Vol. II, Issue 3 (Summer, 1995): Languages of Africa

Table of contents

Editorial: Languages of Africa

by Prof. Gloria T. Emeagwali

Chief Editor of AfricaUpdate

What languages should African playwrights, poets, novelists and film producers use in their works? Is the use of French, English, Portuguese or German, elitist and deliberately exclusive of the generality of the African population? Have these languages been sufficiently Africanised on the continent to make them indigenous?

What of languages such as Swahili, Dyula, Mande and Hausa? Are they widely enough used to be formally adopted as the major languages? Is Namibia right to adopt English as one of its official languages? These are some of the various questions with which African policymakers, administrators and scholars have been faced from time to time.

In his film productions such as "Emitai," "Xala," "Gwelwaar" and "Le Mandat," the Father of African Cinema, Sembene Ousmane, has used mainly Wolof, Diola and French, whilst the Nigerian Wole Soyinka, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990, continues to use mainly English with very little remorse, and contrasts significantly with the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o. These are some of the issues which Dr. Bayo Ogunjimi explores in his article, "Currents on Language Debates in Africa," in this issue of AfricaUpdate, although Ogunjimi confines his discussion largely to literature.

Wescott's article entitled "Bini Names in Nigeria and Georgia," constitutes one of the significant references to what J. D. Elder has often referred to as "African Survivals" - indeed, a process of cultural enrichment which has involved a major inflow into the Caribbean and the Americas of African songs of fellowship and love, dirges and war songs as well as verbal and conceptual formulae, metaphoric structures and vocabulary. Maureen Warner-Lewis, in Guinea's Other Sons (Majority Press, 1991), has provided us with an in-depth scholarly analysis of these various aspects of language and literary interaction as they relate to African Trinidad. Holloway and W. Kellersberger Vaas have engaged in a similar project with respect to the United States, thus complementing researchers such as Wescott. See J. Holloway and W. Vass, The African Heritage of American English (Indiana University Press, 1993).

We have included in this issue a powerful prayer from John Tra in support of Africa and an article which grew out of one of our most innovative courses in the African Studies Program, African History Through Film. There is also a brief and incisive comment on Feminism in Africa by Professor Natalie Sandomirsky of S.C.S.U., who responds to a discussion initiated in the Spring issue of AfricaUpdate by Professor Ojo-Ade. We are delighted to include commentaries and academic critiques of this nature in Africa Update.

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Bini Names in Nigeria and Georgia

Summary of a lecture delivered at

Central Conecticut State University on April 19, 1995

by Roger Westcott

Professor Emeritus, Drew University

"Bini" is a formerly derogatory name given to the people of Benin City and the surrounding countryside, reportedly by their more numerous neighbors, the Yoruba of Ife and Oyo, Nigeria (the Bini call themselves Edo─a term which scholars now employ more broadly to include closely related ethnic groups such as the Ishan and the Urhobo).

Proper names are a human universal. Originally, all names had a transparent meaning. They were invariably derived from common words or phrases. In English, for example, the surname Smith is derived from the obsolescent noun smith, meaning "metal-worker." Each individual had only one name, which was by definition a forevalue, like Dick or Jane. The practice of giving an individual several names arose only in complex societies, as a result of either or both of two developments. One was increasing population, producing communities in which a number of people received the same name. In Medieval England, for example, a village in which there were two men named John might distinguish them by calling the one who ground grain John Miller and the one who made bread John Baker. The other development was class stratification, yielding elites who wanted their names to proclaim their superior status. In Benin, for example, chiefs and kings were awarded, in addition to their birth-names, praise-names like "The Leopard" or "The Greatest One."

Bini belongs to the most wide-spread of the five great language families of Africa. Variably known as Niger-Congo or Congo-Kordofanian, it contains most of the languages of coastal West Africa as well as all the Bantu languages of eastern and southern Africa, including Swahili.

