According to media reports, a key takeaway from Tanzanian President John Magufuli’s visit to Namibia in May was borne in his comments about Swahili or Kiswahili. Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s book, Decolonising the Mind, assumed a new freshness.
Subtitled “the politics of language in African literature,” the book shows that “language, any language, has a dual character; it is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture.”
Ngugi writes: “The choice of language and the use to which language is put is central to a people’s definition of themselves in relation to their natural and social environment, indeed in relation to the entire universe. Hence language has always been at the heart of the two contending social forces in the Africa of the twentieth century.”
During his stay, Magufuli said “once Swahili is introduced as an official language in the Sadc region, it will play an important role not only in connecting the region, but also other parts of the continent.”
Later, in Zimbabwe, Magufuli addressed the media “in Swahili, the biggest language in East Africa, forcing his host (Mnangagwa) to help bemused local journalists with translation.” Still in May, Kenya and South Africa signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to facilitate the introduction of Kiswahili into the South African educational system next year.
In 2014, basic education minister Angie Motshekga made a poignant observation: “There are currently 15 non-official languages listed in the national curriculum as optional subjects. These include French, German and Mandarin. There is unfortunately no African language on the list.”
Spoken by over 140 million people, Kiswahili is East Africa’s lingua franca. It is an official language of the African Union. Some scholars suggest the language may have global interest. The BBC, Voice of America (VOA) and Deutsche Welle have Swahili broadcasts.
The issue of language provokes an Everest of pride; perhaps, righteous indignation as well. While reporting on the 18th Franco-Africa Summit in Biarritz in November 1994, then French president Francois Mitterand addressed the meeting in French. I exchanged worried looks with a colleague from the Zimbabwe Inter-Africa News Agency (Ziana).
We sought refuge in the established tradition of translated conference documents. We did not find any.
In August 2008, CNN news went into overdrive after Russian prime minister (then) Vladimir Putin was shown speaking to reporter Matthew Chance in English. Observers were, however, concerned that the pre-interview walk around Putin’s residence diverted from the gist of the 30-minute interview.
The United Nations has six official languages. These are Russian, Arabic, English, French, Spanish and Chinese. Unesco has carefully constructed the road to the adoption of Arabic as one of the six languages.
“In 1968…the General Conference decides to make progressive use of Arabic by translating the working documents and verbatim records. A programme of expanding the use of the Arabic language is introduced at Unesco, demonstrating the importance of Arabic as a means and preservation of civilisation and human culture.”
On 18 December 1973, the United Nations adopted Arabic as its sixth official language. The UN notes that, “the correct interpretation and translation of these six languages, in both spoken and written form, is very important…because it enables clear and concise communication on issues of global importance.”
Writing in The Education of a British-Protected Child, Chinua Achebe argues that “for most writers in the world, there is never any conflict – the mother tongue and the writing language are one and the same…Perhaps the real difference with Africa is the sheer size, the continental scale of the problem, and also – let’s face it – we look quite different from the English, the French, or the Portuguese!”
Achebe raises the debate a notch higher when he declares: “we play politics with language and in so doing conceal the reality and the complexity of our situation from ourselves and from those foolish enough to put their trust in us.”
Achebe’s comments are, in the main, a riposte to Ngugi. In Decolonizing the Mind, Ngugi celebrates comments by Nigerian Obi Wali who in 1963 said: “what we would like future conferences on African literature to devote time to is the all-important problem of African writing in African languages, and all its implications for the development of a truly African sensibility.”
I have perhaps run ahead of myself; I conclude with Ngugi’s observation that, “in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Europe stole art treasures from Africa to decorate their houses and museums…Africa needs back its economy, its politics, its culture, its languages and all its patriotic writers.
This book, Decolonizing the Mind, is my farewell to English as a vehicle for any of my writings. From now on it is Gikuyu and Kiswahili all the way. However, I hope that through the age-old medium of translation I shall be able to continue dialogue with all.”