“‘..I am very sorry masa’”: (de) stigmatizing
Indigenous languages as a means of decolonizing the motherland.”
“…for I have reached a point in my life when I came to view words differently. A closer look at language could reveal the secret of life.”
(Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, in ‘Wizard of the Crow.’)
“The limit of my language means the limits of my world.”
(Ludwig Wittgenstein, in “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.”)
In this blog article we examine the role played by elites of formerly colonized spaces in perpetuating the myth of the superiority of foreign languages in everyday transactions and interactions in places known as developing or low-income economies. Based on our observations of more than 30 years, we can confirm that for the most part, all formerly colonized spaces that adopted a western language (or was it imposed?) as the language of instruction in all their schools have done a poor job of encouraging ‘other’ living languages to flourish. At the most extreme situations, even parents do not speak their mother tongue to their own children at home. The excuse they often give is that their children need to understand English/French/Portuguese etc., so that they can excel in their lives. But this is a nice excuse which is not supported by the science. According to the science about children and how language is acquired, it has been documented that children are like sponges, they can pick up as many as four  or more languages without formal education (Wang, 2008). It is our contention that until Indigenous languages are encouraged and made the centre of all national activities, real progress will elude us. We call for the ‘decolonization’ of all government policies and programs. This means allocating funds for the development of Indigenous education in their own languages.
Peeking through the motherland:
On the African continent today (apart from a handful of countries especially in the East African sub-region), if you are not super fluent in French, English, or Portuguese, you are considered somewhat inferior. In Ghana for example, if you do not have a high ‘command’ of the Queen’s English, you are pejoratively regarded as ‘ɛfuom’ (meaning that you are backward – one of the words used to describe African culture by the colonizer during the days of colonialism when Indigenous Africans were uncouth, pagan, heathen, primitive and a whole lot of other derogatory words). The sad part of all this is that even when you are trying your best to speak the imposed language (the language of the historical oppressor), you still come under serious ridicule not from the oppressor but rather from your own people, the ‘self- proclaimed language police’ from a location near you.
Isaac Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction (e.g., if object x exerts a force on object y, then object y also exerts an equal force on object x). In other words, if one applies force to an object, it will push back with the same amount of force in the opposite direction (Browne, 1999). In real life, every action may cause a reaction such as unintended consequences – including externalities that may or not be linear. The political ecologic view on this issue is that the action of the ‘self-proclaimed language police’ (usually the elite who have historically benefitted from the divide and conquer tactics’ of the oppressor) result in a re-action from those who are trying their best to follow the ‘rules’ – rules made from following the ways of doing things in faraway places. The situation of the Indigenous African is summed up in Ngũgĩ’s book: “Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature”. He writes:
“The present predicaments of Africa are often not a matter of personal choice: they arise from a historical situation. Their solutions are not so much a matter of personal decision as that of a fundamental social transformation of the structures of our societies starting with a real break with imperialism and its internal ruling allies. Imperialism and its comprador alliances in Africa can never develop the continent.”
(Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, 1978).
In such a situation there is a feeling of worthlessness as most people feel less important because ‘wɔɔmo n’te brɔfo’ (they cannot speak English), a charge that condemns one to a third-class citizen in one’s own country. At the end of a recently held stakeholder conference on illegal mining (aka galamsey) and its effects on Ghana’s natural environment, Madam Akua Donkor, a popular non-English speaking Ghanaian politician pointed out to the organizers of the conference that the whole event suffers a fatal flaw, i.e., that they (the organizers and all speakers at the conference) spoke ‘over the heads’ of the most important stakeholders – the miners who are mostly non-English speaking! Madam Akua Donkor called for a re-run of the event solely in the dominant local languages of the mining areas to take on board the ‘galamsayers’ themselves. Indeed, that was the most important intervention at the end of the 3-day national conference on ‘galamsey.’
Ghanaian elites want to speak English better than the English(wo)man. Every effort is made to copy everything western without modification, and those who are unable to do so are deemed less than adequate! Those who cannot speak English fluently are ridiculed, shamed, and sometimes even imprisoned for daring to use their local language(s) as a means of communicating. In December 1977, one of Africa’s most celebrated novelists, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong ‘o, was arrested by the government of Kenya and imprisoned for a year without being charged, tried or convicted of any crime. He was locked up for writing a literary piece in his native language (Gikuyu) and causing it to be performed as a skit [the skit was entitled ‘Ngaahika Ndeenda’ – ‘I Will Marry When I Want’] (Ngũgĩ wa Thiong ‘o 1982). The skit was originally written for Kenya’s workers and peasants as an expose of the ruling elite. Ngũgĩ claims the real tragedy is the resulting western cultural domination of the Kenyan people. Ngũgĩ put himself in the forefront of the struggle to help preserve traditional Kenyan culture in face of the onslaught of western culture. He argues that the present Kenyan elite are today’s neo-colonialists; in fact, they simply replaced and became the tools of their former British rulers (Maroukis, 1982). Ngũgĩ was imprisoned because he dared to write in his own mother tongue and engage others who speak the same language to perform the skit that he had written (Maroukis, 1982).