In Nigeria, few Bini personal names are occupational, as so many European names are. And none are patronymic, like English Wilson ("son of Will"). Instead, most are descriptive, like the female name Evbu, "Misty," or the male name Odayon, "Palm-wine drinker." Some are local, like Ode, "road" (short for Abievbode, "born along the road"). Others are temporal, like Edegbe, "day-break" (meaning "born at dawn"), a name-type that is rare in English. Many Bini descriptive names consist not of single words but of short sentences like Osahon, "god hears (my prayer for a child)" - a name-type which, during the 17th century Puritan period, was common in English but has since then ceased to be popular.

In Nigeria, many Bini names were given not only to people but also to gods, tribes, rivers, and planets (these are technically known as theonyms, ethnonyms, toponyms, and astronyms, respectively, in contradistinction to personal names, technically termed authroponyms). When Bini war-captives were sold to European slavers, many were transported to the coast islands of Georgia and South Carolina. There they lost the conversational use of Bini, learning instead the slightly Africanized English known as Gullah or Geechee. But they retained their African names, which they used among themselves, alongside the Christian names of Eurasian origin by which they were known to whites.

Recent commercial development of the Georgia and South Carolina coast by chains of resort complexes has unfortunately forced many, if not most, Gullah-speakers out of their island homes. Such distinctively African linguistic traits as Bini personal names are now rapidly vanishing in North America.

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Currents on Language Debates in Africa

by Bayo Ogunjimi

Department of Modern Languages, Univeristy of Ilorin, Ilorin, Nigeria

In a book, New Englishes, recently published under the auspices of the British Council and launched in Nigeria (January, 1995), Roger Bowers, while reviewing the role and effectiveness of the British Council, raises some pertinent issues germane to language developments in Africa. In his article, "You Can Never Plan the Future by the Past: Where Do we go with English?," Bowers admits that the British Council is designated as Britain's principal agency for cultural relations with other countries. Central to its charter of obligations is the promotion and transformation of the English Language to a world language that can serve on the widest stage as the vehicle for the promotion of national values and heritage. He writes, "We have a vested interest in maintaining the roles of English as a language, and of British ELT as a trade and a profession." This, he confesses, sounds "dangerously like linguistic imperialism."

He argues that this nationalistic venture has to do with "the information explosion and the geopolitical realities that have placed America at the centre of world trade and politics." To him, the status of English around the world has "to do more with databases than with the Victorian novel, more with diplomacy than with Dickens, less to do with Chaucer and more to do with CNN." This is the cultural sphere of what Samir Amin regards as the globalization project of Western imperialism in Class and Nation, Historically and in the Current Crisis. Amin castigates the local bourgeoisie as "les déracinés," modelling their dally life style on that of "homo consumeris universalis." He decries what he regards as the caricature of bilingualism, where the ruling class uses the language of colonial masters, and the vast majority of the population speak the vernacular. He then probes "how can we speak of national culture under such conditions?"

It is in the context of this ideological imperative that the title of Bowers' article is paradoxical and should provide food for thought for sociolinguists, language developers, educational planners and the ruling class in Africa. The developmental structures in Africa at any epoch cannot be cultivated from their indigenous languages. Hence, the appropriateness of Bowers' question for the African nations, still groping under the strains of colonial languages─ "Where do we go with English, Portuguese, French, German etc.?" What constitutes the fear of Bowers should motivate African nations towards the process of linguistic decolonization. This ideological thrust permeates Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Decolonizing the Mind and his crusade against linguistic imperialism.

Tragically, the current posture of newly independent nations of Africa, e.g. Angola, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa, has not helped the situation. Joining the madwagon of old timers, they fail to utilize the advantage of their hard-won struggle to tackle the problem. They piously adopt their masters' voices as "lingua franca." It is more lamentable that Kole Omotoso in his book, Season of Migration to the South (1994) contradicts himself and advances the course of the Eurocentric school. He asks, "What role did the indigenous South African languages play in the liberation struggle? Was any of them ever used in the same way as Afrikaan to engineer the feelings of nationalism?"

