During his latest visit to his alma mater, Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, the celebrated Kenyan – or better, African - writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o rooted for the development of African languages, arguing that all writers in Africa should write in their mother tongues.
Great inspiration, but there was a little problem: he addressed his audience in English, the very language whose hegemony he was advocating against.
When Joachim Chissano was still president of Mozambique, he did much better during an address to the African Union Summit in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. Kiswahili is one of the official languages of the AU, but it is one of those things the continental body adopts with hardly any intention of taking them seriously.
So Chissano starts speaking in Kiswahili, and there was a general scuffle and scramble for earphones, as African leaders needed translation from an African language into European ones for them to understand the Mozambique leader!
Today we are seeing a rush in Africa to study Chinese. China has become the world’s second largest economy rather quickly, and by 2030 could have overtaken the USA. More importantly, it is now Africa’s largest trading partner. If you want to do business in Africa, many people are concluding, you must know some, or a lot of Chinese.
But this mass of people studying Chinese tells us something about the fate and fortunes of languages—-rich societies have a better chance of saving their mother tongues than poor ones.
Sentiment won’t help
For Africa, then, it is only strong economies that will save our mother tongues and related cultural heritage. Sentiments and emotions won’t save us so long as the destiny of our economies remains across the oceans.
A simple mundane case: Kenyan pharmaceutical manufacturers include directions for use in Luganda, among other languages, since they export to Uganda. That dynamic, of a market that speaks Luganda, which Kenya needs to sell to, keeps Luganda alive.
Tanzanian kanga (colourful African art themed textiles) manufacturers are known to import proverbs and other messages from the major languages across the Eastern African region for the messages carried on the textile.
Quoting a Japanese professor, Nigerian sage Dr Chinweizu sums up the importance of a strong economy in language preservation:
‘...my grandfather graduated from Tokyo University, all his notes were in English
...my father graduated from Tokyo University, half his notes were in Japanese
...I graduated from Tokyo University; all my notes were in Japanese….’
Lessons galore for all of Africa there.