Language, liberation and development
Is there a connection between language and the enslavement or liberty of a people and their capacity for development? In this article, Prince Kum’a Ndumbe III elucidates this question and describes the approaches of the AfricAvenir Foundation to raise consciousness about language and development amongst the people and decision makers. First published by Pambazuka.org.
This article will be part of the following french book:
Kum'a Ndumbe III, L'Afrique s'annonce au rendez-vous, la tête haute.
Discours sur la transmission du savoir, la libération totale et le développement durable des Africains, de la diaspora noire et de leur continent. Contributiions ? la marche de l'humanité moderne. Editions AfricAvenir / Exchange & Dialogue (Octobre 2007)
1. Language, thought and the colonial context
Language and the articulation of thought
When a child is born and their tongue remains ‘attached’ or ‘stuck’, the child will not be able to speak correctly. It is imperative that this organ, which allows us to modulate the sounds of our speech and articulate the words we wish to pronounce, is freed if the child is not to remain handicapped for life. In my Doula tradition, we carry out this benign operation fairly early on. If, later, we see that a child is becoming particularly loquacious, then the tradition is to crack a special nut in the baby’s mouth (‘ba bo mo kasso o mudumbu’).
The language we use enables us to articulate our ideas, feelings, faith, dreams and vision of the world. Language allows us to recount our everyday, to interrogate our past and plan our future. It enables us to articulate constructed thought. And thought is a vehicle of development – or regression.
Thanks to the creation of thought and its practical or technical implementation, discoveries are made, acquisitions preserved, change comes about, predictions and probabilities are programmed, and potential dangers are forewarned of. But it is also thanks to thought that hatred, wars and destruction materialise. Thought and the articulation of ideas are at the centre of human existence, they determine the quality and the rhythm of our progression on earth.
The colonial experience of African countries determinedly applied the
s to the articulation of the collective thought of the African peoples. The coloniser’s language was imposed as the only officially recognised language. African languages were condemned to the domain of folklore as ‘vernacular languages’ or ‘patois’. Thought, that continued to be articulated by individuals in their ‘patois’, was not recognised and was marginalised. But the collective articulation of the ideas of a given African people no longer identified with the thought transposed by the coloniser’s official language. In the colonial encounter between Europe and Africa in African lands, the articulation of thought thus suddenly became a question of contested political power.
The shock of encounter in the articulation of ideas, in the African colonial context, could not admit compromise. The colonist’s language assumed exclusivity in the public life of the colonies. Thought expressed in indigenous African languages became marginalised. It was labelled primitive, barbarous, backward, incapable of intellect, incapable of communicating progress or development. Knowledge communicated in African languages was thus characterised as non-knowledge by the colonial master. In reality, thought expressed in an African language felt subversive because it could neither be understood, nor controlled, nor commanded by the colonial master. It had to be defeated or reduced to silence.
Despite the presence of the coloniser, African populations did not stop thinking or articulating their ideas in their own languages. But as they lived as conquered, dominated peoples, whose territories remained occupied militarily, often for over a century, all public support for the articulation of their ideas was suppressed. These ideas had all but disappeared from public spaces and were unknown in the administration, schools, media, and, to some extent, in churches.
Language and transformation in the postcolonial period
Africans themselves had passed through the filter of the colonial administration, schools or church seminaries. Indeed, they had no other sources of information other than the media, articulated in the language of the coloniser. Thus they ended up convinced that Africa would not produce original thought worthy of progress and development. Ideas of progress could only be articulated in the language of the European coloniser.
These same Africans would assume power in African countries after the independence movements of the 1960s and 1970s. They continued the application of the colonial project by imposing the former coloniser’s language on the African people. Despite formal independence, which the Asian countries also acquired, thought in Africa remained colonial in linguistic articulation and expression, interleaved in the norms and structures of language and dissemination determined by the European metropoles.
