Africa should own its stories and not be content with telling them in the oppressor’s narrative voice.
After the colonial era, history was appropriated by the Western voice and has been narrated in the tone of the oppressor. This has created the dangerous minefield of language politics. Racial dominance is now finding its expression through languages and how they are regarded in the secular world. French, English and other Western languages are now almost synonymous to sophistication while local languages have been reduced to “funny noises” and “clicking sounds”. This is the new format of racism that the world systems now inherently hold. African countries needs to learn from countries like China which have defied the imposition of foreign languages. The continent should begin to tell its own stories in local languages and dismantle racial hierarchies.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o in a BBC HARDtalk interview once said, “English is not an African language, full stop! One can we say we adapt it and so on. In Nigeria, there is Yoruba, there is Igbo; in Kenya there is Gikuyu, there is Luo. We have genuine African languages.” Why Language is not simply a form of communication but it is the medium for culture. Where native languages are lost or relegated to being second languages or even extinction, local culture is also relegated. The problem with the burgeoning middle class in Africa has been the desperate need to be sophisticated and yet this sophistication is really just adoption of Western culture. For many people, there is a deep-seated envy for the things of the West which demands that African culture be shed for a more “professional” and “civilised” Westernised way of living. What is the starting point? Language. The problem does not simply start mid-air, it starts with schools and the education systems in many African countries. The schools considered good schools have little African influences and already young Africans are being taught being well-groomed is being un-African. The products of these schools are in all truth insecure people lacking in self-confidence. The African education system in promoting foreign languages is creating Africans who hate themselves and aspire to be acceptable products in the Western market. Yes,
In his book, Decolonising the Mind, Ngugi wa Thiong’o says, “Language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world.”
When news broke of Pretoria High School for Girls’ racist policies towards natural African hair, reports soon followed of how the school also had an “English” regime in place. Malaika Eyoh, a grade 12 student at Pretoria High School writing for The Daily Vox recounts an incident a teacher attacked the Xhosa language in the South African high school. She said, “In 2016, two grade 11 students were conversing in Xhosa during a lesson where the staff member had stopped teaching and all pupils were chatting freely (some in English, others in Afrikaans). The staff member singled out these two girls and asked them to ‘stop making those funny noises’ because it was making her uncomfortable in our English medium school.”
Bear in mind this was not done in the United Kingdom but in South Africa where Xhosa is a local language. It is just one incident in a systematic beat-down of local languages and local culture in Africa. This is not always done by whites but even by black Africans with obvious low levels of self-esteem and self-worth. The problem is such people with low self-esteem are rewarded by Western capital and continue to perpetuate the inferiority complex among younger Africans. Africa will end up with weak-willed leaders sympathetic to the Western cause simply because they were taught the language of the West was better than their own and this consequently undermined their culture and identity rendering them cheap imitations of Westerners.
There is however, a temptation that when hardliners like Ngugi speak of the decolonisation of language politics, they focus on what has been called “the wrapper” instead of the contents. It is easy to use local languages while still praising the oppressor. The politics of language go deeper that simply what language is used. They are a psychological issue. Pastor Vutabwashe of Zimbabwe highlights this dangerous internalisation of colonialism by reminding the world of how any big shot, black or white may be called “murungu” (white man) in the Shona language. This shows how people can still embrace being racially inferior through their own languages. Simply changing the language used to assert the oppressor’s dominance dolves nothing. The starting point is therefore freeing the mind and then attacking the institutions of racial inferiority like the imposition of Western languages as the only legitimate media of effective and professional communication.
In workplaces, local languages should also be used for official documents. The internet should no longer be dominated by Western languages; the African internet should have African languages. At least Mark Zuckerberg understood this simple fact and announced his company, Facebook would add more African languages. Writers should publish their works in their native languages or at least make sure there are always translations. More importantly, the news and history of world affairs should start being told in African languages. Africa should own its stories and not be content with telling them in the oppressor’s narrative voice. Only then can the truth of African heroics and the diversity of African culture be taken seriously. It is a pity the African writers who are respected through-out the world are using English and they are called pioneers yet the reality is they are only walking the paths already traversed by the African grandmothers and fathers who are the vanguards of African culture and story-telling.
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