No mother tongue, no structure of thought:
Often when we talk about the inadequacy of Indigenous formal education systems, we tend to construe it in the sense of its deviation from western systems in its content. It seems rather that the language question is more crucial. That language is the medium and structure of thought cannot be over emphasized. When a people neglect their own language in favour of a western language, they leave their own development in the hands of foreign forces. According to Ngũgĩ wa Thiongʾo:
“Language, any language, has a dual character: it is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture.”
(Ngũgĩ wa Thiongʾo, 1978).
The use of foreign languages as the medium of instruction, development of content and the standard for valuation is a major impediment to the intellectual development of any child anywhere. The idea that one ‘has not arrived’ until one has mastered the language of the colonizer is the beginning of psychological inferiority and a major impediment in the way of the Indigenous child in his/her bid to understand his/her environment and to develop a worldview. This is a crucial area where the colonial and settler colonial project is still active and need decolonizing.
It is therefore no accident that no people have developed using another’s language. The decolonization project will not succeed without dealing with the yoke of the colonizer’s language (Rodney, 1973; Ngũgĩ wa Thiongo, 1978). Rodney (1973) argue that imperialism created impossible structural blockades to socioeconomic progress for Africa, unfortunately , the same structures are still in place and entrenched while the local elites have taken over the dirty work of the colonialists and they are doing a better job at it (Rodney, 1973). Among other things, the elites are overseeing the extinction of local languages across the continent, subtly and not so subtly.
Knowing English/French/Portuguese/Spanish is a good thing! These are languages that are alive and well, but so too are ‘other’ languages. ‘Other’ languages have speakers, native speakers of those languages – those are their ‘mother tongue (s), they are languages of their culture, and they are the basis of their being and that cannot be taken away from them. Imagine a woman who doesn’t speak fluent English but is literate in four (4) ‘other’ languages including her own mother tongue. This woman speaks her mother tongue (Ga) fluently, as well as three other languages (Efiekuma Fanste, Hausa and Yoruba) and yet she is made to feel inferior because she is regarded as illiterate in her own country just because she doesn’t speak English like the English Queen? This woman is not illiterate, she has the capacity to learn hence her ability to be able to know all those languages. However, when a particular language is isolated and made to be the yardstick for determining one’s worth, that can be problematic.
If a big section of the society is made to feel less than human just because they cannot speak a foreign language, there is the likelihood that they will not be spurred on to perform to their best and aid in the productivity of their country.
Yeŋ ano asi! (we are done!).
Browne, M. E. (1999). Schaum’s outline of theory and problems of physics of reengineering and science.
Maroukis, (1982). Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Detained: A Writer’s Prison Dairy. African Writers Series, No. 240. Exeter, NH: Heinemann Educational Books, xxiii, 232 pp.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. (1978). “Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature.”
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. (1982). “Wizard of the Crow.” Heinemann Educational Books.
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, (1982). “I will marry when I want.” Heinemann Educational Books. 122 pages.
Rodney, W. (1973). “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.” Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, London and Tanzanian Publishing House, Dar-Es-Salaam.
Wang, Xiao-lei (2008). “Growing up with three languages: birth to eleven.”
Wittgenstein, L. (1921). “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus”. First published in W. Ostwald’s Annalen der Naturphilosophie.
*AKRASINANA (aka Andy Kusi-Appiah) is an adjunct professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University. His research seeks to provide a clearer understanding of governance mechanisms that shape access to community resources & how the resulting inequities shape livelihoods in marginalized spaces. Community involvement & volunteering have been his passion for a long time. He was president of the Ghana Association of Ottawa (1995-2003) & senior advisor on Diversity issues to the Mayor of Ottawa (2004-2006) where he led many multi-disciplinary teams to solve complex diversity issues in a timely & sensitive manner. Andy was appointed by the Lt. Governor of Ontario in September 2018 as a public member of the Board of Directors of the Ontario College of Social Work and Social Service Workers (OCSWSSW).
**KWAME BANSON is a community development practitioner, an agricultural value chain researcher and a small producer organization developer. He is also a language expert, fluent in Fantse, English and French. Kwame believes that Africa’s underdevelopment is entirely the result of local belief in the colonial project, & the persistence of the African elite in pursuing it. According to him:
“…we merely changed the looks of the ‘massa’. The colonialist’s system is firmly in place & the local elites are managing it on his behalf. We can’t progress when we labour, eat, drink, dress & even dance into other people’s pockets.” (Banson, 2021). Kwame lives and works in Accra, Ghana.