February 21st marks International Mother Tongue Day, a day that the world celebrates the beauty of linguistic and cultural diversity. However, on this day, thousands of people in Africa especially young people living in urban centres have nothing to celebrate about
Many young Africans do not speak their Mother Tongues, a tragedy that they cannot be blamed for. This can be blamed on the academic systems and development policies which are built on the colonial legacies that discouraged the use of local languages in schools, businesses and in public spaces. I was unfortunately blessed to start my formal education at an advanced age- I got to learn my mother tongue before enrolling in school. While at school, I remember seeing kids who spoke their mother tongue being beaten and reprimanded. If one spoke his/her local language, he was frowned upon and seen as uneducated. These tactics were used to discourage the use of local languages and over the years, such a culture has led to a generation that does not know their local languages.
Language is the mode of preserving cultures and a lost language is a lost culture. Per Wangari Maathai in the documentary, Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai, “Culture is coded wisdom. Wisdom that has been accumulated for thousands of years and generations. All people have their own culture. But when you remove that culture from them, then you kill them in a way. You kill them. You kill a very large part of them.” (Deter and Merton, 2008). Uyi Edigin, another African scholar shares the same view with Maathai. Edigin concludes that “Culture defines a set of values which when used as a strategic block for a-priori and posteriori constructs bring about societal progress.” (Edigin, 2010, pg. 295).
The essence of indigenous languages in promoting development is often overlooked in Africa. For example, while trying to understand why African countries usually lead the list of developed countries from behind, ‘a study commissioned by the UN in connection with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), finds an explanation in five factors: high transport costs and small markets, low productivity agriculture, high disease burden, adverse political history, and slow diffusion of external technology.’ (Bamgbose, 2011. Pg. 9) Within these factors, language which is an important factor in promoting development, is not mentioned herein. In the early 2000s when the MDGs were adopted, the international community did not understand that negligence of local languages could impede development in Africa. Now that the world has embarked on implementing Sustainable Development Goals, the essence of promoting local languages to include everyone in the development agenda is even more apparent. But just like in 2000, this imperative is not on the foreground of the development policies in Africa. According to Bamgbose, there is a consensus ‘that language is the major vehicle of a people’s culture and that a people deprived of its language is also deprived of its culture.’ (Bamgbose, 2011. Pg. 3). Almost all post-colonial African countries adopted their colonial masters’ languages as official languages to facilitate development. This has led to exclusion of a clear majority of citizens that do not know these official languages. Development agenda therefore, becomes an affair for the selected elites whereas the clear majority of people become victims of exclusion, often referred to as illiterates. Bamgbose observes that “In most African countries, communication between the governed and those who govern is supposed to be done through an imported official language. The fact that such mode of communication excludes the majority of the governed is strong reason for empowering African languages for official purposes.” Bamgbose, 2011. Pg. 7)
John Mbiti, another scholar acknowledges this fact. He says, “Whatever feelings and arguments one might privately have concerning the language problem in Africa, we must face facts and reality. Some of the traditional languages are dying out.” (Mbiti, 1969. Pg. 101). African local languages are dying out with their cultures within which they are spoken in because the leaders of most post-colonial African countries viewed foreign languages such as English and French as languages of modernization. However, as Fridah Kanana contends that “The reasons that explain why the African continent continues to lag behind in human creativity and has thus remained a continent of consumers is because African government have not recognized that when their citizens compete intellectually in a second language they end up being a step behind their competitors employing their mother tongue as a language of business.” (Kanana, 2013. Pg. 45). To demonstrate the validity of this argument, that the use of a local language can promote development, Kanana uses the empirical case of Asian countries that have adopted their own languages and cultures as means of achieving development. Below, He says, "Currently, there are Chinese engineers and contractors who are contracted in the construction industry by various African countries to revamp their infrastructure, railing railway lines, real estate and it is their languages they speak but the engineering is of standard. Many of us Africans buy Chinese, Korean and Japanese products, e.g., mobile telephone handsets, cars, household appliances etc. whose manuals are in languages of the source countries. We neither speak nor understand the scripts, yet we are the end users of these products. Interestingly, the African end users can still figure out the Chinese, Japanese or Korean orthographic representation of, for example, missed calls and received calls, or start and stop etc. The secret is that these countries base their development strategies on the indigenous languages exactly what is missing in most African countries." (Kanana,2013. Pg. 45) Per Kanana, “Full participation of the masses in the political, socio-economic and cultural development. In other words, institutions, organizations and even governments cannot perform clearly and effectively to expectations unless they can understand and be understood by every citizen of a particular nation.” (Kanana, 2013, Pg. 53)
Rhetoric that dispute the value of preserving local languages in Africa points towards divisions created by many different languages in most African countries. This view treats language diversity in Africa as an adversity that can be overcome by suppressing different languages and promoting only imported ones such as English. However, while researching the causes of post-election violence in Kenya, for example, Kanana found that “The use of ethnic languages in mass media is said to have perpetrated ethnic hatred and violence, but the root cause of the violence was more political than linguistic differences” (Kanana, 2013. Pg. 53) Given this argument, we can conclude that promotion of local African languages can give impetus to development within the continent. Bamgbose acknowledges that “Development is a process which involves the entire spectrum of the society, with each individual making a contribution. A communication channel is, therefore, imperative in order to mobilize the whole society in the process of social change.” (Bamgbose, 2011. Pg. 5)
In conclusion, the problem of languages in Africa is two-fold. For educated Africans, most of them continue to enjoy the privileges of elites who are the minority benefiting from development based on foreign languages while on other hand, some of them are missing out on knowledge about their cultures. The second part of the problem is that, a vast majority that do not know the imported official languages are not participating in the development processes of their societies. Instead, they are the 'beneficiaries' described about in the newsletters of development agencies. They passively receive handouts from the elites. How can we change this negative trend of excluding people who have not done anything wrong other than having the wonderful knowledge of their own languages? Can Africans still be educated and have a grasp of their own languages that they can use to preserve their cultures? I believe we need to have a conversation on the imperative of local languages in promoting inclusive sustainable development in Africa.
Bamgbose, Ayo (2011) “African Languages Today: The Challenge of and Prospects for Empowerment under Globalization.” Selected Proceedings of the 40th Annual Conference on African Linguistics, ed. Eyamba G. Bokamba et al., 1-14. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings Project Edigin, Lambert U. (2010). “The role of culture in African development.” Pakistan Journal of Social Sciences 7(4), p.295-300 Kanana, Fridah Erastus. (2013) “Examining African Languages as Tools for National Development: The Case of Kiswahili.” The Journal of Pan African Studies, vol.6, no.6, November 2013 Maathai, Wangari. (2008) “Taking Roots: The Vision of Wangari Maathai.” Documentary. Mbiti, John S. (1969). African Religions and Philosophy. Nairobi: Heinemann. Chapter 14 (p.149-165)