This looks like an epileptic argument, loaded with a myopic reading of the history of apartheid. It is an argument that perceives the liberation struggle merely from an elitist point of view. It is an aberration to condemn now millions of black South Africans to the dustbin of history from the point of view of Omotoso's analysis. Of course, for an African intellectual who castigates oral traditions, it will be difficult for him to see how much of cultural elements via indigenous languages are mobilised for the liberation struggle. Scoring cheap intellectual points against the contradictions and dynamics of history is dangerous for human development.

Applying the atavism of the Prospero/Caliban syndrome, Omotoso argues that to check continuing underdevelopment in Africa, "Western knowledge will have to be made available in written form in mother-tongue." It is satirically ironic that he indirectly acknowledges Ngugi's position, which he jettisons. Language development in Africa through Omotoso's prescription still amounts to dependency, which ignores the potentials in African traditional technology, which can be excavated through indigenous languages. The hollowness of Omotoso's submission is proved by the pragmatic and empirical thesis of the Cameroun scholar, Paulin Hountondji.

In his article, "Scientific Dependence in Africa Today" (RAL, vol. 21, no.3), he posits, "The dependency of foreign language as a prerequisite for access to any research activity in most African countries is also an index of scientific dependence." He emphasizes research orientations in the Third World that "inquire exclusively into the peculiarities of our immediate environment." He advocates that universal knowledge should be given in languages that would make it possible for "the majority of our own people to share, appropriate, develop, and if need be, make a practical use of it." Such a proposal according to him "implies a sort of Copernican revolution and invites the formulation of a radically new language policy," at least in some African countries. Translation has been a new current in language debates in Africa. Translation can only be functional and pragmatic if it embraces researches that can excavate the traditional technological potentials of Africa.

Like Omotoso, Odia Ofemium is not ambitious about Ngugi's linguistic decolonization project, since ensconcing mother tongues is a programme towards confusion and anarchy in a multilingual and multicultural setting. While ethnic diversity creates a multilingual social formation, what Ofemium perceives as "foreignness" cannot be as alienating as it is with European languages. In spite of their differences, languages within the same geopolitical ecology have some archetypal link, which at least can be exploited positively in the functioning of the socio-culture. Ngugi's crusade needs intellectual accolades from others to mature.

The fears of Ofemium are allayed by Efurosibina Adegbija in his book, Language Attitudes in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Sociolinguistic Overview (1994). Adegbija advocates the strategies of using indigenous language in the context of what he calls "nationism" or official functions. Since European languages are used in official functions, the majority are ignorant, isolated from participation in government and general national life. National languages are sine qua non for national unity and pride. Adegbija acknowledges the role of languages in intercultural or interethnic communication. Adegbija's multilingual approach has an inherent strategy of aiding attitudinal detachment from foreign languages. His approach is innovative, tilting towards Ngugi's ideological position. He moves away from the atavism and professional academicism of hardcore patriarchs and promoters of "old and new Englishes" and other foreign languages.

Like Adegbija, Mbuleta campaigns for the empowerment of indigenous languages of Africa to enhance democratization, education and development. In the situation of linguistic colonization, democracy will still be a mirage in Africa. He posits that "mother tongue is not a sheer fancy, it is actually a matter fundamental for a child." He pleads, "Whatever you're doing, then don't take away the language of a child, it is her self-identity."

Debates on the language situation in Africa have shown the non-viability of hybrid language structures like pidgin, creole or varieties of "new Englishes." There is the need for a gradual if not a radical and drastic approach to the Adegbija's theory of attitudinal detachment from European languages through the use of indigenous languages, in sourcing and servicing innovations and dynamics in political, economic, social, scientific and technological spheres.

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Ma prière pour l'Afrique

by John Tra

Depuis bien longtemps déjà
Nous avons marché dans la honte
Et dans la tristesse.
Nous avons été de ceux qu'on a toujours exploité
Bien que n'ayant rien fait pour meriter toutes ces injustices.

