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Time to save African languages from extinction

Arts and Culture
Chinua Achebe   Chinua Achebe: His novel Things Fall Apart, the most famous book in African literature, does not yet exist in his language Photo: Courtesy  

“Repeat after me. The red lorry went round the red bend,” an older brother turned English elocutionist would say to me.

“The led lolly went lound the led bend,” I would attempt. “Try again, repeat after me – The red lorry went round the red bend”.

“The led rorry went lound the led bend”. I don’t remember at what age the practice finally paid off and I could say, ‘the red lorry went round the red bend’ without making a mistake – what we termed, ‘shrubbing’.

I was working against the grain of my mother tongue; the Gikuyu language does not have the ‘L’ and ‘S’ consonants. By running interference in my English pronunciation, it had become a problem language.

As teenagers, shrubbers as we called them, no matter how handsome or beautiful, had difficulty finding someone to date them. How you spoke your English was a marker of class and civilization.

No one bothered to ask what Kenyan language we spoke and applaud us if we spoke it well.

Dreadful betrayal

When Stephen Derwent Partington, a friend, fellow writer and educator celebrates the Africanisation of English as he did in The Standard on Saturday on November 15, I know he does not know the confusion, pain and shame shrubbing causes.

He does not know of being punished for speaking his mother tongue. He has never had to wear a sign around his neck, like my father did during colonialism and I did in post-independent Kenya, saying I am an ass for speaking my mother tongue.

And the ‘repeats after me’. And like many of us he cannot hear the anguish in Chinua Achebe’s mournful question and declaration, “Is it right that a man should abandon his mother tongue for someone else’s? It looks like a dreadful betrayal and produces a guilty feeling. But, for me, there is no other choice. I have been given this language and I intend to use it.”

And I have to wonder whether as an educator, he knows that studies now show children acquire a second language faster if they are fluent in their mother-tongue.

In other words, we would have learned the prized English faster and more deeply had we been allowed to learn and express ourselves in our languages first.

Partington’s point that African writers have Africanised English is well taken though in all fairness the argument is not new and should be attributed to the Makerere generation who spend considerable amounts of ink debating on whether English could adequately carry African cultures and experiences.

But is not just a little bit peculiar that we are worried more about how best to Africanise English rather than writing in our languages?

And shouldn’t we also be thinking about professionalising translation so that our languages can speak to each other, and to languages outside of Africa through mutual translation?

I for one would like to see a translation centre at the University of Nairobi where scholars and writers are trained in the art of translation so that our languages can speak to each other.

In my review of Africa39 for Los Angeles Review of Books that moved SDP into action, I reminded the readers of one startling contradiction.

Achebe’s Things Fall Apart has been translated into over 50 languages, making it the most translated African novel. But it has not yet been translated into Igbo, Achebe’s mother tongue.

The most famous book in African literature does not yet exist in the author’s language. And when it does, the question will become why did it take so long?

In the Africa39 anthology, out of the 39 stories only ONE story has been translated from an African language.

Imagine an anthology of British writing where all the stories except one, have been written in French and other languages save for one. Or an anthology of Chinese literature where all the stories are written in Japanese except one.

We must stop normalising what for other cultures would immediately be seen as abnormal. African literature written in European languages is flourishing. Why can’t we now turn our attention to our languages?

Africanise English all you want, claim as it yours, but as long as we long we neglect our languages, we shall be perpetuating what Achebe in 1965 articulated to be a dreadful betrayal.

I want to be clear. There is no taking away Things Fall Apart, The River Between or Half of a Yellow Sun from the African literary tradition.

And I am in the same existential linguistic mess as everyone else. So I would be happy to win one of the prizes for African writing in English.

That I was shortlisted for the Caine Prize and the now defunct Penguin Prize for African Writing sits prominently on my CV and website. I show off whenever my works appears in African literary journals in English. And all my published works have been in English.

Inherited inferiorities

But that also tells me that there is something terribly wrong. That we cannot continue burying our heads in English and pretend that our African languages are not thriving in African homes, in African music and movies, radio and TV stations, newspapers and in our streets.

It is us, the African intellectuals, the producers of knowledge who because of inherited inferiorities and an educational system that has in spirit followed colonial education that find no value in their languages.

In the same way, we cannot concede the principle that all human beings are created equal, we should not concede that all languages are created equal.

It is this belief in the equality of languages that has led Lizzy Attree the Caine Prize Director (working in her personal capacity on this) and I to found The Mabati Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African literature.

The first three years are being primarily funded by the Kenya based Mabati Rolling Mills supported by a substantial contribution from The Office of the Vice Provost for International Affairs at Cornell University.

The Africana Studies Center at Cornell is providing the administrative support. The total proposed awards of 15,000 US dollars will be awarded to both poetry and fiction winners and to the second and third winners.

Time and money

East African Educational Publishers will publish the winning fiction entry in Kiswahili. And the best poetry book will be translated and published by the Africa Poetry Book Fund.

The prize is a work in a progress and it needs more money, and more institutional support, and most importantly your goodwill.

Instead of making arguments for the English language that is doing very well, it is time we invested our talents, imagination, time and money in our languages.

English is not going anywhere, but our languages are. African languages can go into the dustbins of memories and histories lost, or into a confident future where they stand side by side with their European counterparts. The choice is ours to make. Now!

— Mukoma Wa Ngugi is an Assistant Professor at Cornell University and the author of ‘Black Star Nairobi’ and ‘Nairobi Heat’. ‘Mrs Shaw’ is forthcoming from Ohio University Press in 2015.



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