Now, for these same European metropoles, Africa is only a marginal, peripheral continent, very much of secondary concern in the global strategy of power sharing in the world. According to this strategy, Africa must be severely contained, marginalised, controlled, weakened and dominated in order that the winners of globalisation may continue to draw from it what they need to nail their power and globalised supremacy.
African populations, continuing in their overwhelming majority to live their daily lives in their languages, which are no longer used as a means of communication and administration, do not even really understand the strategic games they are embarking on. They remain for the most part ignorant of the concepts, discourses and programmes elaborated for them at national as well as global levels. These populations thus remain in a state of paternalistic dependency. They did not conceive, and do not even have access to, the debate about the fate reserved for them in the framework of globalised competition.
The official language of the public domain operates as an insurmountable barrier for such African populations, who, in fatal error, have sometimes ended up internalising the notion that all these discourses in the white people’s language, which they only understand approximately, do not concern them. They believe that the powerful African elite and international organisations will seal their fate, while they do not have the right to speak. We often hear people saying that they have become powerless in the face of destiny, and that only a divine power could
the conspiracy created by the alignment of the interests of the postcolonial local elite with the powers of foreign organisations.
2. The postcolonial state and linguistic schizophrenia
Permanent structural violence and hijacking the discourse
African populations thus live, for the great majority, in a permanent state of structural violence. This violence confiscates all elaboration of thought and fundamental discourse on the life and future of a given African nation. The tiny minority which has gone through the filter of Western schooling, and has become incapable of articulating thought and discourse in its own African mother tongue, largely shares the foreigner’s discourse on Africa. Those who try to oppose it do so by derisory means: opposition itself being articulated in a language that the population does not know or hardly understands.
The opposition that should claim back the articulation of thought and discourse in people’s everyday language lacks structural support. The ordinary people, although implicated, do not have access to the opposition discourse, purportedly articulated in their favour – as this is in the white man’s language. Some may contest my argument with the assertion that French, English, Portuguese and Spanish have become African languages, since in most cases these languages are the only ones used in schools, the administration and the media, in short, in everyday public life, and because this has been the case for than a century.
Statistics frequently account for the African population of a country by simply considering them as speakers of the former colonial language. Nigeria, with its 470 African languages thus becomes an anglophone country. The two Congos with the 221 languages of the DRC and the 60 languages of Congo Brazzaville become francophone countries.
Certain discourses in Africa today try to demonstrate, and insistently, that European languages such as French, English and Portuguese have become African languages. Advantage should be taken of their status as African languages, notwithstanding of course, the peculiar linguistic development, by which Africa has enabled the enrichment of European languages, on African soil. Despite all this, it remains true that the imposition of European languages on Africa has not succeeded in wiping out the African people’s daily use of their own languages.
Linguistic schizophrenia and development
Africans today thus live in a situation of permanent linguistic schizophrenia, by which personal and intimate matters are articulated in African languages in the strictly private space – at home, in rituals or in convalescence. Whereas anything considered important will unfold in the public sphere in European languages, which are barely known or commanded. Structural violence engenders linguistic schizophrenia, which separates or removes the citizen from the sphere of thought and discourse about the stakes of the nation.
Modern Africa is participating powerlessly in an intellectual genocide that is structural because it is perpetrated every day by the administration, schools, the media etc. Anyone who fails to fundamentally turn their back on their African language and culture, and does not manage to learn the white people’s language (‘bwambo bwa mukala’), is rejected by the system. That citizen will be condemned to survive, or otherwise, in the so-called informal sector, abandoned by the administrative structures and international cooperation. For it is only in this so-called informal sector, which ‘gets by’ that everyday articulation of thought and discourse is permitted in African languages.
Thus, only Africans who have successfully passed through the filter of structural linguistic violence are in a position to read, and perhaps to understand, the foreign discourse on the development of African countries: a discourse articulated exclusively in European languages. The debate on development in Africa remains conceived, elaborated and pronounced in languages which are barely understood or grasped by the overwhelming majority of Africa’s populations, who therefore cannot not participate in the debate. They cannot understand, criticise, amend or reject the outcome of the debate. And yet, it is they who are invited to implement it.
