Stopping intellectual genocide in African universities

kum'a ndumbe III

'You have not mastered the white people’s foreign tongue? Then you do not have the right to education in your own country, not even at primary school. You have no right to any worthwhile education, however brilliant you are.' Prince Kum’a Ndumbe III calls on Africans to re-appropriate their own languages or face intellectual genocide.

Lo si kodise bato matoi na bwambo bwa bakala mo na mo ! O si bi te nja we no, sele o ko mbuke ! O ma be o mboa ngo nya wamene, o si bie ndand’a ngo nya mbia, o si bie neni o ma kema no ná o bele ba mbambe bongo e? O pimbedi te, baise, mota ndedi a ma leye oa ngea mboa!

Translation: Do not deafen yourself with the white people’s language all the time! If you do not know who you are, then first be silent! You are truly at home, yet you do not even know how to recite your genealogy. You do not know the words in which to invoke your ancestors! If you are lost, then you may ask. Forgiveness will show you the way home.

So why do I speak Douala in this era of globalisation? But of course I do. It is what keeps me going, walking with my head held high whilst I converse with the West in its languages.

Universities in African countries are still not African universities. Mostly, they are universities in thrall to the foreign, the West, Europe and North America. Their conception, philosophy, orientation and research, even their academic rituals and ceremonies, are often than not a bad, if not grotesque, copy of the ancient and modern metropoles.

It is imperative that universities in Africa become African universities, that universities in Cameroon become Cameroonian universities. Intellectual genocide has already massacred enough in Africa. It is time to stop.

My argument is neither anti-white nor xenophobic. The issue at stake is how to uncover the mechanisms behind this lethal mindlessness, which is depriving the whole of humanity of precious scientific knowledge acquired by the black peoples over millennia. My discourse also challenges white people to ask themselves: what has it meant to be white for the last five centuries? What are the repercussions for white people themselves, and for others?

1. The white people’s language is the only language
I address you in French, the white people’s language, here in Yaoundé, capital of Cameroon, in a university environment designed for a small minority, which has no choice but to bend to the omnipresent and manifold power of the Western colonial or postcolonial metropoles. The great majority of Cameroonians will have no access to this debate, articulated in a language that is not their own, and which excludes them from decisions about their own future.

In Africa, the foreigner’s language has become the key to accessing the institutions that govern us, and the decisions that determine our daily lives. Competition to learn this language has become an obsession. For it is essential to be well armed in order to escape the exclusion in which the vast majority of the population finds itself.

The university represents a higher level of this competition to escape. And the language used by the university is one of the first conditions of access. You have not mastered the white people’s foreign tongue? Then you do not have the right to education in your own country, not even at primary school. You have no right to any worthwhile education, however brilliant you are. And that is your bad luck.
You do not want to speak the white people’s language? Then you will remain in your state of barbarism, speaking in your incomprehensible patois, in your dialect that is incapable of embodying thought, in your vernacular language which is barely appropriate for creativity or progress.

The point is that only the white people’s language exists. Their language embodies all thought and outlook on the world. It articulates creation and progress in a universal way – for them, as well as for you, you little niggers thirsty for a place in the sun governed by white people.

There is an urgent need to dismantle the logic that domination is achieved through the command of a foreign language that entails us completely losing the memory of ourselves and becoming incapable of articulating our own thoughts in our own languages.

Cheikh Anta Diop took the trouble to translate Einstein’s theory of relativity into Wolof in order to demonstrate that it is not only in the language of ancient Egypt that blacks are able to master the natural and medical sciences, contemporary African languages are also capable of articulating thought across the academic disciplines.

This does not mean that all school and university textbooks will be available tomorrow in African languages. However, it does signify and reveal the scandal of colonial and postcolonial domination through the imposition of the white people’s language. The way out of this domination and the underdevelopment it engenders is clear.

The direction must be this: Africans must re-appropriate their own languages and use them as basic vehicles for their thinking, production, education, dreams and outlook on the world. It is not only language that is at stake here, but also the survival of the nation, the collective control of the destiny of a people. It is a question of development thought out and directed by a nation, so that it may flourish.

2. Language, scientific heritage and the articulation of thought
No nation has ever developed by eradicating its own language or languages and by swallowing the language of another people without sinking under their enduring domination.

No nation has developed by cutting its umbilical cord with its own intellectual and spiritual heritage, by decreeing that their own heritage, most of all their scientific heritage, is not palpable, and by deciding that abruptly everything must come from outside, from the dominating people, articulated in the language and embedded in the thought of a foreign people. How is it that Africa and the Africans of the 21st century have been made to swallow such a lethal poisonous snake?

