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Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: E-Letter To Ngugi wa Thiong'o and The Sunday Times Re: "African renaissance begins with languages"

I read the edited version of the speech you gave at the 4th Steve Biko Annual Lecture in Cape Town with great interest. As the distinguished professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California Irvine, your view of the relationship between linguistics and Africa's condition - past, present, and future - is significant to me. I think your sensitivity to a subject glossed over by many of us interested in Africa, is so important. I do hope to offer some constructive criticism for the approach you suggest we take toward addressing Africa's linguistic challenges. I hope you find it helpful and take it in good spirit.

Below is the edited version of your speech interrupted by my comments in boldface:


Black consciousness is the right of black peoples to draw an image of themselves that negates and transcends that drawn by those who would weaken them in their fight for and assertion of their humanity. It seeks to draw the image of a possible world, different to and transcending the one drawn by the West by reconnecting itself to a different historical memory and dreams.

- I would slightly disagree. While Black consciousness should include this over the course of history; consciousness, in its origin, is not a phenomenon of reaction. It should begin with the knowledge of self - the nature, origin and history of Black people and their interaction with one another and the animate and inanimate environment.

But consciousness resides in memory. Even at the very simple level of our daily experience we get excited when we visit, say, the place in which we were born, and recall the various landmarks of our childhood. Sometimes we feel a sense of loss when we find that the place no longer holds any traces of what it once meant to us. If the site of dreams, desire, image and consciousness is memory, where is the location of memory itself? Memory lies in language.

- Yes, I would largely agree with this but add that language represents the stages of evolution and innovation across time as much as it does a pure collective "memory". Languages reflect the fact that meanings and yes "memories" change over time, and across generations. This is not necessarily bad (although it could be). I also think you should distinguish between oral and written languages. Languages begin as mental representations of objects, events, and relations. Oral cultures are more flexible in how they "remember" these representations as they are passed down from generation to generation, than are written languages. Oral languages more easily "forget" various elements of a people's history as innovations and interpretations occur, and cultures intermix, over time. One must remember that as the noted University of Chicago linguist Edward Sapir has written - language, just like the culture it reflects, is layered and made up of elements of very different eras, some of its features go back into time periods where history is not recorded and, others are the product of an innovation, development or need of just yesterday.

The imperialist West went about subjecting the rest of the world to its memory through a vast naming system. It planted its memory on our landscape by renaming it. The great East African lake known by the Luo people as Namlolwe became Lake Victoria. They also planted their memory on our bodies. Ngugi becomes James. Noliwe becomes Margaret. And, most important, they planted their memory on our intellect through language. Writers, artists, musicians, intellectuals and workers in ideas are the keepers of memory of a community. What fate awaits a community when its keepers of memory have been subjected to the West's linguistic means of production and storage of memory - English, French and Portuguese?

- True indeed. But it is not just an elite group who are the keepers of memory. It is the language itself. It is impossible to understand a people's language without understanding the culture of a people, the evolution of their worldview and even the specific genesis of words and signs used to represent objects, events, quantities, qualities and relations. One cannot fully understand the Tuareg, Kabre, Yoruba, Zulu, Dinka, Ashanti, Baganda and Tallensi languages in terms of Italian, German, English, French and Portugese, because the worldviews - the references to and relations between persons, places and things - that gave birth to the language are different. In addition, the process of translating oral cultures into written ones is a complex one and can only be done properly if a broad range of concepts and shades of meanings exist in both languages. This is rarely the case and meanings are always lost in the attempt (they are also added - the greatest problems and "crimes" in translation occur when meanings are added to or subtracted from). You can see this quite clearly with Indian languages in the Western Hemisphere, especially in Central and South America (a good example are the Cakchiquel Indians in Guatemala whose language has a more complex possibility of combinations than English, to express different meanings and subtle nuances. Not counting compounds one verb can be conjugated into 100,000 forms.) The English language is often not complex enough, and reflects a worldview that is too different in nature to accurately render many oral Indian languages.

We have languages, but our keepers of memory feel that they cannot store knowledge, emotions and intellect in African languages. It is like having a granary but at harvest you store your produce in someone else's granary. The result is that 90% of intellectual production in Africa is stored in European languages.

- Yes, this occurs as the elite are re-educated or mis-educated by those who conquer them (and their descendants). And over time, they gamble on the idea that they - as individuals and a people - can make more progress speaking and writing another language. But if the system of social organization, customs and institutions of the worldview that gave birth to the older language still dominate, then speaking another language may not be as productive or influnetial as the elite (or their original oppressor) expected. Changing languages does not mean that you have significantly changed the system of social organization or the governing societal paradigm of a people - including its sentiments, customs, and institutions.

