Most Africans agree that there are enormous benefits in African unity. One such benefit is the integration of people who have been divided by colonial borders but who have similar value systems and ways of life. However, they also recognize that when they meet they can hardly communicate without turning to an alien language that often does not carry the sensibility of their shared values. Hence, if Africans are serious about asserting their humanity and pursuing unity, liberation, and integration, then the promotion and preservation of our indigenous languages must become a priority. Here is why.
For starters, indigenous languages are furnitures of the indigenous minds that are spiritual gifts of a deep kind. They are meaningful signs from the depths of the human soul. That is why every language is a sign language. In text, the shapes that we scribble on a surface to signal messages and meanings are spiritual artefacts. In speech, the sounds that we throw into the air to send messages and meanings are soul-signs that transmit our very humanity. In other words, a people are their language. It is no accident that in all human creation stories, including the biblical one, there is emphasis that ‘in the beginning there was the word,’ language that preceded human existence and that also made human existence superior to other existences. Human languages are at once human creatures and human creators. People produce and are produced as identity groups by their languages. The Zulus, for instance, are Zulus because of the Zulu language as much as the Zulu language is because of its Zulu owners and performers. Languages are performances of identity, being and belonging of a people. As such, something big dies in and about a people when their language is compromised in any way.
Secondly, the enduring suppression of indigenous African languages is a monumental part of the unfinished assignment of African liberation. A people may not be free if their cultural being and identity remain suppressed. For Frantz Fanon, for instance, a people’s language is part of the “weight of a civilisation” of which their being and belonging are part. Language does not exist and walks alone on some legs but is carried by human bodies. Languages are embodied, performed, and enworlded by living people. To obscure a language, therefore, is to suppress a part of humanity, and that is a crime against that part of humanity.
Moreover, language, being, and belonging may not be separated. Something about Africa is short with the continued minimisation of African languages in African public affairs. The fact that African public affairs are not conducted in African languages but in colonial languages not only speaks to the colonial humiliation and dehumanisation of Africans as the conquered of Empire but also undermines the quest for meaningful liberation. As Fanon correctly observed, “the business of obscuring language is a mask behind which stands the much bigger business of plunder” of a people’s resources. The fact that African languages remain obscure in Africa means the triumph of coloniality and the cultural imperialism that accompanies it and ultimately facilitates the continued exploitation of the continent.
Thirdly, a people’s language is not only an integral part of their being and belonging but also a central ingredient of their power and values. No successful integration can occur without reclaiming that power and these values. The suppression of indigenous African languages that has continued in post-colonial Africa is indicative of the disempowerment of Africans that remain alienated from their cultural history, identity and values. In terms of time categories, we are told of precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial Africa as if the continent was created by the colonial experience. African sub-regions are still called Francophone, Lusophone, and Anglophone Africa. Africa is named after European languages and identities, trapped in colonial signifiers as if the continent has no existence outside colonial history. African countries are also ordered to embrace Western values as if they have no values of their own. All of this begs the question: On what basis do countries without history, identity, and values of their own pursue integration? Do we pursue integration as colonial creations or as people whose commonalities – in terms of shared history, identity, and values – we seek to promote?
At any rate, there is the political and cultural work of building indigenous African languages into languages of knowledge, education, and professionalism. That work must be followed by Africans of different countries and locations actively learning each other’s languages to give them the cultural and political currency that they require to be unifying media of communication. An example that with political will, any language can be built into a language of culture, education, and power is ironically provided by the Afrikaans language, a language of apartheid. It is knowledge in the public domain that in 1903 Afrikaans was introduced in primary schools. By 1913 the dialect had grown to a language that was found in high schools. In 1925, Afrikaans was in the courts and in Parliament. The Afrikaans bible was published in 1933. All of this shows that any African language can be built, cultivated, and circulated. It is Pan-African homework for Africans to build their languages, give them political and cultural stamina, and use them to unite the continent.
The continued valorisation of colonial languages in Africa, a crime against a significant part of humanity, is mainly based on the colonial myth that Western culture, including language, is the culture of civilisation and modernity. That myth has been exploded by such countries of the Global South as China and Singapore that have managed to modernise while decolonising and centralising their indigenous languages.
Africans need to develop their indigenous languages into languages of modernity and prosperity or remain enveloped in the tyranny of colonial languages. African languages, in other words, matter. Indigenous languages together with indigenous knowledges, values and histories are part of the package of African liberation that is yet to be delivered in postcolonial Africa. And as long as Africans that hold different mother tongues continue to look at each other as tribes, aliens, and outsiders in Africa, the integration and liberation of the continent will remain elusive.