I watched the PBS documentary Language Matters last night and was particularly struck by the efforts of native Hawaiians to preserve their language. They believed that without their languages, they would cease to exist as a distinct people.

While we have been stripped of our ancestral tongues, we, like any other people require a language that affirms our culture and our humanity. A language reinforces a sense of identity, a sense of tradition, even a sense of political destiny–this is why languages are such a prominent part of many nationalist movements around the world. Language revitalization has been a prominent feature of the efforts of many groups engaged in campaigns of self-determination such as the Basque (France and Spain), Maori (New Zealand), Welsh (UK), and so on. Language becomes a way of not only marking group identity, but of reinforcing the notion that a people has a shared history and destiny distinct from other cultural groups.

While Africa is home to more language diversity than any other place on Earth, and our ancestors doubtlessly spoke a myriad of languages, most African languages are more or less ethnic languages–that is the language of a single group. The exception to this are languages that have become diffused as the second language of a wider population. Some languages have become “lingua francas” within a single territory. Asante Twi and Wolof are examples of ethnic languages that have become diffused in their respective territories, Ghana and Senegal respectively.

Kiswahili and Hausa on the other hand have become diffused internationally, as each is spoken across territories and ethnic groups. Hausa speakers can be found in Nigeria, Niger, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Chad, and Burkina Faso. According to Ethnologue, approximately fifteen million of Hausa’s over forty million speakers speak it as a second language

As the official language of Tanzania and Kenya, and as a second language in parts of Uganda, Mozambique, Congo, and elsewhere Kiswahili is perhaps the most effective example of an African language that has become more or less ethnically neutral as the vast majority of its speakers use it as a second language (approximately eighty million of its estimated ninety eight million speakers according to Ethnologue). Moreover, its adoption by many speakers (or aspiring speakers) in the African diaspora, and its common association with  Pan-Africanism adds a degree of conceptual or ideological import to Kiswahili that is absent in the broader perceptions of other African tongues. For instance, its association with various African liberation movements as reflected in common slogans such as “Uhuru sasa” (Freedom now), “Tutashinda bila shaka” (We will conquer without a doubt), “Elimu kwa kujitegemea” (Education for self-reliance), and terms such as kujichagulia (self-determination), imani (faith), ujamaa (familyhood), umoja (one-ness or unity) and so forth all capture the degree to which Kiswahili has been embraced as a language of liberation.

For these reasons and perhaps others, Kiswahili is perhaps best positioned to serve as a primary African language in the diaspora. It is not to say that other languages should not be studied. They should. The growing proliferation of Yoruba and Akan among diasporan Africans is both encouraging and interesting, so too the study of mdw nTr (Medew Netcher), the language of ancient kmt (Kemet) or Egypt. Yet despite this, Kiswahili’s broad diffusion, diversity of learning resources, development as a suitable tool for technical communication, ability to express ideas that are philosophically and conceptually germane to African cultures and communities, and relative neutrality make it a very attractive and viable candidate as the primary African language of the diaspora, in addition to being an auxiliary language for the African continent itself.

One feature of the film Language Matters was the strategy adopted by native Hawaiians to diffuse their language in the 1960s and 70s. They focused on educating small children to speak native Hawaiian. Linda Tuhiwai Smith has discussed a similar initiative among the Maori that centered on children as language learners given their facility for language acquisition. I believe that such a strategy is highly instructive for Africans in America that are desirous of seeing an African language such as Kiswahili becoming more widespread. While the Black Power era saw the diffusion of Kiswahili among Africans in America, the depth of this diffusion has been mostly limited to single terms and phrases. Thus it is not uncommon for someone to have knowledge of greetings such as “Habari gani?” (What’s the news?) or “Hujambo?” (How are you?), or to use statements of affirmation or negation such “ndiyo” (yes), “hapana” or “la” (no), or even “sijui” (I don’t know), to refer to familial roles such as baba (father), mama (mother), kaka (brother), or dada (sister), or to refer to concepts using the language such as the “Nguzo Saba” (the “Seven Principles”, as created by Dr. Maulana Karenga), “asili” (“essence” or “seed” as popularized by Dr. Marimba Ani’s book Yurugu), and so forth. What has been lacking has been an effective diffusion of knowledge sufficient to promote greater fluency in the language.

The movement from rudimentary linguistic knowledge to greater fluency begins with the requisite will and desire, and continues with the formation of a suitable institute devised to carry forth this charge on as broad a scale as possible. Such an institute can then coordinate the development of a body of highly-trained individuals who have attained a high degree of fluency in the language, the development of curricula for different age groups in the community, and the creation of an educational infrastructure in the form of classes and institutes. From this nucleus can also spring forth literature and other media designed to aid language learning. While the first item requires a substantial investment of time and effort, the second requires an understanding of effective language learning strategies for children and adults. The third necessitates a range of resources, both technical and spatial enabling knowledge to be diffused. For instance, the use of the internet as a vehicle of language learning cannot be understated. Dr. Obadele Kambon’s Abibitumikasa has become the premier African language learning institute with courses in Asante Twi, mdw nTr, Wolof, Yoruba, Kiswahili, and other languages. This resource and others should be effectively utilized. In the Chicago-area groups such as The Swahili Institute of Chicago , the Kemetic Institute of Chicago, and the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations Midwest Region are fine examples of what grassroots language institutes can aspire to accomplish (the latter two promote the learning of mdw nTr). Each of these organizations has also developed teaching and learning materials.

In closing, the diffusion of African languages in the Americas in fact is an act of cultural reclamation, a decolonization of the language of those whose estrangement from their ancestral homeland has made the quest for linguistic empowerment all the more fervent. The last fifty years illustrate the degree to which African languages have served the ends of spiritual enlightenment, scholarly inquiry, political education, and casual discourse. This process, despite its uneven outcomes to date, has been one that remains pregnant with possibility as it offers a path towards a potential decolonization of the African mind, a simpler means towards international communication within the global African community, and a mechanism to engage more fully with the deep thought of African culture as these are conveyed by language. As such language is a vital component in the process of Re-Africanization, but its effective utilization towards such an end can only be maximized via a greater degree of organization than what has yet transpired.

To this end, the creation of a Taasisi ya Kiswahili kwa Waafrika Merikani or a Swahili Institute for Africans in America will be a necessary step in this process. This must be followed by the creation of a scholarship fund and institutional connections to facilitate the training of a first generation of instructors. The third stage will be the creation of a body of instructional resources followed by the establishment of a network of instructional vehicles in the form of Saturday schools, after-school programs, rites-of-passage programs, and other mechanisms to teach primarily children, in addition to adults. This fourth stage should occur parallel to the fifth, which is the diffusion of literature (i.e., comics, fashion magazines, political education materials, scientific articles, art publications, news organs, and so on in the language so as to utilize it as a conduit of information. These steps are, I maintain, a process that can lead to both the institutionalization of Kiswahili (or any other African language) in the African diasporan community and its diffusion over the span of time.

Africans in America and the decolonization of language

Post navigation


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.