farsi, his native language. ‘If culture is a house’ Abduls says to his children, ‘then language is the key to the front door, to all the rooms inside. Without it you end up wayward, without a proper home or legitimate identity’. The book was fictional, the point he made cannot be any profounder. Lose your language and you have lost your cultural identity.
Words, or I should say, Language is the raw material from which ideas, concepts and ideologies are formed. When someone robs you of your language, they not only take away your ability to communicate. They erode your capacity for ideation. They compromise your thought-forming pattern. They leave your mind limping. There is nothing more valuable that can be stolen from a human being. In part, I believe we ourselves are stealing this culture from ourselves by not investing in our local languages enough whether through reading and more importantly through writing.
He who controls language controls thought. In ‘1984’, George Orwell coined terms such as ‘doublespeak’, ‘thoughtcrime’ and ‘newspeak’ to show how much thought was influenced by the language. He even creates a department responsible for coining new phrases and overhauling the entire vocabulary structure to affect the way people think. In other words, if I can take away your language, I am also altering the way you think. Part of the reason we have an educational crisis in Tanzania is because the change of language between primary and secondary school takes a toll in the children’s ability to understand. Without fluent english teachers, which are in short supply, students actually never really recover from the change, their abilities to absorb concepts given the sudden change of language diminishes. The challenge for those who begin school in English medium schools is also being able to not desert kiswahili in their normal lives.
Language is also important because it decodes culture. Culture is important because it forms the basis of an identity. Without an identity there can be no coherent nation. Language has cultural significance because it enhances a national pride. Any nation not proud of itself and its history will find it difficult to be coherent. This pride in Africa took a massive blow during colonialism. Waangari Maathai uses the term a ‘cracked mirror’ in her book ‘The challenge for Africa’ to highlight how culturally fatal the imposition of a new language was. Across the Africa, people started viewing local languages as inferior, incomprehensible and incapable of communicating complex concepts, ideas and scientific thought. Africans looked at the mirror and did not like what they saw. In many ways, we are yet to heal.
As a result we went as far as dismissing our wisdom our keepers as sorcerers and witches. Those things that made us who we were – ceremonies, symbols, stories, folklore- ‘fell apart’ to borrow Achebe’s words. We adopted foreign names, despised our cultural past and with it the pride we had in our past died. The colonial masters won, we were accomplices in this cultural suicide. I concur with Ngugi, a ‘linguicide’ happened, and is still very much going on. Our history was rewritten. Our culture was downgraded. To date, many African view their fellow Africans not able to express themselves in English or French as somehow inferior. This must be reversed, and I am afraid the reversal is not complete. The reason we must reverse this is because 'a people without a positive history is like a vehicle without an engine', at least in Steve Biko’s mind. I see no better way to start rewriting this history than revamping our pride in our languages.
Of course I am not suggesting that we completely drop English or French. That is not an option. We live in a globalized world. Our children are going to require multilingual skills. What I am saying is we cannot afford to drop our local languages. These languages knit us together. They enhance our identity. They bolster our pride. They also are able to bring the masses into the debate as most of them are not as articulate in english. Kiswahili for example, has immense regional, continental and international potential. We can use it more, reinforce it more and even export it outside the East African shores. It was great to see the draft union constitution released in Kiswahili. I believe it enriched the debate. It allowed more Tanzanians to be part of the process.
An unused vessel will soon rust away. Not using our languages catalyzes their extinction. We do not use our language as much as we should even when the use of english is not necessary. Check the recent text messages you sent to your colleagues. Trace your Facebook updates and your tweets. How many of them are in proper kiswahili? In haya? pare or hehe? If you are like me, and I suppose I am not alone, the answer is very few. How many of us can write an intellectual or even comment on socio-cultural matters in effortless kiswahili without stammering along the way.
More knowledge needs to be created in kiswahili and other local languages. I personally read a rough average of close to a book a week. Since I record all the books that I read, I went back to check how many of them were not english books. Not much as you might have guessed. Of the 27 I have read this year, only three are in kiswahili. And it just occurred to me that I have never in my life read a book written in my native ‘kibena’. How can a culture hope to survive if we do not produce enough literature about it? Indeed, how can we make any intellectual progress if we do not put into writing our ideas in a language that moderately literate people can understand?
Unfortunately, there is not much vernacular literature around. Unlike South Africa, we cannot have 11 official languages. While practicalities must be taken into account, we should emphasize knowledge creation in our languages. A lot of blame actually lies with the so called elites: That small fraction of Tanzanians who were fortunate enough to get a higher education. It occurs to me that most of what we write is in the language that a common man cannot understand. Increasingly, more seminars, public lectures, symposiums and discussions are held in English. That alienates many of the Tanzanians who are either moderately fluent, or just uncomfortable with the english language. But even worse, we do not have a culture of writing regardless of the language.
We Africans have a great oral tradition. We are master story tellers but lazy at writing. Every time I go to my village in Njombe (Southern Tanzania) I am amazed by how wise and deep the old people there are. In fact, I now prefer hanging around old men and women because it appears to me that their reservoirs of wisdom and knowledge are close to limitless. But unfortunately we do not write. "When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground." This African saying could be less true if we wrote more. Part of reversing this ‘linguicide’ is for us Africans to start writing more(of course that means we need to read more). African writers of the world, unite! You have nothing to loose and your culture to reclaim! Take out your pens (and laptops) and fight for your cultures. If lingual culture was a war, then writers are the marines.
I am reposting this rather long article as I partially agree with it but at the same time criticise the justification of Tanzanian's being given a get-out-jail free card for not knowing English or Kiswahili. Can I just point out that South Africans have 9 national languages and they do just fine in expressing themselves, never mind the fact that Switzerland has at least 3, yet they are doing fine.
Also I would like to highlight that Swahili is really for the elite, say words like Kingamuzi where unknown to people and somehow it always feel like they deliberately they try to complicate it so the proper Swahili remains to the few.