In the past few months I have had to sort through some of the internal debates I had been having with myself on certain issues which in the whole look at interrogating our Afrikan identities, both as sub cultures and as a whole geographic culture. There is a plethora of sub themes to this of course that I will not get into here. In the first part I have already addressed the neo sub culture known as Afropolitanism and in this part I want to tackle the issue of language as an identity marker of Afrikaness that was addressed by one of my favourite Afrikan women writers and bloggers, Spectra Speaks.
In her post, Spectra unpacks the issue of Afrikan vernacular languages being used as the bar to determine one’s Afrikaness. She points out that Afrikaness is defined by a plethora of things and just because one does not speak an Afrikan language, it does not make them any less Afrikan than those that do. She also unpacks the reasons as to why some Afrikans today cannot speak their mother tongues. It is a well argued and balanced article and I certainly get where she is coming from. In fact, I can relate as I am an Afrikan, born and raised and still resides in Afrika and I speak and write better English than I do my vernacular languages Shona and Zimbabwean isiNdebele. My default setting is English. I dream in English, express myself best in English and when I phahla (communicate/pray to the emissaries of the Creator, my ancestors as I find myself on the path of ubungoma* ) I struggle with keeping to Shona or isiNdebele and often find myself reverting back to English.
I am often asked, be it here in South Africa or back home in Zimbabwe, if I have ever lived in the United Kingdom or the United States as I have what I can best describe as an Afropolitan accent. I have just recently returned from a trip to Zimbabwe and while there a few fellow Zimbabweans asked me where I am from. This reality of my life is due to various factors throughout my upbringing which include my families (both natural and adopted), some of the schools I attended, my social circles and probably television as well. I have never consciously worked at developing this accent and if anything, any effort to manipulate my accent has occurred in recent years where I have found myself trying to make myself sound less “foreign” and more “Afrikan”.
However, in spite of all of this, I am inclined to disagree a little with Spectra. I believe that language is a very important and necessary identifier. This is not to say of course that we should then use it as an excuse to ostracize each other but I feel that we as Afrikans should acknowledge language as a very important aspect of our identity that needs to be preserved. I feel that making excuses for ourselves, especially as adults, is unacceptable especially if we have not made any feasible effort to learn that very important part of our identity.
I appreciate that our knowledge and command of global/western languages is important to our survival in this world that is increasingly getting smaller and smaller but this should not come at the expense of our own languages that have as much a right to survive and participate in the world as any other language. Spectra rightly acknowledged the important role that languages play in preserving what little has survived of our true history on the continent but I feel that she did not do justice to this. A huge chunk of our history was either distorted, stolen or completely erased and the very little that remains is mainly kept in the tradition of oral instruction. The few secrets left are often found in the stories, proverbs and idioms that are often passed down from generation to generation orally and are often, or the impact thereof, lost when translated or over simplified in text which is also often translated.
For some Afrikans, the knowledge of languages like English or French is a sign of empowerment and makes them an equal deserving of respect. Why can our command of Afrikan languages not be as equally empowering? Upon starting on the book African Women Writing on Resistance edited by Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, Pauline Dongala, Omotayo Jolaosho and Anne Serafin recently, I was very disappointed to come across this piece by an Afrikan woman writer writing on “resistance”:
I remember crossing the border from Canada into the United States by car a couple of years ago. Since I was not Canadian, I was required to go through passport control, fill out forms and be finger printed and photographed as part of the US-VISIT security program. The officer who processed me, a white man, was patronizing and insulting. He spoke with exaggerated slowness, despite my Canadian accent, Western clothing and obvious ability to speak English…. Inside, I was fuming – ready to whip out degrees and a resume, thus proving my worth as an articulate educated woman of colour.
She qualifies herself and her right to respect based on her Canadian accent, her Western education and Western sense of style. Some might defend her and say that it is because she was in the U.S. and I will counter that by saying that I am sure that were she here on the continent she would still feel entitled to respect on the same grounds. Perhaps more entitled than the traditionally educated and traditionally clad Swazi woman with an excellent command of siSwati. My point is Afrikans are more ostracized, even by fellow Afrikans, for not speaking English or French or not adopting the appropriate accent than they are for not speaking vernacular. Afrikans will more readily ridicule a fellow Afrikan for speaking poor English than they will for speaking poor Chichewa. Poor English is often associated with stupidity and poor chiZezuru with affluence and progress. If knowledge and a good command of one’s vernacular language is good enough for the Japanese, the Italians and the English why is it not good enough for the Igbo, the Karanga or the Masai or any other Afrikan? Why are we fighting for the right to not know our own languages while retaining the right to identify as “proud” Afrikans instead of fighting for the survival of our native languages as an integral part of our identity as peoples who have for centuries lived in a world that has tried to beat, chain, institutionalize and preach the Afrikan out of us?
Language is also a very important bridge between us and our ancestors. Of course, because they are spirits, they can understand us still, in whatever language we communicate to them and they will also adjust their messaging accordingly but this often times takes away from the weight and the depth of the message or the lesson. Communication is by no means one dimensional and the messages from the ancestors are very important to our quest to realizing an empowered future as Afrikans so when they are dumbed down, their value is in turn diminished.
In his poem Lament of the Images, Nigerian writer Ben Okri speaks of forgotten tongues. The tongues of our ancestry which were expressed in a multidimensional and interconnected fashion. The disconnection of which, has resulted in the Afrikan losing a significant part of their identity because they no longer understand their own language, no longer see its importance and subsequently no longer know how to fully communicate their value, worth and identity to anyone they wish to address or anyone who dares to listen.
A lot of things mean infinitely more or have a much bigger impact in our vernacular languages, not because our vernacular languages are anymore special than anyone else’s but because when we speak them we speak from our whole, from the sum of all our parts and not just from parts of ourselves i.e. the mind or the heart. I invite fellow Afrikans who find themselves in a similar situation (to mine and to Spectra’s) to not be content with justifying and defending the reasons they do not speak “Afrikan” but instead seek to rectify the situation imposed on them by colonialism, slavery and migration by learning their native tongues and doing a better job of teaching them to their children than some of our parents and schools did.
* ubungoma is the Zulu term for the calling to become a traditional healer and spirit medium. One is born with it and not into it
© Doreen Victoria Gaura/ Colouredraysofgrey, 2013