African languages – Lifting the mask of invisibility

As the first prime minister of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah was always aware of the necessity of securing the African continent as a base for all peoples of African origins. He had a vision of an Africa as a dominant industrial power in the world, but he was also aware that this had to go hand in hand with decolonised minds. In 1962, Kwame Nkrumah, gave the opening addresses to the First International Congress of Africanists in Accra Ghana in 1962, which is instructive in its contemporary relevance.

His speech carried the hope that the congress would be a major step towards an Africa-centred view of itself, its history and culture. For him, the knowledge existing in African languages was an important starting point in our intellectual journey in Africa and the world. He called for the sharing of experience contained in our different languages, as part of a common endeavour of presenting our history as the history of an African people, and not as history written by Europeans about African people.

He came back to the same theme when a year later he gave another speech at the opening of the Institute of African Studies, where he talked about the study of African history, culture, and institutions, languages and arts, as necessary in the African self-launch to modernity. For him a study and development of African languages was not a side issue.

African languages were central in African scholarship, development and [the continent’s] relationship to the diaspora and the world. He did not call for linguistic self-isolation for he saw the role of other languages like Arabic, English, French and Portuguese. Clearly for him, African languages were not a lower rung on the ladder to an English heaven but rather as equal partners in the construction of a common but multilingual heaven.

African scholarship

It is fair to pause and ask: after 50 years, have we regained the cultural and intellectual independence that we had lost to colonialism? There is no doubt that in terms of quantity and quality of scholarly production, African scholarship and general scholarship on Africa is a far cry from that prevailing in the days that Nkrumah spoke.

Hegelian Africa, enveloped in the dark mantle of the night, and that of Trevor-Roper for whom the continent had only darkness to exhibit and darkness could not be the subject of history, is gone for ever, thanks to this scholarship. But have we fulfilled the Nkrumah-ist vision?

Unfortunately, African scholarship has achieved this great visibility in the world by the tremendous feat of making itself invisible to Africa. African scholarship wears a linguistic mask with the magic quality of making it invisible to the majority in Africa and simultaneously visible to those with the key made in Europe.

Thus we arrive at a position that is the opposite of that envisioned in Kwame Nkrumah's speech: we can only see ourselves through European eyes, at the minimum. This makes us look at Africa with the eyes of an outsider, thus in effect giving up on our responsibility to secure the continent for African people.

In the same speech Nkrumah posed the question: are we really sure that our students are in touch with the life of the nation? Perhaps we should rephrase the question. Are we sure that after 50 years of modern African scholarship we are in touch with the nation, the continent, African peoples? Or more basic and consequential, is the independent African state, now in existence for the same 50 years, in touch with its people?

Language of power

How can it be, when it has embraced European languages, spoken and used by only 10% of the population, as the language of power, commerce, education, of law and justice? The fact is in any independent African nation today the majority are rendered linguistically deaf and mute by government policies that have set European languages as the normative measure of worth in every aspect of national life.

This situation is not the consequence of an accident of history: it is the fulfilment of a conscious imperial design in a long history of conquest. Let us take the example of Ireland. Ireland, England's first colony, was the historical nursery of patterns of power relations that would be reproduced in Asia and Africa.

Among these is a power relationship between the language of the conqueror and the language of the vanquished. Following the Anglo-Norman conquest and settlement of Ireland, London enacted several acts aimed at protecting English language against the subversive encroachment of Irish or Gaelic, a language that had a much richer history of intellectual production than English.

Among other penalties, the 1366 Statute of Kilkenny, threatened to confiscate any lands of any English or any Irish living among them who would use Irish among themselves, contrary to the ordnance.

By the 16th century the ordnances had failed to achieve their desired end, that is, the subjugation of the Irish. Enter Spenser of the Shepheardes Calender and the Fairie Queene, a settler-planter in Munster, Ireland. In 1598 Spenser published his book A View of Ireland, a dialogic manifesto on how to tame the Irish through the erasure of their memory.

Naming and language were the suggested instruments to that end for, as one of the interlocutors in the dialogue says, "It hath ever been the use of the conqueror to despise the language of the conquered, and to force him by all means to learn his.”

