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Languages as Bridges: Building network against linguistic feudalism and Darwinism

By NGUGI WA THIONG’O

The first part of this discourse was published in our last edition

TODAY, four of the five languages of the UN Security Council, are European. They dominate in the production and dissemination of ideas; they dominate in publishing and distribution and consumption of knowledge; they control the flow of ideas. Intellectuals who come from the supposedly lesser languages find that, to be visible globally, they must produce and store ideas in Western European languages, English mostly. In the case of most intellectuals from Africa and Asia, they become visible on the world stage but simultaneously invisible in their own cultures and languages.

Garden City literary festival...r-l:  Koko Kalango, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, a Ghanaian publisher and Gabriel Okara
Garden City literary festival...r-l: Koko Kalango, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, a Ghanaian publisher and Gabriel Okara

Global visibility comes at the price of local or regional invisibility. And within a nationalnational visibility comes at the price of regional and communal invisibility.The consequence for Africa in terms of self perception and pride and conveyance of knowledge is enormous. It creates another gulf: between the intellectual elite and the people.

The middle-class generally becomes defined by its abilities in European languages; the masses by their rootage in African languages. But since knowledge production and storage is largely in European languages, it also means an ever deepening gulf in the abilities of the possessors of the two language systems to access knowledge.

I was in a pan African conference recently in Dar es Salaam to discuss strategies and tactics for encouraging and deepening reading culture in Africa where one speaker light-heartedly said that if you want to hide something from an African, put it in a book.

This would be sad, tragic even, were it true. But I put it differently and said that if you want to hide knowledge from an African child, put it in English or French. Or if you want to hide keys to the future, hide it in European languages. Tragically this is what we do to our children everyday.

I remember when my mother used to send me on a journey alone, to meet relatives, she would pack food and water for me, and then would sit me down and tell me everything about the path before me to ensure that I would not get lost. She punctuated every instruction with the question: do you understand?

Only then would she let me go. She was not doing something out of the ordinary: it would be a very irresponsible parent who would give instructions in words and languages that the child does not frilly understand. Now, nothing is more important than life’s journey; and yet we in Africa send our children on the journey of life with instructions coded in European languages.

The colonialist may have wanted us to go astray, but why would we, an independent Africa, want our children to get lost? Or is it a case of the lost giving instructions on how to lose your way in life? Or he may have wanted to create the gulf of knowledge between the elite and the people. But why should we in Africa want to continue with deepening and widening the gulf?

But I wish it was simply a case of linguistic feudalism; the reality is that linguistic feudalism is being transformed into linguistic Darwinism. Linguistic Darwinism is the extreme product of hierarchy of languages, where the growth of a dominant language is dependent on the death of other languages.

Languages can grow but only on the graveyard of others, an attitude that underlies all practices of monolingualism. In this most extreme form of monolingualism, linguistic Darwinism sees the growth of a national language as being dependant on the death of all the other languages.

This is the assumption behind many national language policies: in order for the national language to be, other languages must die. There are many variations of this: for instance when big regional languages are empowered at the expense of the smaller.

The death of any language is the loss of knowledge contained in that language. The weakening of any language is the weakening of its knowledge producing potential. It is a human loss. The saying often cited that the death on old person is the death of a whole library is probably truer of languages.

Imagine the impoverishment of world culture if all the learning in say classical Greek and Latin had died with the languages? Today we can only imagine but never really know the quantity and quality of knowledge lost with the disappearance of so many languages on earth.

Each language no matter how small contains the best knowledge of its immediate environment: the plants and their properties, for instance. Language is the primary computer with a natural hard drive. African languages face the destiny of dinosaurs: things of the past.

For the national, African and even global good, the prevailing power relationships of languages and cultures, has to be challenged and hopefully even shaken up. This was the motivation behind my books, Decolonizing the Mind, and also Re-Membering Africa. What is the way out?

My first prescription was that writers from marginalized cultures and languages had the duty and responsibility of making themselves visible in their languages. As I did not want to be saying do as I say but not as I do, I made the decision way back in 1978 to break with English as the primary means of my writing, particularly in fiction and drama. I have no regrets.

