Home | Comment & Analysis    Saturday 10 June 2006

Literacy through indigenous languages a must


The Politics of Language in African Literature & World View

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 the language and I intend to use it.

- Chinua Achebe, Author of Things Fall Apart

By Mading de Ngor Akec de Kuai*

June 7, 2006 — Ngugi wa Thiong’O is probably the most important and interesting writer to have emerge out of Africa in this 21 st century. In his book, Decolonizing the Mind, Ngugi challenges the African writers to abandon writing in colonial languages as he calls literature written in these languages ’Afro-European Literature’ and instead opt for their native languages to give African literature its own genealogy and grammar: the preaching that he himself put to practice as Decolonizing the Mind was his last book in English. In this article I examine why literacy through indigenous languages is crucial and necessary for the people of New Sudan who are literally beginning from scratch given the current primary phase of development in our country after years of turmoil. Like Ngugi, I argue that until indigenous languages are empowered and fully developed as our main mediums of expression, we are ’merely pursing a dead end.’

In 1986 a meeting titled, ’A Conference of African Writers of English Expression’ was held in Kampala, Uganda. It was a rather momentous and comprehensive meeting ever convened by the continent’s writers on the politics of the language of the African literature. Topping the agenda was this question: ’What is African Literature?’

The debate that ensued was lively: ’Was it literature about Africa or about the African experience? Was it literature written by Africans? What about a non-African who wrote about Africa: did his work qualify as African literature? What if an African set his work in Greenland: did that qualify as African literature? Or were African languages the criteria? Ok: what about Arabic, was it not foreign to Africa? What about French and English, which had become African languages? What if a European wrote about Europe in an African language? What if ...if...if, ’ (Ngugi wa Thiong’O, Decolonizing the Mind, p.6). According to Ngugi the agenda of the debate was misdirected. The ’Conference of African Writers of English Expression’ automatically excluded those who wrote in African indigenous languages. Thus, the logical question should have been addressing the domination of our languages and cultures by those of imperialist other and this: did what African writers of English expression wrote qualify as African literature?

Whether one agree or disagree with the Kenyan novelist, one thing is certain. African languages are increasingly being pushed to the periphery by the languages of the imperialist other. Ngugi declares that "Africa does not exist in those languages." He asserts that "we have languages but our keepers of memory (writers and scholars) feel that they cannot store knowledge and emotions in African languages."

The scholar compares the phenomenon to a person who has a granary but at harvest he stores his produce in somebody else’s granary. As a result, "90% of intellectual production in Africa is stored in European languages(and Arabic), a continuation of the colonial project where not even a single treaty between Europe (and Arab World) and African countries exists in any African language, "(NA, Dec, 03, NO 424, pg.53).


"A person without a consciousness of his Being in the World is lost and can easily be guided by another to wherever the guide wants to take him, even to his own extinction" -Ngugi wa Thiong’O, Steve Biko Memorial Lecture" (NA, Dec/03).

’I have been given the language and I intend to use it’, these were the acclaimed African writer Chinua Achebe’s words 20 years ago when he commented on what he sees as the ’fatalistic logic of the unassailable position of English in our literature.’ Still, Achebe’s opinion reverberates with some of the views aired by New Sudan’s present generations on the dominance of our languages and cultures by English and Arabic. To many Sudanese, specially South Sudanese, the imminence of those languages is undeniable. English on one hand is officially the lingua franc a of South Sudan. It has been and is being taught widely in schools all over the south; often as alternative to "Arabization" while the risk of "Englishnization" is unaccounted for. On the other hand, Arabic is spoken almost everywhere in Sudan and irrespective of the fact that it is a ’sophisticated’ language on its own right, it is seen with green eyes in the south, much more than the English language. But does it matter what language is in use as long as we can understand each other?

Utilitarianism believes that it is better to have a conduit than not to have it in the first place. Yet, having English and Arabic in New Sudan are a novelty alright, but not when they suppress the growth of other African indigenous languages. It is verifiable fact that Sudanese native languages are not as developed as English and Arabic, but like a child, they can grow if they are encouraged and enfranchised. Both languages cannot contradict each other if all are on the same footing of importance.


Consider this: When I was a child in my village in Bor I was taught and A.B.C.D in English. It wasn’t until much later where I would learn to recite Dinka alphabets. I noticed that the teaching of my language was a church matter: a woeful comparison to English (a foreign language) that has always enjoyed its own separate and independent space in our land. With exception of Bung Mariar, there are no major Dinka language publications available unlike English that came from England (a distant land then) that I had to learn as a child. In this case, Ngugi articulate it so well that "the language of my education was no longer the language of my ’real life’, the language of my culture: I was now being exposed exclusively to a culture that is a product of a world external to me. I was being made to stand outside of myself to look at myself." Here, it is pristine how the African child is taught a worldview that is alien to him. He is caught up in a sort of bubble where he looks back to see if where he is, is where he was. He mirrors his world from another angle and finds himself in a vague state where he compares his former to the later. This kind of confusion that arise may be terminated by promoting our languages at schools. I hope our generation sees that we are multi-tasked and developing our languages and literatures are one of those challenges we have to surpass.

Do you find it "helpless" when you want to speak to someone in your native language and you cannot fully do so without mentioning ’foreign phrases’ not because you are an ’expert’ in that language but that your ’oratory’ has shifted from your native language to a foreign language?

Personally, I theorize a possibility of conflict stemming from the fact that we are collecting knowledge from divergent sources; we read from radically different books. Some Sudanese are reading Ngugi wa Thiong’O who is a staunchest advocate for African pride. Others on the extreme end might be reading Thomas Jefferson who considers the African race to be incapable of grasping mathematics. Some Sudanese are used to Arabic and would not want to see it change, while others are comfortable with English. It just raises questions as to why English and Arabic are declared mandatory in some parts of the country that has their own languages. Ngugi asks, "If there is need for a ’study of the historic continuity of a single culture’, why can’t this be African? Why can’t African literature be at the centre so that we can view other cultures in relationship to it? "

*The author is the Editor of New Sudan Vision Magazine [off-air for development]. He can be reached at madingngor@newsudanvision.com

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