Today, universities in Africa have become citadels of foreign domination in which elites are moulded. They are wholly outwardly focused on the dominant countries, today called donors. Africans are educated in these universities, as is the case here in Cameroon, in the white people’s language, thought, philosophy, theology, foreign languages, economics, law, medicine, pharmacy, chemistry, maths, physics and so on.

The European political classes understand the situation so well that they are keen that the best of these African elites are simply integrated into the European metropoles and cast into destructive European globalisation. Given the conditions of underdevelopment and pitiful university salaries, graduates from African universities are applying in great numbers for this new style immigration. Effectively, those who are left behind will have to bear the financial responsibility of educating an elite that Europe and North America will subsequently use to boost their economies. India, with its 700,000 engineers, has, by the way, learned how to apply the
s to this European bait.

In the universities in most African countries, the African peoples’ thousands of years of scientific heritage is hidden. Access to it may even be forbidden by regulations. It therefore remains almost non-existent for the learner, who will deduce by implication that only white people can be educated, and that the only way of excelling is by becoming their star pupil.

African laureates of these universities, without wanting it or knowing it, therefore become the privileged instruments which perpetrate foreign dominance in their own countries. Without wanting or knowing it, they become the fifth estate, which monopolises political, administrative, financial and military power in their own countries in order to place themselves resolutely at the service of the West. Promotion is only possible for those who accept the logic of this perspective.
African universities can therefore only reproduce a model destined to alienate African peoples for ever, even if from time to time, little steps are made to force a thin layer of Africanness into certain disciplines. But in which academic disciplines will the African scientific heritage, accumulated over so many years, become at least a substantial subject in, if not central to, the teaching and education in our Cameroonian universities?

This is where we are today, and we must recognise that position with humility. That said, contemporary and future academic research has an obligation to collect, assemble and rehabilitate African scientific heritage in every discipline. Politics has the responsibility to encourage, formulate and finance this rehabilitation and to open the doors of schools and universities to our heritage.

This will not only be good for Africans and for the development of Africa. Students and researchers of the donor countries will also benefit because they will finally have recourse to genuinely modern African academic sources. We will at last stop producing bad copies of the academic discourse of others and become creators of science in the world of globalised technology and thought.

3. Foreign languages and education of the ‘illiterate and self-ignorant scholar’
I would like to stress an aspect of foreign languages little discussed in our universities. Foreign languages such as French and English are not just languages of instruction in Africa. They also benefit from whole literature, arts and humanities departments. Students thus specialise in the language, literature, linguistics and civilisation of the languages’ country of origin. In Western universities, European languages such as German, Spanish, Italian, Greek and Latin also have the advantage of research and teaching departments, and a Cameroonian copy of these has been stuck on to our university structures.

I would contend that we are now in an urgent situation, where this African or Cameroonian copy is overwhelming our students. In the European universities, a French student who has for example matriculated to study German has spoken and written his French mother tongue since nursery school, and has command of his language. He thinks in his language and constructs his reasoning in the logic of the French language. He dreams in French and has a distinctly French outlook on the world. The German that he has been learning since secondary school is an opening, an enrichment, which enhances his knowledge acquired in the French learning environment. He will be able to use it in his profession. He will be able to navigate between French and German worlds as an intermediary or a bridge. In the same way, the Japanese student who studies German does not only have perfect command of his Japanese language. He understands the history, literature of Japan, Japanese thought and logic. He is profoundly integrated in his own culture, religious environment and Japanese vision of the world.

The Cameroonian student on the other hand who does a degree in French, English, German, Spanish or Italian is, in the overwhelming majority of cases, an educated person, but illiterate and ignorant of their own Cameroonian language. If they are asked the question, ’What languages do you speak?’ they will regally reply, ‘French’, ‘English’, ‘German’, ‘Spanish’ or ‘Italian’, whatever languages they are taking. To the response, ‘Is that all?’ they will say it is. If they are then asked, ‘Don’t you have a mother tongue?’ they will exclaim, ‘Ah, my patois! I speak a little.’ In most cases however, they will find it difficult to hold a serious conversation or discussion in their language. They will not know how to write or recite a syllable or poem in their own language.

This learned person, illiterate and ignorant of their own linguistic heritage, is, however, called on to graduate in the language, literature, thought and world of the European or North American. They are educated neither in the language, nor the thought, nor the literature, nor the world that correspond to their own sensitivities. This illiterate and self-ignorant educated person will essentially internalise European values and perspectives, thought and logic. They will apply to their future secondary school pupils or students the same Western methods. They will transmit the same logic of academic hierarchy and dominance, perhaps without even knowing it, without even wanting to do so.

