Sep
15

An African Renaissance: Ngugi wa Thiong'o

Ngugi wa Thiong'o is one of the most important voices on language and decolonization. His works include Decolonizing the Mind (1986) and Theory and Politics of Knowing (2012). This post shares some notes on his 2009 Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance (copy appears available here).

"colonialists did not literally cut off the heads of the colonized or physically bury them alive. Rather, they dismembered the colonized from memory, turning their heads upside down and burying all the memories they carried. Wherever they went, in their voyages of land, sea, and mind, Europeans planted their own memories on whatever they contacted." (p. 7)

"In his attempt to remake the land and its peoples in his image, the conqueror acquires and asserts the right to name the land and its subjects, demanding that the subjugated accept the names and culture of the conqueror. When Japan occupied Korea in 1906, it banned Korean names and required the colonized to take on Japanese ones. But one might ask: What is in a name? It is said that a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet; however, the truth is that its identity would no longer be expressed in terms of roses but, instead, would assume that of the new name. Names have everything to do with how we identify objects, classify them, and remember them." (p. 9)

"Africans, in the diaspora and on the continent, were soon to be the recipients of this linguistic logic of conquest, with two results: linguicide in the case of the diaspora and linguistic famine, or linguifam, on the continent." (p. 17)

"In the continent as a whole, the postcolonial slumber would not be disturbed by memories of the African holocaust. Slavery and colonialism become events of shame, of guilt. Their memory is shut up in a crypt, a collective psychic tomb, which is what Oduche symbolically does when he shuts the python, a central image of his people's cosmic view, in a box." (p. 61)

"Pan-Africanism has not outlived its mission. Seen as an economic, political, cultural, and psychological re-membering vision, it should continue to guide remembering practices. Economic Pan-Africanism will translate into a network of communications—air, sea, land, telephone, Internet—that ease intracontinental movements of peoples, goods, businesses, and services. Africa becomes a power bloc able to negotiate on an equal basis with all other global economies. But this is impossible without a powerful political union, as championed by Kwame Nkrumah." (p. 88-89)

"In the year 2000, a number of African scholars and writers met in Eritrea and came up with the Asmara Declaration on African Languages and Literatures, a ten-point document that begins by calling on African languages to take on the duty, challenge, and responsibility of speaking for the continent. It then lists nine other conditions—including recognition of the vitality, equality, and diversity of African languages as a basis for the future empowerment of African peoples; the necessity of communication among African languages and their development at all levels of the schooling system; promotion of research, science, and technology in African languages; and the necessity of democracy and gender equality in the development of African languages—and it concludes by emphasizing that African languages are essential for the decolonization of African minds as well as for the African renaissance." (p. 93)

"Memory resides in language and is clarified by language. By incorporating the colonial world into the international capitalist order and relations, with itself as the center of such order and relations, the imperialist West also subjected the rest of the world to its memory through a vast naming system. It planted its memory on our landscape. Egoli became Johannesburg. The great East African Lake, known by the Luo people as Namlolwe, became Lake Victoria." (p. 113)

"We have languages, but our keepers of memory feel that they cannot store knowledge, emotions, and intellect in African languages. It is like possessing a granary but, at harvest, storing your produce in somebody else's granary." (p. 114)

"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 remain isolated from the mainstream of progressive human thought in the languages and cultures of the globe." (p. 124)

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Jul
20

Language & Governance in the African Experience

Notes from The Power of Babel: Language & Governance in the African Experience (1998) by Ali A. Mazrui and Alamin M. Mazrui"

"One of the gross linguistic anomalies of post-colonial Africa, in fact, is that whole classes of countries are named after the imperial language they have adopted as their official language. We do constantly refer to 'Francophone Africa,' 'English-speaking Africa,' 'Lusophone Africa' and the like. Asia, too, was colonized; and yet nobody refers to 'Anglophone Asia' or 'French-speaking Asian countries.' (p. 6)

