I would like to begin by offering my sincere apologies to African historians and ancestors who, throughout history, have distanced themselves from ideologies that are fundamentally opposed to the cultures of the continent. It is difficult for me to accurately describe, but if someone other than myself were to assess my previous attitude towards history, they would likely describe it as self-hate.
Through studying the actions of colonial freedom fighters in their fight against slavery, colonialism, neo-colonialism, and what I consider to be a form of neo-slavery, such as the Mau Mau movement in Kenya, I have come to understand that true self-liberation cannot be achieved without the utilization of one’s own language and history.
In this article, my aim is to draw attention to the importance of African languages and history, and the inherent incompatibility between these and the imported curricula. I hope that the readers approach this article with an open mind.
Firstly, it is evident that the transmission of core elements of one language from one generation to the next has significantly declined. By observing the linguistic environments of African languages, one can assess whether the knowledge and wisdom embedded in these languages still prevail today. This knowledge and wisdom are often intimately connected to cultural practices, such as ritual songs during boys’ circumcisions, which transport individuals to realms of sanity and awaken societal conscience, fostering understanding of the symbiotic relationships between people and animals.
These observations have led me to reflect on how crucial it was for our ancestors to raise their children by exposing them to their environment and the outside world through storytelling. Traditional storytelling, for instance, holds great potential in fostering societal cohesion, as children gather around the evening fire to listen to expert storytellers narrate tales that paint vivid mental images of wild animals, such as dragons, elephants, and lions. Although these animals may not be indigenous to a particular geographic territory, traditional tales allow children to visualize their characteristics, strength, and habitat. Through these performances of oral literature, children learn about the interdependence between animals and humans.
Many Gambian tales, for example, center around stories featuring the hyena and hare, illustratively highlighting the consequences of the hare’s wise decisions compared to the hyena’s foolish ones. Children, influenced by these stories, often attempt to imitate the hare in order to benefit from similar rewards. These stories may incorporate a combination of words, gestures, and even dances that progress from one plot to another. They provide children with moments of peace, allowing them to temporarily escape from any stress or worries they may have carried from the previous day. However, for elders who have outgrown the age of listening to the late evening storytelling or those who are too occupied to narrate these tales to children, these stories can evoke an incurable nostalgia.
Unfortunately, these stories have nearly been forgotten due to the widespread acceptance of European culture, resulting in the loss of the values that African languages once imparted. This process began during the era of slavery across the African continent. Over the years, European settlers in East Africa and European traders in West Africa suppressed native languages and their speakers, in order to impose their own languages on the existing ones. It can be said with absolute certainty that they were successful in West Africa. However, the patterns of learning and unlearning languages differ significantly between East Africa and West Africa.
West African elites, even during the era of independence, wholeheartedly embraced European languages and traveled primarily to learn English or French. In doing so, they unconsciously unlearned the languages upon which African cultures thrived. For instance, early-educated Gambians and West Africans have mastered French and English. Conversely, early East African elites, particularly in Kenya, promoted indigenous languages and institutions, openly opposing the imposition of foreign languages in the region. This resistance by the elites unleashed the spirit of the masses, although there is still much work to be done.
However, the colonialists, recognizing the growing impact of this resistance, moved to incorporate local languages, albeit in a refined version. They removed numerous local words from Kiswahili and maintained only abusive words, with the intention of making the native people unlearn and eventually forget their languages. This modified version of the language became known as ‘KiSettla.’ Those familiar with history would recognize this as a strategy employed under colonialism. In fact, colonialism in Africa can be categorized into two types: the protectorate type (practiced in West Africa) and the settler type (practiced in most East and Southern African countries). Thus, the term ‘KiSettla’ was given to a language that consisted solely of abusive words and those that aided the British in governing while eradicating existing cultures.
However, the European realization that teaching people abusive words was not conducive to effective governance (despite the fact that the native people had already abandoned the imported languages) prompted them to adopt a more liberal approach by reintroducing the full version of Kiswahili. To do the revival was but a burden and that had led to the early independence of East Africa. Europeans, thus, failed more in East Africa than in West because of the differential roles of the elites in the two regions.
