Tuesday, February 26, 2008

I don't understand my mother's tongue: Who will protect Africa's small languages?

As part of the International Year of Languages, UNESCO is promising a group of festivities promoting the fact that within the next few generations, according to some unnamed experts, more than half the world’s 7,000 languages could face extinction.

For Africans, who often migrate from one language to another during the course of a single day – and often speak in a colonial tongue – a cultural treasure trove could be lost as these smaller languages face extinction. It’s also, in my mind, a process of Modernization, the capital ‘M’ kind where disparate peoples become subsumed by larger groups. Think of how Western Europe became ethnically more homogenous over the past few centuries as powers stamped out groups they thought were apostates. It happens in Africa, too, as smaller ethnic groups begin learning the larger languages because the ease of getting things done during the course of a day.

In West Africa, as education rates increase, people will start speaking more often in the colonial tongue, especially in rural areas. Of course, one way to improve education rates, in Burkina Faso at least, is to have children begin schooling in their native tongue first and then slowly introducing French over the years. As it is, most young students have very little comprehension of French, but still have to learn in it six days a week. Of course, only speakers of the country’s most predominant languages will be able to profit from such (much needed) language reforms.

And I guess this is my beef. We can talk all day long about dying languages, but whose responsibility is it to keep a language alive? It would certainly be too costly for the government of Burkina Faso to provide education in every one of the 60 plus languages spoken around the country. At least in this battle, somebody has to win and somebody has to lose, writes the writer in his native English tongue. But seriously. Other than education, which is often under the purview of a government and a few cultural institutions that could keep smaller languages alive, the simple realities of demographics and migration will help finish off some smaller languages. It is not pretty nor is it right, but that is how the world works.

On the other hand, there will always be a market for great languages Wolof (more on this in a second) and Moore and Hausa and Swahili and Djioula.

Anyway (I am going somewhere with this, I promise), the Senegalese novelist Boubacar Boris Diop wrote his most recent novel in his native Wolof language, a first time for the author of many books. This is an interview published in the UNESCO Courier.

You wrote a dozen books in French before choosing Wolof, your mother language. Why this reversion?

Actually, my language was always there, inside me. The only problem I faced was the ability to write in my language. I was “corrupted” by French. I spoke everyday Wolof, but I didn’t possess it intimately.

Then there was Rwanda. A group of writers I belonged to went there after the genocide, in 1998, as part of the operation “Rwanda: writing as a duty to memory”. I said to myself that if we’d let 10,000 Rwandans get killed per day for three months, if nobody had done anything, this conveyed a certain contempt for Africa…

At that moment I felt even more strongly the desire to write in my mother language. It became essential. Oh, at first it was painful…I was very afraid of writing a French novel in Wolof. I had to fight against myself, but the Diops are stubborn! Then I began to hear voices – voices that came up out of the past. And writing became very easy. I am certain that my first novel in Wolof, Doomi golo (the she-monkey’s young), is my best piece of writing.

Often when one travels from one African capital to another, one has to stop off in a European capital. Does this also happen in the world of African literature?

It would be fantastic if I could translate the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo directly form Kikuyu into Wolof, without going through English and French….To my knowledge there’s almost no translation from one African language into another. My novel Doomi Golo is translated into Pulaar now. But who will translate it into Swahili? Do we have to wait two or three centuries? Not necessarily, but that’s what I fear, alas.

You know, Africa was divided up by the colonial powers in Berlin in 1885. Africans speak to each other through the colonial languages. And me, making fun of it, referring to the Berlin Wall of the Cold War, I call it our “Berlin Wall”. It is invisible but terrible – it separates the English-, French- and Portuguese-speaking countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

With Moussa Konaté, Malian writer who heads the French-speaking festival “Etonnants voyageurs” (amazing travelers) in Mali, I’ve often discussed the idea of organizing a big meeting of African writers who write in national languages. A way of at least making cracks in this wall. But it’s easier to find sponsors for French-language writers than for those who write in national languages. UNESCO could be the perfect venue for such a pan-African encounter, particularly this year, international year of languages. And it’s an international space. Without walls.

1 comment:

Don said...

Interesting post and important questions. I've added a link to this entry on a list of blogs that mention the International Year of Languages, and will send it to the AfricanLanguages list. Hopefully this will contribute to discussions about language in Africa, especially this year.