I still believe that writers and other intellectuals have the duty to challenge and shake up linguistic feudalism and linguistic Darwinism, that hierarchical view of languages in theory and practice. But later I realized that though writers bore the primary duty of producing ideas in African languages, there was another equally important player. Writers do no do so in order to decorate their home shelves with unpublished manuscripts.

They want to be published in order to reach the reader. But alas there were no major publishers in African languages. So lack of publishers in African languages lead to lack of writers in African languages and therefore few readers of African language productions and therefore few publishers willing to risk money by venturing there, and you can see the vicious circle.

The publisher then is an integral part of any meaningful challenge to linguistic feudalism and linguistic Darwinism. I have written several works in Gikuyu. But this would have been impossible without the willingness of the East African Educational Publishers to invest resources and skills into the project.

The writer and the publisher need another partner. The government. Many African states don’t have a national language policy in a multilingual situation, meaning African languages. Whatever we may say of colonial states, they, through literature bureaus, often came up with some sort of policies. Far from helping, some post-colonial governments have even shown active hostility to African languages.

Governments have to create an enabling environment in terms of policies and resources. We have only to look at Kiswahili in Tanzania today, the result of Nyerere’s progressive linguistic foresight, continued in the successor Tanzanian governments. By Kiswahili having a home and a base, it is the one African language that is becoming an active player in the globe.

I could add other partners: for instance, booksellers have to be willing to stock books written in African languages. At present there are very few bookshops that sell African language books. Or the award givers and conference organizers. At present many awards meant to help in the growth of African literature actually work against African literature.

They give awards that stipulate English as the linguistic means of literary production. Conference organizers within and outside Africa recognize only those intellectuals and writers who work in English. In Africa, national, continental and global visibility only went to writers in English. But the three partners, government, writer and publisher are the most primary.

The working together of the three primary players would go along way towards empowering knowledge in African languages and hence reduce considerably that gulf between African and European languages as producers of ideas.    A question frequently asked, after I talk about the necessity of using African languages as literary instruments, is that of the multiplicity of languages. But many languages within nations can be strength if the relationship between them is not based on notions of hierarchy but rather on those of a network.

In the vision of a net work, there is not one centre; there are several centres equidistant with each other but connected in give-and-take. Every language draws from another. Every language gives to another. All languages end up giving to, and taking from, each other, laying the groundwork for a complex independence and interdependence of cultures within and between cultures.

But how do they do that? Or rather how would they do that? By building bridges between them, through translations. Translation is what enables that traffic of ideas between languages. In his book, a Discourse on Colonialism, the Martinquan poet, Aime Cesaire, once described culture contact and exchange as the oxygen of civilization. Language networking through translation can only help in the generation of that oxygen within and between nations.

History of ideas
To the three other players I talked about I would add the translator. The translator is the maker of brides between languages. Translations have played an important role in the history of ideas. The much talked about European renaissance would have been impossible without translations. Christianity and Islam and their spread all over the world have been enormously aided by the translations of the Bible and the Quran.

Translations and translators can play an even bigger role in the African renaissance. In my book, Re-membering aka Something torn and new, I have talked of translations between African languages; translations from Europhonic African lit into African languages; the translations of diasporic works of Caribbean and African American writers into African languages in a vision  I describe as restoration; and finally the translations of the finest traditions in world cultures into African languages.

This bridge building would have big impact in the restoration of pride, initiatives, and productivity to Africa.
Wherever we are, we in Africa have to debate and even share experiences in the kind of bridge buildings that will really create an African literary and intellectual who, rooted in his own base, is an integral active member of the global intellectual community. Father, do not send me into the dark alone among strangers, says the persona in one of Sonia Sanchez’s poems.

Parents have the responsibility to send their children out into the world equipped with the self confidence that arises from a clear knowledge of one’s base. Let me put it this way. To know one’s language, whatever that language is, and add others to it, is empowerment. But to know all the other languages while ignorant of one’s own is mental slavery. I hope that Africa will choose empowerment.


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