"… how much of a choice of synonyms do I have when I want to discuss blackmail? Or something sold on the black market? It is true that most of the time when we are using these words we are not connecting them with any racist tradition with associates black with evil and white with goodness. The metaphor is so much part of the English language, beautifully integrated, ready for use unconsciously in a spontaneous flow. As metaphor, black has carried repeatedly, and in a variety of contexts, decidedly negative connotations. White has ambivalent connotations but, more often than not, favourable ones. The connotations have been stabilized that users of the language are unconscious of those wider links with racist traditions. But does not the unconsciousness make the situation even worse?" (p. 25)

"What all this suggests, then, is that language as an instrument of liberation must be based, not on a reversal of values accorded to European versus African languages on the basis of a preconceived paradigm of linguistic determinism, but on disalienation that seeks to pose new terms of reference altogether. For as long as the struggle for mental liberation is defined in terms that confirm to the European ideal of humanity and civilization it will only turn out to be an upward spiral to further alienation and conceptual imprisonment." (p. 62)

"It appears, then, that democracy would develop on firmer foundations on the systemic, economic, social, and cultural planes if African nations pursued language policies that reduced dependence on Western languages, push African languages more towards the centre of the political and economic arenas, and consolidated the use and development of their local languages of wider communication." (p. 107)

"Not using indigenous African languages in the legal process is damaging not only to the rule of law but also, of course, to the indigenous languages themselves. The languages are marginalized in some of the fundamental areas of civil society – law and order, governance and civil liberties." (p. 114)

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Mar
11

Secular Translations

A couple of notes from Talal Asad's "Secular Translations: Nation-State, Modern Self and Calculative Reason" (2018):

  • "Today an important failure is our inability to create a form of collective life on this planet radically different from the liberal capitalist states in which we live. The failure seems to be due not to any lack of imagination or will: there are many highly intelligent and determined people who have presented visions of an attractive future. It has in great measure to do with inherited languages that disallow us form understanding our own institutional and psychological blockages and the resolution they call for. Of course we can recognize and describe instances of cruelty and kindness, of betrayal and self-sacrifice, of suffering and happiness. But we don't have a language to speak adequately about the changes occurring in our collective life resulting from where we have gone wrong, and the things of value we may be losing irretrievably." (p. 157)
  • "When I referred in the past to Islamic traditions like amr bi-l-ma'ruf (which implies that mutual responsibility among friends includes persuading one another to do what is right and avoid what is wrong), I did so mainly to try and unthink our language of sovereign power, with its calculative, logical obsessions and the race to progress that that language invites us to join." (p. 158)
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Jan
01

Education, Politics and Social Change in Ethiopia

In looking for research that explores the challenges of ethnic federalism and language in Ethiopia, I came across the book "Education, Politics and Social Change in Ethiopia" (2010), edited by Paulos Milkias (Concordia University) and Messay Kebede (University of Dayton). All of the contributing authors are based outside of Ethiopia, which is not necessarily negative, but I think it would have been a useful addition to have people more actively engaged in the Ethiopian education and political systems contribute. The book covers a range of topics: English as a medium of instruction, traditional and modern education, influences of western education, history of education, an Ethiopian theory of education, education and the Pentecostal movement, language politics, women and education, and power of educating.

I support the linguistic arguments made by Ngugi wa Thiong'o, and found Tekeste Negash's work (Chapter 1) an interesting read. While Ethiopia does not have a colonial legacy, it has adopted a colonial language for its primary medium of instruction: "The problem with English as a medium of instruction is even more complex. English is not only a language but it is a value system. Attending all classes in English is tantamount to the whole sale adaptation of the culture that the English language represents at the price of one's native language and the values such language contains." (p. 19) Recently, Ethiopia opted for dual language instruction (Afan Oromo and Amharic) in federal jurisdictions (Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa), which Tekeste suggested when this book was published in 2010: "I believe it is imperative that Ethiopia makes the transition from English into Amharic and Afan-Oromo by about 2025. To some readers of this paper, twenty years may sound a very long time; but 20 to 25 years is just enough to discuss the issue of the benefits of connecting to ones world view and of initiating the process of translation and reinterpretation of school materials as well the development of both languages." (p. 23).

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