The relationship between African languages and European languages as producers and storehouses of memory has been at the heart of the struggle for a sovereign consciousness. Since 1994, Thabo Mbeki has elaborated on the theme of a renaissance and his 1996 address, I Am an African, with its depiction of this "African" as containing in himself multitudes, a truly renaissance persona, has justifiably become a classic. However, there has been a virtual silence over the relationship between language and renaissance.

- But what is African? Has this been defined conclusively for all of us? To me, this issue which I feel is so unresolved, is as much the problem as the European-African relationship you mention previously. Is the African identity or consciousness a reaction to Western imperialism and colonialism; or is it the outgrowth of natural origin and the knowledge of self? Too often it is the former. If there is to be an African renaissance, pan-Africanists and tribal leaders, primarily, will have to reason with one another over the relationship between linguistics and the lack of unity that exists among Africans, much of which existed prior to the presence of the European on the continent. If the Europeans left today and took all of their languages with them, it might improve things, some may say, but still, what is the means by which Africans of all worldviews can come together and reason with one another over their nature, shared history and need for innovation? That effort, of dialogue, consensus and unity, whether it takes place in politics, economics or religion will require linguistic precision. The Europeans did not destroy the potential for this, nor should they even be a primary participant or principal concern of such an undertaking. The African Union would be the biggest help or hindrance to this. So far the African Union has the right spirit and idea, but working out the mechanics has been a major problem.

Language, though often seen as a product and reflection of economic, political and cultural order, is itself a material force of the highest order. That is why we must ask: is an African renaissance possible when we, the keepers of memory, have to work outside our own linguistic memory?

- No it is not possible. But I do not accept the notion that Africans "have to work outside our own linguistic memory". Many just choose to. Tribal leaders and linguists abound in Africa but how many elites look down on them as "primitive" or unsophisticated? Remember, it was the elites - "the keepers of memory" as you have referred to these intellectuals and writers, who in some cases voluntarily gambled on the foreign languages. Today, they are not always being forced to leave their culture and lands of origin to take in foreign ideas, concepts and policies. Many leave home voluntarily for "greener pastures", so they think (Not to digress, but some candor could help make my point. Look at a small group of African intellectuals - economists. How many African economists do we know of, who learn foreign languages and muzzle real economic critique in order to not offend the establishment, or harm their chances of getting a "prestigious" job as technocrats or policy-makers in government, or at the IMF, World Bank or leading academic institution? Or, how many leave home, never to return - after they have grown comfortable with life in the West and the embrace of American, British and French intellectuals, opinion leaders and politicians?).

The European Renaissance involved not only the exploration of new frontiers of thought, but also a reconnection with memory rooted in ancient Greece and Rome. In practice it meant a disengagement from the tyranny of hegemonic Latin and discovery of their own tongues. The keepers of African memory could do worse than usefully borrow a leaf from that experience. No renaissance can come out of state legislation and admonitions, but states and governments can and and must provide an enabling democratic environment and resources. In this respect, South Africa has to be commended for coming up with a very enlightened language policy. Governments can help by policies that make African languages part of the languages of social mobility and power, currently a monopoly of European languages.

- Yes, but the African Union is the only entity with the mandate and scope to ensure this happens across Africa. The goal is not just to elevate languages that have been devalued or forgotten but to obtain linguistic precision and have the worldviews reason with one another over the concept of "one Africa".

But renaissance can only spring from the wealth of imagination of the people, and, above all, from its keepers of memory.

- Again, I disagree with this as you put too much emphasis on elites - "Writers, artists, musicians, intellectuals and workers in ideas are the keepers of memory of a community", as you stated earlier. It is the language itself that is the keeper, and all of the people, regardless of status or occupation are necessary.

We must produce knowledge in African languages and then use translation as a means of conversation in and among African languages. We must also translate from European and Asian languages into our own, for our languages must not stay isolated from the mainstream of progressive human thought.

- Yes, but to me, much of African thought expressed in oral and written languages is already "progressive". And this is where the dangers begin, as you must be so careful in moving in and out of languages, especially from written to oral and vice-versa. To arrive at the linguistic precision necessary, a scientific dialogue must ensue between individuals who understand both cultures who can consult with oral and written historians in the respective groups. Translating from European and Asian languages back to African ones is a meaningless undertaking if the European and Asian language missed the deeper meanings of the original African tongue in the first place. My suggestion is that you attempt to put African oral languages into written forms as well as Arabic, which is richer and more precise, in offering shades of meaning, than the Asian and European languages are. Also, many Africans speak Arabic and can be sensitive to the process. This way you get the benefits of African literacy and oral languages and a "lingua franca" of sorts with Arabic. Then, perhaps you could go from Arabic to all of the other world languages, in translation.