Nos parents ont été deportés aux Ameriques
Nos mères ont été violées
Nos rois ont naivement detruit nos royaumes.
Beaucoup de nos frères ont perdu leur dignité
Et nos soeurs baissent les yeurs
Car elles ont perdu espoir.
Nôtre passé a ete voilé par l'exploitation
Et nôtre future semble plus nuageux

Aussi Père!
Je te demande,
Au nom de l'image
Par laquelle tu nous as formé,
Nous ton peuple!
La substance moelleuse de ta création,
Nous, dont l'histoire commence depuis la nuit des temps,
Nous, par lesquels l'endurance se définit,
Toi que le musulman appelle Allah
Que ma mère appelle Bali,
Que nos pères ont adoré de diverses manières.
Toi, dont l'origine se perd dans le firmament
Et qui se rit de la folie des puissances ici-bas

Oh Dieu createur,
Toi qui n'
appartient à aucune culture,
À aucun peuple,
Toi qui soutient le malheureux
qui soulage le peuple opprimé
Viens Père!
Et régénéré
Ton peuple Africain,
Peuple affaibli et éparpille.
Rassemble nous maintenant!
Dieu grand!
Donne nous de venir ensemble,
De former une nation, un peuple uni.
Donne nous Père,
De croire
Qu'en chacun de nous, tu as placé
Le grain de la création,
La force du changement,
Le don de la régeneration,
La puissance de la foi.
Père, s'il te plaît
Donne nous de croire!

Croire que
Demain nous appartient
Que l'adversité passera
Et que le beau temps viendra après la pluie
Donne nous de travailler encore plus
Pour donner à l'Afrique sa gloire d'antan,
Sa fierté jusqu'ici baffouée.
Lorsque toi, Dieu créateur,
Guerira ton peuple
Et le rendra prosperé
Et florissant, alors
Nous nous tiendrons
Sur la montagne de mes ancêtres,
Éleverons nos mains à ta gloire
Et te celebrerons.
Lorsque mes frères n'auront plus honte
D'etre appelés Africains
Alors tous ensembles,
Noirs africains,
Blancs africains,
Jaunes et rouges,
Trouverons dans toute epreuve
Une ocassion d'exhalter
La force de nôtre unité
Le genie de la melanine
Le pouvoir du savoir
Le bonheur du rythme
Et la reconciliation du passé
D'avec le present!

El schaddai,
Nous sommes ton peuple,
Le troupeau de ton paturage.
Viens maintenant et vivifié!
Et amen!

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How Francophone African Cinema Reflects Social and Political Reality

by Jeanne Doiron

C.C.S.U. Student

A paper presented for Hist 497: African History through Film

Independent film production in Francophone Africa utilises various themes that reflect specific socio-political views in response to the need for the decolonised African nations to search for their identity. The black African filmmakers regard film as a tool for political, social and cultural enlightenment with the ability to play an educating role in rebuilding African society. Their goal has been to portray an accurate, humanistic view of Africa instead of the false representations presented by major film producers outside of Africa.

The black African cinema is young bcause the French colonists repressed independent black African film production and censored film as measures to suppress any kind of resistance. French colonialism had a dramatic effect on the themes of new black African cinema: most of the films contain a message.

The African critic and historian, Manthia Diawara, classifies three main cinematic movements in African Cinema, namely, the return to the sources, the historical confrontation between Africa and Europe, and the social realist.

The Return to the Sources

The first classification provides affirmation of a pre-colonial African cultural identity. French colonialism introduced different values and Western ideologies to their African colonies, and now neo- colonialist Africa must seek out and reform the separate national cultures blended during colonisation as a source of pride. The ancient practice of the oral narrative was the heart of an effective system of spreading information throughout the community. We see an Africa without the involvement of foreigners, hear the myths of oral tradition, and explore the indigenous African philosophy, culture, history and value-system.