Additionally, another significant challenge faced by West African languages is the assimilation of one language into another, which poses a threat to the survival of certain languages. For instance, Serer, the proto-language for many Wolof speakers, has experienced a significant decrease in speakers due to the dominance of Wolof. Sadly, destination languages such as Wolof and Mandingo are also merging in an undesirable manner with French and English.
Additionally, the teaching of African history, which I have been critical of in the past, should be encouraged to ensure the transfer of African wisdom across generations. History cannot be separated from language because the virtues, wisdom, and logic embedded within a language can only be transmitted through the teaching of history. When we neglect to learn and write about our own history, the virtues, wisdom, and logic that exist within our languages will dissipate entirely. This leaves us in the peculiar position of having to learn the cultures and languages of others. The fact that many English speakers in the Gambia take pride in speaking a language that is not their own is still a growing concern, as it fuels fears of the complete extinction of our cultural virtues. However, this pride did not originate in our time; it began long ago during the days of early English learners. My issue is not with adopting English or French, but rather stressing the importance of maintaining and expanding native languages while also acknowledging that technology’s evolving nature necessitates adjustments in language structures.
It is crucial to recognize that once someone labels something, they claim ownership over it, forcing others to contemplate that particular thing through the lens of the namer’s history. This undoubtedly erodes cultures and histories. This statement is made because there are many Africans, especially Gambians, who have been given European or Arabic names. For example, when someone pronounces ‘Pierre,’ it evokes a European connotation, which compels people to think in French and recall French history. Where does our history fit into this scenario? When you learn to speak the English language, English language teachers emphasize thinking in English, and encourage listening to and watching English media. This poses the greatest threat to our culture, as individuals are unconsciously encouraged to think in a language that is not their own, causing them to forget about their own cultures and histories.
Thirdly, based on the picture I have painted above, one may already conclude that African history, languages, and the imported curriculum are incompatible. Numerous African nations have granted significant freedom within their education systems, introducing subjects that are only applicable in the West. In such cases, I do not owe any apologies to those who advocate for Civic education as a subject. Encouraging history and native languages stands in direct opposition to the values derived from teaching Civic education, which aims to implant European values in Africa. Haven’t our ancestors been teaching good values? Haven’t our existing cultures recognized the rights of the youth and the elderly? What role do religions play in African nations? To answer these questions, one must delve into history and uncover how our ancestors stood to protect not only the rights of people, but also the rights of soil organisms through totems and taboos. One of these taboos is forbidding the pouring of hot water onto the ground because it awakens one’s ancestors. While this may sound somewhat absurd, within it lies tremendous wisdom that hot water kills soil organisms.
In conclusion, repatriation to African cultures involves understanding our history and languages, as well as being aware of factors that contradict African cultural values. The teaching of African history is a vital pillar for self-awareness and reviving cultures that are on the verge of being lost. To achieve this revival, the elite sector of the population must resist the intrusion of foreign cultures and find ways to shield offensive cultures from the public eye. This is not to foster enmity between the West and Africa, but rather to ensure the survival of one’s culture in a diverse world of languages. However, it is also important to note that Pan-African leaders who resist Western ideologies have sometimes become tyrants against their own people in the most brutal manner. This is a significant theme in my upcoming book ‘Who Killed Bilkisa?’ where the whipped and weary workers find support from Bilkisa and her crew through a song: “Freedom for our people, No bloodshed in the name of resistance to the West, Freedom for the future. A race against dictatorship, Pan-Africanism resists imperialism but also calls for an end to Afro-phobia from Afro-leaders. Freedom for the laboring masses, And freedom for the future.”
Furthermore, another song resonates: “Our mothers are not witches, Our fathers are not wizards, They may be poor, But they are our parents of this day. Our women are not mere objects, They hear, they see, they think, They decide the clothes they wear.”
Therefore, in order to ensure successes in teaching African history, promoting African languages, and reviewing curriculum, elite sector of the population requires to stand against forces that undermine these important pillars for Africa’s development.