But how can we address our present predicament where knowledge produced by sons and daughters of Africa is already stored in European linguistic granaries? These works, like stolen gems, must be retrieved and returned to the languages and cultures that inspired them in the first instance. The task of restoration is at the heart of the renaissance project.

- Again, why go from the foreign written language to the original African one, when you can go from the oral African language into a written form. You lose too much meaning the other way, as the European language is largely incapable of embodying the concepts of the African oral language in the first place. But if the works are inspired by African languages and cultures as you say, you really don't need to start with the foreign language, unless perhaps there is a belief that genius in specific works was expressed in the foreign language that has not ever been expressed in an African language. And, if there are no "clues" or primary source material in African language, remaining from the author's archives, students, witnesses or intimates who were confidants etc...

We have, for instance, three Nobel Prize winners in literature - Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer and Naguib Mafouz. Why shouldn't their works be made available in the languages and cultures of the continent which nourished their imagination? Why should the work of Steve Biko not be available in African languages? What of all the corpuses or oeuvres of all African intellectuals? What of the works of the two other black Nobel winners, Derek Walcott and Toni Morrison?

- Fine. But can you prove the source of inspiration in purely linguistic terms? Can you show how the mother language "mothered" the great work, or is this an exercise in romanticism? But more than just the "elites" in literature or politics you need this process to take place with all systems of life - military, economic, religious and spiritual, health and medicine, and science.

If we can scout European museums, asking, and even demanding, the return of our precious works of art, why not also the restoration of the precious work of written thought? Some governments have begun to come up with positive policies on African languages. There are a few countries, Ethiopia for instance, where writing and intellectual production in African languages has always been taken as the norm. Is the task in front of us, that of the recovery of the African historical memory and dreams, too difficult a task? There is no way out of this. Keepers of African memory must do for their languages what all others in history have done for theirs. As we set about disengaging from the tyranny of the bourgeois Western memory and reconnecting with that contained in the living matter of our languages, let the words of Mbeki echo determination in our hearts and strengthen our resolve: "Whoever we may be, whatever our immediate interest, however much we carry the baggage from our past, however much we have been caught by the fashion of cynicism and loss of faith in the capacity of the people, let us err today and say - nothing can stop us now."

- A good admonition but a final note on literacy: while it may appear that writing is a self-evident good, there are some potential disadvantages as well. One of which is that too rapid an introduction of literacy in an oral culture can break down customs and social cohesion especially among relatively small societies (say less than 3,000 members). This may mean that the youth may consult elders less frequently for wisdom in favor of books, and certain cermonies die out. What of the educational process? What of how flexibility and adaptive benefits of oral culture(including memorization) are affected by the introduction of writing? In addition, what kind of literacy? Will the result mean that people leave the community suddenly for jobs elsewhere or that ideas are introduced from foreign cultures that produce alienation among members of a close-knit society? Lastly, will the literacy be spread uniformly, or will there be an elite that can write and who will be the "judges" of society while others will be illiterate? Certainly there are great benefits to literacy and written languages, especially among societies where population size has grown past a certain level and interactions are no longer based upon kinship and familiarity. Writing can help to make up for the lack of trust that this increased anonymity in society produces. But with so many African societies with oral cultures and societal paradigms based on small groupings and kinship and familiarity, you may introduce an innovation - writing - that leads to unintended consequences which alter the societal paradigm, and change or even erase the "memories" that you are trying so desperately to save. Just food for thought.


Again, I think you have made a valuable contribution but to me, your emphasis on specific works of literature in foreign languages and the "keepers of memory" is less important than the entire language and making it relevant and useful to all of the people. You can obtain a commercial and cultural benefit by emphasizing specific great works, and the artistic and intellectual community, but that is relatively insignificant when compared to the larger and more important (and daunting) task of educating today's generation of Blacks according to the wisdom and insight of past generations into the Black nature, and all sciences of life; as well as arriving at linguistic precision in and out of African oral and written languages from the tribes; and the Indo-European languages - all in the service of the goal of establishing "one Africa", whether as a nation-state or cultural and political ideal. Selected, or selective translations, which appear in a vacuum will not produce a permanent and "universal" change.


Cedric Muhammad

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

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