Yeelen ("Brightness." Souleymane Cisse, 1987, Mali). This is a film adaptation of a Bambara oral epic which is set in 13th century Mali. The young warrior, Nianankoro, is on an initiation quest across West Africa and comes into contact with different cultures and myths. He is pursued by his father, Somo, who uses his magic powers gained as a member of the feared Bambara secret society. Nianankoro wants to use his magic powers for the common good. To destroy the Komo cult he must use the wing of Kore (a secret Bambara tablet that encompasses the many levels of knowledge) and in doing so will destroy himself and his father. The earth is renewed in a blinding flash of light at the end of the film. The Bambara live closely with the cycles of nature and for them there is no end to the universe. Since they have a circular sense of time their future lies in the past.

Yeelen portrays the oppressive and unfit system of the Komo cult as a parallel to the current post- colonial system of government, crying for progress. Ancients and their ancient systems are generally shown as heroic and beautifully human. The film conscientiously portrays a realistic and symbolic vision of past culture.

Historical Confrontation between Europe and Africa

This genre sees history from the African point of view and is used for political education to raise the African people's level of awareness. Real historical figures are the heroes and heroines and provide examples of the parts played by Africans in shaping their own history. The historical narratives of the fight for liberation have a powerful impact on viewers. They relate to the African resistance against European colonialism. The western version of history is questioned by the anti-colonialist perspective which shows African heroism, organised resistance to colonialism and women warriors. In the Spring issue of AfricaUpdate, two films which fit into this category are discussed, namely, Sarraounia and Camp de Thiaroye.

Social Realist

Films in this category question and criticise contemporary regimes and are often concerned with the conflict between tradition and modernity following independence. This category of film looks realistically at contemporary society and the effects of both traditional and modern ways of life upon the African people. The protagonists are people from powerless groups (women, children, the unemployed) who struggle against an unjust system created by those in authority.

La vie est belle ("Life is rosy." Ngangura Mweze and Benoit Lamy, Zaire, 1987). This film is set in Kinshasha, the capital of Zaire. The city is well known for its popular music scene, and the protagonist of the film, Kourou, is played by Papa Wemba, himself a world beat musician. Kourou, like many others , leaves his village to go to the city and realise his dream of being a successful musician. But dreams are not easily found for the poor working class in the false glamour of Kinshasa. The new African bourgeoisie flaunt their material wealth and are unsympathetic to the poverty of the working class. Life is not so rosy for the mass of people, but the film celebrates the hope of life and achievement against all odds.

The goal of the black African filmakers to raise the consciousness of the audience and provide a means of reculturalization is beautifully achieved. Together these ideological themes reflect life in Africa and its growth towards economic and social justice.

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Africa and the Net

by Haines Brown, C.C.S.U.


There is a debate between those who favor a gradual evolution of existing telecommunication facilities in Africa (largely the telecommunications industry having a presence in Africa) and those who argue it is more democratic and cost-effective in the long run for governments to assume the responsibility to convert all African means of communication, including schoolbooks, into digital form that is potentially under public control.

This difference is reflected in a division of current discussions into a focus on the development of simple Fidonet telephone connections and Internet access by telepone lines in major urban centers on one hand and, on the other, the most modern forms of Internet connection by satellite.

Sometimes what is most practical and least expensive in the present situation only perpetuates an archaic technology and proves in the long run to be far more costly.

A network of low earth orbiting (LEO) satellites, already being put into place. They will link together computers equipped with only a four-watt transmitter, not much more than a cellular telephone. At issue is the cost of creating reliable ground telecommunications by 'phone lines relative to the availability of modest computers scattered in the countryside and able to reach satellites. Is the cultural stimulus of mass education to diffuse from Westernized urban centers or are cultural resources are to be distributed? Is the control over the content of these means of communication and mass education to be held by corporate interests largely outside Africa?

Radio frequency communication is appealing because it supports communications over great distance at relatively low cost, and a LEO satellite network makes radio comunications two-way, so that it could support a form of distance education in which the recipients are not passive, but activity chose global resources that seem compatible with local cultural traditions.

