The language of Pan-Africanism
H. Nanjala Nyabola
2011-06-08, Issue 534
cc A K‘If we are to have a truly Pan-African language, shouldn’t it be a language that best reflects Africa as it is today, rather than as we imagined it to be 100 years ago,’ asks H. Nanjala Nyabola.
I was at a conference last weekend on ‘Pan-Africanism for a New Generation’ and got into an interesting discussion with one of the panellists on the role of language in building Pan-Africanism. Briefly, there’s great panic in many cultural institutions like UNESCO over the rate at which languages around the world are dying, and the panellist, a highly qualified translator at an eminent institution, argued that this was a particular threat to the search for a Pan-African identity. While I take the point that it is always a tragedy when a language dies because of the cultural trove dies with it, I questioned the need for panic. After all, languages have been dying almost as long as people have been speaking. This phenomenon is not new and it is not African. If we are seeking to build a truly Pan-African identity, shouldn’t we be moving more towards embracing a single or a small number of African language rather than retaining thousands of languages each spoken by a smaller number of people?
Language is a cornerstone of any community. Beyond simply allowing us to communicate with each other, language allows us to construct images or ideas of the societies that we live in and gives order to our relationship to the world around us. I’m no linguist, but on a most basic level, the fact that words exist for certain things in some languages and not in others tell us a lot about the significance of those specific phenomena in the society in question. You’ve probably heard the one about Inuit containing 18 words for snow? Well, a high school friend used to observe that in our shared mother tongue there were nine ways of saying ‘I’m going to beat you’ and only one way of saying ‘I love you’ – the same word for saying ‘I like you’. Words are created but they also create; they allow us to name those things that we interact with frequently and in this way give the aforementioned order.
It follows therefore that language will play a critical part in defining the order of any Pan African community. In ‘Decolonising the Mind’, Ngugi wa Thiong’o argues that language is at the heart of the processes of colonisation and decolonisation. Europeans sought to impose their authority on the African people by compelling them to master foreign tongues, opening the door for the subsequent cultural domination, but at the same time language can be a force for resistance that allows us to take back our ‘creative initiative’. From this perspective, one can easily argue that the process of decolonisation in many parts of Africa is far from over, and in fact is retrogressing in a very real way. For instance, the fact that only one African language is an official language of the African Union (AU) tells us that formal Africa still views itself along colonial lines with one notable exception. Should we be surprised that East Africa is thus hurtling towards regional integration that seems to be stalling in other parts of Africa?
At the same time, languages are dynamic entities that represent the constant evolution of the communities within which they are used. I see it as a self-reinforcing relationship, in which languages exist as long as we need them but we only need them as long as they exist. Kiswahili is spreading because of increasing economic and social links westwards and southwards, but the more it spreads the greater the need for people to learn it. At the same time, it allows East Africans to express a truly ‘African’ identity that spreads beyond local or national boundaries. The trouble for many people is that Kiswahili is an objectively difficult language that is in many countries only effectively taught in schools, leaving young people without access to formal education, living through the current cultural renaissance with a thirst to express their African identity and little opportunity to do so.
Yet, languages also offer people the opportunity to demonstrate remarkable creativity and agency in the process of claiming identities and far from dying, I believe African languages are evolving to reflect the new cosmopolitan nature of many countries. Several academic papers in Kenya and overseas have examined the influence of sheng’, a patois that is best described as anglicised Kiswahili interlaced with words from various Kenyan mother tongues. Sheng’, technically illegal in Kenya, allows young Nairobians to not only subvert political and social authority in a very tangible way, but because English and Kiswahili are so strongly associated with formality, also allows us to reach out to each other on a more egalitarian basis. Sheng’ represents an urban brotherhood, and a person’s choice of words reveals to other sheng’ speakers a lot about their socio-economic status. Interestingly, wealthier kids from upmarket suburbs do their best to mimic the inflections of poorer kids from the mtaa (inner city) as a way of legitimising their ‘Africanness’.
My argument is not against preserving indigenous languages – far from it. My concern, and I know it seems contradictory, is that as we have remained so focused on preserving languages that have increasingly marginal utility in a rapidly changing world, we are losing sight of an exciting opportunity that is available right in front of us. Whereas English in England is constantly expanding to accommodate formal and informal words (just look up bootylicious in the Oxford English Dictionary) it strikes me that the debate over indigenous languages is locking out new and exciting cultural phenomena, like sheng’ that may well represent the indigenous languages of Africa’s growing urban population. If we are to have a truly Pan-African language, shouldn’t it be a language that best reflects Africa as it is today, rather than as we imagined it to be 100 years ago?