Writers Back African Languages

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The issue of language rights is an emotive issue for Africans whose rights were infringed when European colonial powers ordered that their colonies adopt a single national language as the nations in Europe itself did, resulting in the marginalization or extinction of countless languages in Africa.

“There are so many reasons why I write in Shona which is one of the two main languages spoken in Zimbabwe. I have spoken the language from birth until now. It is the language I think, dream, cry and laugh in…Writing in Shona is liberating. The best of my conversations are in Shona because it allows me to bypass toll gates set for me by the English language,� said Zimbabwe’s versatile Shona writer, Ignatius Mabasa. He presented his paper titled: ‘Why I write in Shona’ with oratory passion at the Zimbabwe International Book Fair writers’ Indaba, recently here in Harare.

The issue of language rights is an emotive issue for Africans whose rights were infringed when European colonial powers ordered that their colonies adopt a single national language as the nations in Europe itself did, resulting in the marginalization or extinction of countless languages in Africa. At the writers’ Indaba, a lively debate on language rights raged on as African scholars interrogated language policies, colonial mentalities that place English of a higher pedestal than indigenous languages and explored ways to entrench African languages not only in the soul, but also in the heart and mind as well.

“You see, the cancer of colonialism has spread in Zimbabwe to such an extent that most people feel it is fashionable to speak and write in English,� said Mabasa. Anguish, bitterness and disappointment from failed implementation of African language policies was written all over the faces of the academics meeting at this annual book fair.

“People in southern Africa should be encouraged to learn other languages spoken in the region like Ndebele instead of learning French because one may never have the chance to go to Paris but may find it easier to cross the border to Zimbabwe and South Africa where the languages are spoken,� said a Zambian writer and linguist, Hilda Musunsa. “In Zambia we are encouraging people to learn Ndebele and I believe in the end this will important for regional integration.�

Prof Herbert Chimhundu, the head of the African Languages Research Institute at the University of Zimbabwe called on Africans to rid themselves of the notion that English ‘unites’ people from diverse backgrounds. “Does everybody think that Zimbabweans are united by English? Are Mozambicans united by Portuguese?� he asked.

Instead, he said, there was need for more material and financial resources to ensure that African countries have sound language policies and systems in place that promote their own languages over foreign ones. Others were blunt and criticized African leaders for not showing their commitment towards the recognition of their languages.

A participant quoted Ngugi waThiongo for noting that 75 percent of our resources go to English and French rather in the development of indigenous languages. Others said international organization put unnecessary pressure on African job seekers by requiring that they either be fluent in English, French, Germany or Mandarin and not in their own mother tongues. “To get a job at the UN, you have to know French and English. Sometimes the pressure come from the international organization and bodies,â€? said one  scholar. Social commentator and critic, Prof Ngugi waMirii said there was power in teaching in African languages. “I could teach adult people in my Kikuyu language. This is power of the language, the language of our people. The challenge is in each one of us,â€? he said.

“Let’s write in our mother tongue. Let’s push publishers to publish in our language.â€? He castigated academics in institutions of higher learning for “teaching African languages in English.â€? He added: â€œOur languages are rich and very romantic. We can borrow words that we don’t have—even English is full of Greek, Latin, French; we can do the same to come with new languages,â€? he said.

Renowned Zimbabwean writer Barbara Makhalisa said it was critical to have people with a passion for our languages. “We need to be passionate with our own languages. We can’t rely on commercial publishers alone. We have to start publishing little things for children because we can’t wait for policy,� she said. Tanzania has made significant strides in promoting Swahili for use in teaching mathematics and science and observers the three countries that make up the East African Community are moving towards adopting Swahili as the common language for this economic grouping. Progress is being made also to develop computer programs in Swahili.

Africa is one continent with the world’s most linguistically diverse people. For instance, the Central African Republic has 68 distinct language groups in a population of just 3.4 million people. “People see many languages as a sin and say, ‘No, we must have one language.’ I think it is necessary for Africans to accept the reality of multilingual societies,� wrote Ngugi WaThiong’o in Africa Visions.

Linguistic experts say language diversity and planning are the most critical and often overlooked issue on the continent. There is hope. In Zimbabwe, the central bank, Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe broke new ground by moving to translate the country’s mid-year monetary policy into the local Ndebele and Shona languages, a first in many years. “Nothing stays longer in our souls that the language we inherit,� one writer put it.

Tsiko is The Black Star’s Southern Africa correspondent based in Harare, Zimbabwe.


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