We are thus producing in our universities language students graduating in European thought and languages but dangerously ignorant of their own people’s languages and thought. This is a system which is reproducing foreign domination. It is unjustifiable that Cameroonian taxes are financing these cycles of study and it is unacceptable and contrary to all developmental accountability.

In our French and English departments, African authors are certainly studied, but only those who write in the white people’s language, which means books published since the First World War, written by Africans in European languages. The enormous linguistic and literary heritage of Africa in our languages is not considered in those departments, even less so in the German or Spanish or Italian departments. These students will therefore receive their undergraduate degrees, masters degrees and doctorates whilst remaining deeply ignorant of their own languages and literature, in other words, of their own scientific heritage.

How can we expect that an educated class structured in this way can be called on to resolve the problems challenging its own country, Cameroon? How can we expect that an illiterate and self-ignorant educated person will one day claim to successfully drive the future of a nation, as, for example, president, minister, director general, civil servant, managing director, or manager?

4. Language and a change in political course for African and Cameroonian universities
Universities in Africa face the challenge of becoming African universities on African soil. Language is at the basis of everything: all thought, articulation and creation. African languages must make their solemn entry into African universities as languages of instruction, research, and comparative study with foreign languages. European languages must cease to be languages of self-alienation for Africans, languages of domination and structural alienation. European languages must become partner languages in Africa, languages of opening and frank dialogue. These changes must be made progressively, in stages, but it is imperative that they are made.
African language departments in our universities were not created to Africanise our African universities. They are, in the same way as the other departments, products of the logic of a colonial metropolitan university system whereby African languages were studied to win the African soul over to Christianity and the ideology of submission to colonial domination, for purposes of anthropological and ethnological knowledge, and as bridges of communication with the colonised.

African language departments existed in most of the universities of the colonial powers, in Paris, Berlin, Brussels and London. They always had an exotic status and few students. Not much has changed, they are still marginal, precisely as if they were of no national interest!

African language departments in our universities should not be allowed to evolve in a vacuum. The debate on African languages must widen. These departments are called on to develop an academic framework for the study of African languages on a continental scale, in close collaboration with other universities. Equally they must offer services to all our other university departments.

I would propose five step-changes that can be made progressively:
1. Students in French, English, German, Spanish, Italian and other European language departments should include in their courses compulsory and accredited units on African languages and literature. The goal is to help these students read, write and perfect at least one African language, to discover literature in African languages, even if this is not necessarily the student’s local language.

2. Students of all other faculties including science and medicine must include a compulsory African languages module among their courses.

3. The training of teachers in African languages should be accelerated.

4. The number of specialised teaching manuals adapted to teaching African languages in different departments and specific faculties should be increased.

5. There should be systematic use of the internet for academic research, teaching, popularisation and communication of African languages.
These measures will create new jobs for translators and African language primary, secondary and university level teachers, and specialised study of these languages in medicine, pharmacy, physics, chemistry, law, economics and information technology. New publishing houses, specialising in African languages, will publish newspapers, journals and books . Radio, television and the press will generate an increasing need for African language readers and presenters.

For this to happen, all those who understand the link between language and underdevelopment, and language and development must make a sustained effort. We must educate public opinion, those in positions of political, administrative and university authority, and lecturers and students, so that the structure of mental domination in our universities is exposed and the logic of the universities that leads to underdevelopment revealed.

Decision makers will need political courage to orient African universities in this new direction. But for the good of the people this is not a matter of choice. The decision may be deferred for personal political reasons, but it can only be deferred. One day the political and economic shambles and the advanced disintegration of values and perspectives will force the decision makers to act to save the nation.

African languages are a key element in the re-composition of Africans’ personality, for the reestablishment of their psychic and mental equilibrium, and to allow reconciliation with themselves. The introduction of these languages into the school and university systems will permit a redeployment of energies that will lead to a new kind of economic development of our countries, and towards a new balance between the individual and society. It seems to me that this is a direction worth taking.

* Prince Kum'a Ndumbe III is professor at the University of Yaoundé, Cameroon. He is the founding president of the AfricAvenir foundation, a cultural development organisation in Cameroon and Berlin (www.africavenir.org).
This article was first published in French by AfricAvenir and in the French edition of Pambazuka News http://www.pambazuka.org/fr/category/comment/41906
Translated from French by Stephanie Kitchen.
* Please send comments to editor(at)pambazuka.org or comment online at www.pambazuka.org

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