Thus we are living with a debate that is in essence anti-democratic, as it is neither communicated nor shared by the majority of the population. It simply imposes itself through the trick of structural violence. Discourse on the development of Africa will struggle to become an African discourse as long as it is not conceived, developed, criticised, amended and rejected by African populations themselves, in the languages they command and use every day. This is a terrible situation as it affects the lives of several hundreds of millions of people who should, but do not really manage to, get to grips with it.
The new political and international legal framework
The current historical situation presents the African elite with a deep dilemma. To remain or accede to power, it must conform to the rules of the game that govern the system of domination on the African continent. It knows it must negotiate power by forcing itself to satisfy those outside the continent who determine who remains in power in any given African country. Given that this is the underlying situation in most African countries today, African political actors will wisely refrain from requiring African populations to re-appropriate for themselves the articulation of thought in African languages. Others will simply refuse to support the demand for an African re-appropriation of the discourse on African development, they will recognise the danger of destabilising their own political position.
Resolutions of international conferences, conventions signed by states and ratified by parliaments such as the Unesco convention of 2003 for safeguarding intangible cultural heritage, the declaration by the African Union that 2006 would be the year of African languages, or current programmes in the francophone zone promoting partner African languages in primary schools all provide new legal and political bases and a recognisable framework for actions that avoid the suspicion that they are intended to destabilise existing regimes. But as reality shows us, very few African political leaders genuinely demonstrate the backbone to give back to their people the power to articulate their own destiny.
The directives of the African Union are, however, sufficiently clear today, thanks to the determination of such countries as Mali, South Africa, Nigeria etc. Besides these official measures, acts of civil courage and the commitment of African civil society have enabled initiatives to re-appropriate the discourse on the collective destiny of the African peoples.
3. Methodologies trialled by the AfricAvenir Foundation
It is in this context that our modest organisation, the AfricAvenir Foundation for African renaissance, development, international cooperation and peace, based in Douala, has been trying for some years to stimulate a debate in the media about the introduction of African languages into the public domain, and to suggest how this could be done.
Discussion forums and African indabas
These discussion forums organised in Douala and in indabas in the surrounding villages in 2004–06 have illustrated the hunger of the local peoples for their Cameroonian languages and, above all, their willingness to contribute personally to their promotion. However, they want to see that there is the political will to set up an institutional structure so that individual efforts can be brought together and channelled.
African language competitions in schools
Cameroonian language competitions, organised by the AfricAvenir Foundation in 2004–05, have confirmed the enthusiasm of the 1,600 pupils, representing 16 educational establishments who participated in the competition for African languages. For the first time in their lives, these pupils, educated exclusively in French and/or English, participated in a competition in which they were allowed to articulate their ideas and feelings in their Cameroonian language through rhetoric, translations, readings, song, poetry, dance etc. However, the pupils participating in the competition, and their families, became conscious of the seriousness of the gaps in their knowledge of their own cultural heritage. A general determination to use their languages fully in their everyday lives was born.
Storytelling afternoons and soirées
Storytelling afternoons in schools and the soirées at AfricAvenir in 2004–05 have led to the discovery of a fabulous African world to which young schooled Cameroonians no longer have access. Stories told in Cameroonian languages with a short translation in French provided at the beginning of the session evoked than curiosity – the pupils returned to their parents asking for storytelling evenings in their languages at home. over, once the brief summary had been given in French, the same public attentively followed the stories in Douala, Tpuri, or Ewondo for over three hours!
Religious choirs, rap and song evenings
Christian choirs invited to the foundation sing in Cameroonian languages in church on Sundays, which is already a well-established tradition. Cameroonian singers mostly use Cameroonian languages, particularly the Douala language, in their songs. Whether their performances include religious or secular music, they are well attended.
In a new initiative, we are keen to have rap sung at AfricAvenir in Cameroonian languages. Indeed, young people have asked us to organise a rap competition in our languages.