The book and the sentiment are significant because they came a time when the nascent European nation states had emerged from the linguistic hegemony of Latin and the religious hegemony of the Catholic church, rival nationalisms were on the rise, and mercantile capitalism was turning imperial and colonial, with the black body at the centre of the emerging commerce.

African enslavement

This follows Europe's discovery of America and the sea route to India via South Africa, events that Adam Smith would later describe as revolutionary in their impact on the modern. I am not sure which gave rise to the other but nationalism, mercantile capitalism, and colonial expansion fed into each other, and they all end in African enslavement.

Walter Raleigh was Spenser's settler-neighbour in Munster and he would go on to found Virginia, the first truly English colony in the Americas. In the American slave plantations that followed the settlements, African languages, including the talking drum, would later be banned, some of those breaking the ban even earning the noose around their necks. The first martyrs for African languages were the diasporic Africans.

I have not come across evidence of the actual banning of African languages on the continent, but each of the post-Berlin colonising nations put their languages at the centre of their imperial universe.

I want to emphasise this is a colonial phenomena, not a black and white issue. Imperial Japan, when in 1910 it annexed Korea, made Koreans take on Japanese names and language, a policy reversed after the defeat of Japanese colonialism. When the United States annexed Hawaii, it banned the use of the Hawaiian language until 1978.

In all such cases of colonial conquest, language was meant to complete what the sword had started; do to the mind what the sword had done to the body. In one of my classes on Europhonism and post-colonialism at the University of California, Irvine, we read some harrowing narratives of how native American children were snatched from their community, and forced into boarding schools where they were given European names and then immersed in English.

Metaphysical empire

An article by Adam R Beach has argued that even the 18th century struggles for the standardisation of English had both a national and an imperial intent: A Standardised English would become the building block of... a metaphysical empire, an empire of language and literature that would outlive the actual physical British empire.

Was this just a fantasy? It was put into practical language politics in the 19th century in India when in the famous minutes on Indian education in 1934, Macaulay advocated English as a medium of education in India in order to create a class of people Indian in blood and colour but otherwise English in mentality and everything else.

The same was happening in those spheres under the other European powers. The French and Portuguese called their version of the Macauleyan process assimilation. Language was the key factor in assimilation. But neither the French, the Portuguese nor the British went through this exercise for the aesthetics of assimilation. As Macauley put it bluntly, it was to create linguistically westernised middlemen who would automatically carry out the intent of the ruler on the masses of the ruled.

So along with the economic and political empires, Europe simultaneously and consciously created empires of the mind through language ideologies and practices, empires in tune with their world view and practical needs.

They gave us their accents in exchange for their access to our resources. Or let me put it this way: Europe gave Africa the resources of their accent; Africa gave Europe access to the resources of the continent.

Borrowed accents

So when African intellectuals and leaders were busy perfecting their borrowed accents, Europe and the West were busy sharpening their instruments for access to the resources of the continent. Accents for Access… That, unfortunately, is the story of post-colonial Africa.

Has the metaphysical empire, or the empire of the mind, outlived the physical empire as envisioned by the advocates of the language spread? The success of the empires of the mind, or colonies of the mind, can be seen in the very defenders of the dominance of European languages over those of areas and regions outside Europe: the defence does not necessarily come from its exporters but rather from the importers.

In Africa today, the defenders are African intellectuals and policy makers. Some of them act as if it is the English and European languages whose existence is being threatened by African languages: African languages interfere with the English accent.

Again, this is not new or unique to Africa. The defenders of English and arguments in favour of its dominance, come from the intellectual of the colonised periphery as a whole. In the case of English, this phenomenon first manifested itself in England's northern neighbour, Scotland.

The eminent intellectuals of the 18th century Scottish enlightenment, Hume, Smith, et al, waxed ecstatic about standardisation of English and its virtues for national formation and even as imperial export. But even among the Irish the greatest defenders of the language were latter-day Irish intellectuals.

Of course there is nothing wrong in wanting to take English or any other language as one's own. I have always argued that each language, big or small, has its unique musicality; there is no language whose musicality and cognitive potential is inherently better than another.

African languages with all their different and unique musicalities are still in everyday use. What seems to horrify these intellectuals, the policy-makers and the international financial services behind them is the call for literary, intellectual and even scholarly reflection of that reality.