For the present state of African telecommunications, the Pan African Development Information System [PADIS] web page (URL: http://www.sas.upenn.edu/African_Studies/Padis/menu_padis.html) at the University of Pennsylvania provides access, i.a, to the Papers and Proceedings of the African Telematics conference (Ethiopia, April, 1995.)

For Internet service providers in Africa, use a web browser to connect to the Lips' List of Internet Access Providers in Africa (URL: http://www.best.be/NetCloak.acgi$/InfoDesk/iap/Africa.html). These are companies that sell Internet access via modem or other high speed connections in a number of African countries. The Lip's page also links to Randy Bush's "Connectivity with Africa," which is for the Fidonet nodes or UUCP connections available in Africa. Although Fidonet depends on land telephone lines, it is still the principal form of digital communications in Africa because it is relatively inexpensive and simple.

Internet access from a powerful high orbiting satellite is being implemented by the Vita Corporation where telephone service is either unreliable or not anticipated in the near future. Vita's communication program, VitaComm, will install and operate a gateway at the University of Cape Town, which will allow the Vita satellite to downlink messages to Internet sites. The University of Cape Town is the Internet hub for South African universities and already operates satellite command facilities. For further information, contact Joe Sedlak of Vita (jsedlak@vita.org).

A final note. The African Studies Association will next meet on 3-6 November, 1995. Tentatively there are five electronic technology panels. These include "Toward Increased Electronic Connectivity in Africa" (Chair is Richard Chowning chowning@acuvax.acu.edu) and "Integration of Computer Technology in Africa," (Chair is William Minter wminter@igc.apc.org).

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A Comment on Ojo-Ade, "Francophone African Women Writers

by L. Natalie Sandomirsky, PhD.

Professor of French, Southern Connecticut State University

In his article "Francophone African Women Writers: African Feminism and Womanhood," published in the spring 1995 issue of AfricaUpdate, Professor Ojo-Ade makes, in my view, two very valid points: he attracts the readers' attention to a jewel of African French-language literature: Mariama Bâ's Une si longue lettre (So Long a Letter); and he reminds us that to interpret a work of art without knowing and respecting the culture from which it springs, is usually equivalent to misinterpreting it.

I also agree with Professor Ojo-Ade when he notes that we are justified in considering Bâ's novel autobiographical, and that to read it in terms of current western feminism means to distort her message and to overlook her concern for human beings in general and for her society in particular. But I would like to go one step further and indicate that, contrary to critical acclaim which sees Bâ as "revolutionary," the novelist and her heroine remain solidly rooted in the African traditions illustrated in other French-language African novels.

It is true that Ramatoulaye, Bâ's spokesperson, defends her human rights as a woman, but if we look closely we find that she does so within the framework of a woman's place in the family.

While she is proud of her education and of being a teacher, she never focuses on her professional activities. Her struggles against certain supporters of traditional Islamic culture, who view a woman much as an object, are portrayed exclusively within the framework of her life as a wife and mother. It is not accidental that Bâ makes Ramatoulaye the caring mother of twelve children! Her emphasis remains on that ancestral African value, the family in its extended sense. It is within this context that she describes the life of her generation, sandwiched between narrowly conventional parents and educated, positively independent daughters.

Furthermore we should not forget that if Bâ's novel is new in that it is written by a woman, about women and primarily for women, Ramatoulaye and the questions she raises are not without precedent in African French-language novels, though written by men. Kany (Seydou Badian Sous l'orage), The Most Royal Lady (Cheikh Hamidou Kane, L'Aventure ambigue), Penda, N'Deye Touti Ramatoulaye, and young Ad'jibid'ji (Sembene Ousmane, God's Bits of Wood) to name just a few, certainly did not consider themselves "objects." They were proud, indispensable actors on the scenes drawn. In many ways Bâ's Ramatoulaye is their daughter. She is one step beyond her predecessors in terms of self-analysis as a woman, but she remains a link in the cultural chain.

It would be interesting to speculate where Bâ's works would have taken us, had she not died prematurely in 1981.

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Send comments to Haines Brown
brownh@ccsua.ctstateu.edu or Compuserve 70302,2206