African language cinema months
Our programme of films in African languages allowed us in 2005 and 2006 to look beyond Cameroon and show many African films, including for example those by the Senegalese Sembène Ousmane in Woolof, subtitled in French. The audiences confirmed that it was perfectly possible to make a film in an African language and have an international audience. Sango Malo, the film by the Cameroonian Bassek ba Khobio, demonstrated that several Cameroonian languages could be used in the same film without causing any difficulties for the audience. On the contrary, when we heard our own languages spoken in the film, we recognised ourselves in it closely, and appreciated the multilingualism of Cameroon.
The book and CD collections at the Cheikh Anta Diop library
To support the learning of national languages, the AfricAvenir Foundation has undertaken to collect stories in Cameroonian languages that have been published in specialised journals anywhere in the world since the end of the 19th century. Research was carried out in the libraries of the former European colonial powers and stories, some of which had been published before 1900, were photocopied and classified into two main chronological groups. These can be consulted in the foundation’s Cheikh Anta Diop library in Douala.
The foundation’s library also commissioned a team to look in bookshops and cultural, linguistic and religious centres for any books or pamphlets published in Cameroonian languages. This work proved tiresome, as the bookshops and distributors only disseminate books in the official languages – French and English. To date, we have however managed to collect 251 books in 81 Cameroonian languages at the Cheikh Anta Diop library. The result of this initiative was publicly exhibited during 2007.
Publication of illustrated works of multilingual stories
Another team at the AfricAvenir Foundation is preparing the publication of a book of the story ‘Masomandala’ or ‘Jeki la Njamb’a Inono’. This epic was published in the German colonial period, in German in Germany, and in the Douala language. It has been taken up again by our team, which comprises a Cameroonian professor of German, a Douala language specialist, an Ewondo language specialist, a writer, and a book illustrator. This epic, which is about 50 A4 pages long, currently exists in Douala, Ewondo, French and German translations. A trilingual edition is planned in two volumes, Doula–French–Ewondo for Cameroon and an illustrated edition for Germany.
Effectively this epic, collected around 1901, brings to life a profoundly African world and its myths, beliefs, philosophy, political and social organisations, means of resolving conflicts and economic mechanisms. We find ourselves interrogated by an Africa of unsuspecting wealth, demanding its place in our modernity.
This alternative ‘global approach’ practiced by AfricAvenir has only been possible thanks to the support of the Austrian ministry of culture and science since 2004, and that of the Styrian province in Austria (Steiermark) in 2006. Without their support our work would have remained purely theoretical.
As we have argued in this presentation, language is a fundamental means for articulating individual and collective thought. When a language is taken away from its people, when it is forbidden to them, when it becomes marginalised in public life, the people’s thought is also marginalised, the people lose their words and the power to conceptualise and articulate their being. The foreign language, which henceforth occupies the public space, is accompanied by political and linguistic structural violence, bringing in its wake its own vision of the world, present and future ideologies, philosophy, values and dreams. It subjects the dominated population to foreign needs, which are frequently and directly opposed to the needs of the subjugated people.
Thanks to the struggle of Africans for a profound renaissance of the continent, and thanks to new inter-African and international conventions, a appropriate structure is emerging which will permit African peoples to re-appropriate the articulation of their thought in their own languages, even if their populations – who are by tradition multilingual – also use languages of international communication. This transformation, so long as it is accompanied by consistent political will, will open up a new path for development, articulated by Africans themselves, from which international cooperation can only gain in quality and effectiveness.
* Prince Kum’a Ndumbe III is a professor at the University of Yaoundé, Cameroon. He is president of the AfricAvenir Foundation, www.africavenir.org
This paper was given at a symposium on African languages held in October 22006 at the University of Vienna, Austria. It was originally published in French in Pambazuka News on 7 June 2006, www.pambazuka.org/fr/category/comment/41906.
Translated from French by Stephanie Kitchen, Publications Manager, Fahamu.
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