From the Editor’s Keyboard

African Renaissance Begins with Languages

6 April 2006 at 04:45 | 340 views

"The imperialist West went about subjecting the rest of the world to its memory through a vast naming system. It planted its memory on our landscape by renaming it. The great East African lake known by the Luo people as Namlolwe became Lake Victoria."

Sunday Times (Johannesburg)

By Ngugi Wa Thiong’o

’BLACK consciousness is the right of black peoples to draw an image of themselves that negates and transcends that drawn by those who would weaken them in their fight for and assertion of their humanity.

It seeks to draw the image of a possible world, different to and transcending the one drawn by the West by reconnecting itself to a different historical memory and dreams.

But consciousness resides in memory. Even at the very simple level of our daily experience we get excited when we visit, say, the place in which we were born, and recall the various landmarks of our childhood. Sometimes we feel a sense of loss when we find that the place no longer holds any traces of what it once meant to us.

If the site of dreams, desire, image and consciousness is memory, where is the location of memory itself? Memory lies in language.

The imperialist West went about subjecting the rest of the world to its memory through a vast naming system. It planted its memory on our landscape by renaming it. The great East African lake known by the Luo people as Namlolwe became Lake Victoria.

They also planted their memory on our bodies. Ngugi becomes James. Noliwe becomes Margaret.

And, most important, they planted their memory on our intellect through language.

Writers, artists, musicians, intellectuals and workers in ideas are the keepers of memory of a community. What fate awaits a community when its keepers of memory have been subjected to the West’s linguistic means of production and storage of memory - English, French and Portuguese?

We have languages, but our keepers of memory feel that they cannot store knowledge, emotions and intellect in African languages. It is like having a granary but at harvest you store your produce in someone else’s granary.

The result is that 90% of intellectual production in Africa is stored in European languages.

The relationship between African languages and European languages as producers and storehouses of memory has been at the heart of the struggle for a sovereign consciousness.

Since 1994, Thabo Mbeki has elaborated on the theme of a renaissance and his 1996 address, I Am an African, with its depiction of this "African" as containing in himself multitudes, a truly renaissance persona, has justifiably become a classic.

However, there has been a virtual silence over the relationship between language and renaissance.

Language, though often seen as a product and reflection of economic, political and cultural order, is itself a material force of the highest order. That is why we must ask: is an African renaissance possible when we, the keepers of memory, have to work outside our own linguistic memory?

The European Renaissance involved not only the exploration of new frontiers of thought, but also a reconnection with memory rooted in ancient Greece and Rome. In practice it meant a disengagement from the tyranny of hegemonic Latin and discovery of their own tongues.

The keepers of African memory could do worse than usefully borrow a leaf from that experience.

No renaissance can come out of state legislation and admonitions, but states and governments can and and must provide an enabling democratic environment and resources.

In this respect, South Africa has to be commended for coming up with a very enlightened language policy. Governments can help by policies that make African languages part of the languages of social mobility and power, currently a monopoly of European languages.

But renaissance can only spring from the wealth of imagination of the people, and, above all, from its keepers of memory.

We must produce knowledge in African languages and then use translation as a means of conversation in and among African languages. We must also translate from European and Asian languages into our own, for our languages must not stay isolated from the mainstream of progressive human thought.

But how can we address our present predicament where knowledge produced by sons and daughters of Africa is already stored in European linguistic granaries?

These works, like stolen gems, must be retrieved and returned to the languages and cultures that inspired them in the first instance. The task of restoration is at the heart of the renaissance project.

We have, for instance, three Nobel Prize winners in literature - Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer and Naguib Mafouz. Why shouldn’t their works be made available in the languages and cultures of the continent which nourished their imagination? Why should the work of Steve Biko not be available in African languages? What of all the corpuses or oeuvres of all African intellectuals? What of the works of the two other black Nobel winners, Derek Walcott and Toni Morrison?

If we can scout European museums, asking, and even demanding, the return of our precious works of art, why not also the restoration of the precious work of written thought?

Some governments have begun to come up with positive policies on African languages. There are a few countries, Ethiopia for instance, where writing and intellectual production in African languages has always been taken as the norm.

Is the task in front of us, that of the recovery of the African historical memory and dreams, too difficult a task?

There is no way out of this. Keepers of African memory must do for their languages what all others in history have done for theirs.

As we set about disengaging from the tyranny of the bourgeois Western memory and reconnecting with that contained in the living matter of our languages, let the words of Mbeki echo determination in our hearts and strengthen our resolve: "Whoever we may be, whatever our immediate interest, however much we carry the baggage from our past, however much we have been caught by the fashion of cynicism and loss of faith in the capacity of the people, let us err today and say - nothing can stop us now." ’

This is an edited version of a speech by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, (photo) distinguished professor of English and comparative literature, University of California Irvine, given at the 4th Steve Biko Annual Lecture in Cape Town

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