One of the highlights of my participation in the recently concluded Ake Arts and Book Festival was at a panel I moderated titled “Teacher Don’t Teach Me Nonsense: Taming Colonial Tongues”. In that panel were Mukoma wa Ngugi (writer and son of prominent African writer and perennial Nobel favourite Ngugi wa Thiong’o), Kei Miller (a Caribbean novelist and poet), and Eghosa Imasuen (author and publisher from Kachifo Farafina). Our task was to examine the use of languages in contemporary fiction by African writers, perhaps with hopes of prescribing a better dynamic for the future. It was during that panel that this new Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature was first announced, a prize that broke new grounds for being the first major prize on the continent that awards literature in indigenous languages.
The discussion on the panel had focused on this issue itself, examining the complexities of contemporary language use and the logic in the argument of those who insist that English has already taken root as one of Africa’s languages. If not the largest, certainly the one with the most reach around the continent. But nagging us back to the importance of using languages native to the continent in literatures documenting hopes, aspirations and experiences on/of the same continent, was the embarrassing lack of a large industry among intellectuals for publishing in the native language. Excepting Miller (who is from Jamaica) whose first and only language is English and its creolized cousin (the Jamaican patois), the argument eventually coalesced into the diametric poles of Ngugi’s description of the use of English in the third world “metaphysical empire” and Eghosa’s acceptance of English (this time of the Nigerian variation) as a first and most intimate language. It’s an old debate, featuring Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe. I highly recommend this video too, as well as this review by Mukoma’s of the recently published Africa 39, anthology.
Why do Nigerian publishers shy away from publishing in Yoruba, or Igbo, or Hausa, to start with the country’s biggest languages? According to Eghosa, the publisher on the panel, it has to do with the nature of the market. In the Q&A, Bibi Bakare (publisher at Cassava Republic) rejected this premise, citing the case of Onitsha market literature and a number of locally produced literature in northern Nigeria that have sold out in the hundreds of thousands through mostly informal means. Unfortunately, the panel ended too abruptly for the discussion to thrive. The consensus however appeared to have favoured the resurgence of literature in African language through a conscious and concert effort by those concerned. English, after all, isn’t going away anytime soon. It will never have a reason to worry about any threat to its existence. We can’t say the same of the indigenous languages of the continent.
I have just watched a music video by Nigerian hip-hop rave of the moment, Olamide, whose fusion of Yoruba slangs, proverbs, and codes with sparse English and pidgin English words stands out in a unique genre, made famous by the now late DaGrin a few years ago. What the success of people like DaGrin, Olamide, Olu Maintain, etc teach us with respect to language is that the market for local language in art production is still a booming one. It will only take the courage to take the risk, and the conviction to persist. The market usually responds to novelty and dynamism more than they do compliance and monotony. The inauguration of the Mabati-Cornell Prize is just the start. We need even more of those types of incentives for literature in African languages, for works in translation, for bold new experiment s that reject the bland consensus that English has won. We are richer for more ways of expression, not just in style and content, but also in language. Our literature (and, most importantly, our imagination) and our cultural experiences will be the richer for it.