The availability of more information, more knowledge, more skills in those languages will break up the nation. But the concentration of the same in English or French will somehow cement the nation. The result: pamper European languages; Pauperise African languages.

The African language-speaking majorities are taxed directly or indirectly so that 90% of the resources available for language education can go to English accents. In some countries African languages have been unceremoniously axed from the curriculum or made into electives. Some advocates of English dominance not only want it so but would actually like to see the literary disappearance of native languages altogether.

The explanation of the death wish for one’s own language and the embrace of the dominant other, has to go beyond the uses or not of the languages in question. It probably lies in how that sense of dominance was brought about.

A common thread in the export of English in Scotland, Wales, Ireland and Africa was the constant association of extreme humiliation and negativity with native languages and the corresponding value and prestige associated with English in colonial education factories. Corporal punishment, physical violence, was often meted to children caught speaking mother tongues in the school compounds, and additionally, made to perform acts of shame like carrying objects that proclaimed their stupidity or made to swallow filth in some cases.

One set of languages was associated with defeat, shame, incoherence, savagery even, and the other with modernity, science, conquest and being human. No wonder people would want to bask in the sunshine of the language of glory and hide from those of shame and defeat.

Whatever the explanations, origins and processes, the resulting empires of the mind still impact Africa and the developing world negatively in relation to corporate rule. Since the middle class in Africa talks and behaves as if its needs, shopping habits, goals (however self-serving, servile and ultimately suicidal), are identical with the goals of the nation, when they talk about the national and official languages, they mean the language spoken and understood by the schooled middle class.

A seat at the global table

For them the language inheritance from Europe is doubly advantageous: it unites the nation, meaning the top 5% in each of the linguistic communities; and it links them to a global culture and lifestyle. English and European languages give them a seat at the global table. African languages tarnish their rightful seat at the global table. We need the globe, we are told, and that globe can only hear us in English.

The English accent blinds them to the reality that what they are getting from the global table are simply the remnants of the global access to African resources. Corporate globe wants unfettered access to the vast resources of the continent but because of the Colony of the Mind, we have been convinced of the opposite: it is we who need a perfect English accent to reach the globe.

Fortunately, even within the current tide of apparent defeat, resistance to the empires of the mind, continue. For one, African languages have refused to die, kept vibrant by the peasantry and the urban mass. Orality, and the spinoffs from it – orature, music and dance – are still alive. In fact even Europhone African literature constantly draws from this orality.

Writing in Africa languages continues but despite these efforts, it is the Europhone tradition that has the visibility, both nationally and globally.

There is a need, therefore, to intensify resistance to the metaphysical empire of language, literature and scholarship and make African languages and what is produced in them more visible.

African universities

Surely universities [in Africa] ought to be full of scholars who know and even work in several African languages; translators of African languages; theorists of African languages in African languages. Then we can share our finds in whatever languages we may have in common, including English. That way we shall be drawing from our strength.

Every African university should become an advocate of African languages. Press governments to change their anti-Africa slavish suicidal linguistic policies. We should be making resolution after resolution calling upon each and every country to set up a well-funded and resourced national bureau of African languages in their own territories; under each would be constituent bureaus for each of the languages, however small.

These bureaus would actively contribute to language policy and practice and come up with ways of popularising reading, writing and scholarship in African languages.

We should work with popular performances. The various national bureaus would then be constituent members of an African Union-based Pan-Africa Bureau of African languages. Above all, make knowledge of an African language count in awarding degrees and in promotions – at the university and in the civil service. A knowledge of an African language should count in evaluating teachers from abroad. Make it both cool and clever to know an African language.

This does not and should never mean retreating into linguistic self-isolation. If you know all the languages of the world and you do not know your mother tongue or the language of your culture, that is enslavement. But if you know your mother tongue or the language of your culture, and add all the other languages of the world to it, that is empowerment. And surely we want an Africa economically, politically, culturally and psychologically empowered, an Africa secure in its base, even as it engages with other peoples and continents.

This is an edited version of a lecture entitled "Secure the Base, Decolonise the Mind", delivered at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa on 2 March 2017 by renowned Kenyan author and theorist of post-colonial literature Professor Ngugi wa Thiong'o. He is currently distinguished professor of the departments of comparative literature and English at the University of California, Irvine, United States.

Photo source: University of California, Irvine.