Occasionally, we make the mistake of assuming that we have successfully quelled the silly arguments in favour of language (and attendant cultural) homogeneity as a substitute for the current plurality of worldview on the African continent. Last week, I read another one of those articles, this time continuing the Nwaubani line of thought that seeks to keep local languages like Hausa, Igbo or Yoruba away from literature because they are regional. Nwaubani the writer, had written in a disturbing New York Times opinion piece that “I should say that Ngugi remains one of my literary sweethearts, and he’s hardly a conformist. Many fans have extolled his brave decision to write in his mother tongue, Kikuyu, instead of English. If he truly desires a Nobel, I can’t help but wish him one. But I shudder to imagine how many African writers would be inspired by the prize to copy him. Instead of acclaimed Nigerian writers, we would have acclaimed Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa writers. We suffer enough from tribal differences already. This is not the kind of variety we need.” Many people have responded to that slight. Mine is here.

Now this other new article stretches the argument to even more ridiculous lengths arguing that homogeneity (my own word to describe what he prescribes: putting English language first because of its role as a language of governance and communication) is far more preferable alternative in literature because we do not have a culture sufficient to bear the burden of expressing our own thoughts. Nothing could be more preposterous. I’m surprised that the New York Times hasn’t published the article yet. Listen to him:

One very important point we all tend to overlook is that what constitutes a strong culture and language are the conglomerate strength and power of their civilisation. By civilisation, I mean the economy, technology, politics, religion, and commerce. Our civilisation is either borrowed or enforced. No language can strongly support a culture that lacks the commensurate strength to sustain it.”

What he was trying to say, of course, is that since much of Africa has been colonized and given a new language, the old languages have failed in their duties to defend the worldview, and should therefore be trashed. I’ve never heard a sillier argument in self flagellation. He continues:

The English language dominates modern technology, market, economy, and even religion. Africa does not have any strong indigenous religion; no indigenous technology to compete with Western ones, no strong economies and markets. So, how do we expect to build a strong literary heritage that will identify with our weak indigenous languages without recourse to the cultural realities of our present existence?”

And more:

What Ngugi and his supporters have failed to understand is that language is arbitrary. A stone is a stone in whatever language one calls it. The picture is the substance of language. So, whether one calls it stone in English or in another language, the same substance is conveyed. There’s a universality of substance in every language and that is what the writer should strive to communicate.”

A stone is definitely not always a stone. It’s either a pebble or a rock and few languages are capable of expressing it in the same way. What’s more, the literary history of much of Africa’s past is oral, is rich, is old and has as much value for humanity as any other. To insist that they don’t deserve expression just because of a colonial conquest must be what Fela called the second slavery. This article, like Nwaubani’s original piece, missed the mark. It’s crux, which argues that English language should be used because of its superiority of a backing culture, is absurd. “Anyone trying to write and reach a national Nigerian audience would be quite unserious writing in any of the native languages.” This makes no sense. Neither does this: “Rather than begin to romance with the cold smoke of the past, African writers should immerse themselves into the spirit of the times and begin to use the available tools in their disposal to call humankind back to our common humanity.”

Don’t get me wrong. Writing in English has come to stay. What we should object to is this thoughtless insistence that writing in any other language amounts to romancing with “the cold smoke of the past.” What? This is the exact argument that has turned more than half of the current generation of Nigerians into partial monolingual morons who who speak only English language, AND DON’T SPEAK IT WELL! What exactly is wrong with writing in a non-national language? Has writing in the native language removed anything from the depth and reach of the literatures of D.O. Fagunwa, or J.F. Odunjo, or has writing in Hausa removed from the influences of the many Hausa literatures said to be popular in Northern Nigeria? What of Onitsha market literatures that are written in mostly market language accessible to even the most uneducated readers? The argument that Nwaubani makes about having everyone write in English in order to foster national unity rather than tribal identities fails because literature is an expression of self first before it becomes a commercial product meant to reach a wide audience. A trubadour will sing in the language of his audience first before he thinks of others. This is not tribalism. It is self expression.
For, no matter how much we apply ourselves to English, we may never be able to speak it like a native speaker. Language carries with it not just the tools of expression, but a worldview that you cannot share even if you share the tools of expression. I speak English, but it’s not mine. If I speak and write Yoruba, or Igbo, better to express my worldview, it is the best medium in which I should write. As much as English is a uniting language, our inability to use our own languages in literature today will one day come back to limit even our use of English to express the basic realities of our everyday life. The fact is that the world- view from which we derive our identities are couched in the language with which we express them. We need as much literature in English published in Nigeria as literature published in local languages, or else, when the local languages eventually die off, we will find out that English is not sufficient to rescue our thought and identity, and we’d have lost it all. The problem is that then, it would be too late to do anything about it. Or maybe it already is.

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