I cannot speak a Zambian language nor am I capable of constructing a simple conversation in my private school taught Afrikaans. To the surprise of many, English is my first and only language. As a result, I have had to become accustomed to defending my ‘Africanness’ as questions of identity soon dictate the conversations of those who learn this about me. One of my best friends once remarked that I have a ‘whiteness’ in me. This comment left me sulking for the better part of the evening as I pushed for an answer as to how I could be any less African than her. As though to stress this point, only minutes later in a Skype conversation with her sister studying in India, I was asked how I could call myself African when language is seen to be one of the foremost cultural indicators. Given the tone of this article, I hope not to be misread as one who subverts the importance of vernacular. In fact, I admit to feeling heavily disadvantaged in being unable to communicate in any of my mother tongues. I envy the lithe way in which my aforementioned best friend switches between a colonial breed of English that her teachers love and a marketplace Shona that will make her future mother in law proud. I admit to feeling green with envy at the gossiping Swahili speakers on my bus route and exasperation at being ill equipped to communicate with my maternal grandmother. Language is cultural ammunition but I do believe, I am well equipped with other kinds of weaponry.
I thought it best to explore what academics had to say on language and cultural identity. Undeniably so is the importance of language to cultural identity. It is this connection that was heavily exploited by colonists. In realising the power of enforcing the colonial tongue upon the colonised, the system did a number on us all. Whilst the relevance of language to identity is unquestionable, Identity cannot purely be measured in terms of what we speak. If we become accustomed to such flawed logic, I might wonder then if the hearing or speech impaired are any less African than the rest of us.
My language deficiency is a by-product of colonial Africa.
On this subject, I have no qualms with playing the blame game. My language deficiency is a by-product of colonial Africa. I think it best to begin this narration with my grandparents. A dapper Malawian man meets a Shona woman from Zimbabwe on Zambia’s Copper Belt. In the dazzling way of way back then, he courts her and eventually seals the deal by placing a ring on her finger. They have four children together, who they raise in post-independence Zambia. These children, one who eventually becomes my dad are also robbed of the opportunity to learn their mother’s Shona, their father’s Chichewa or even Zambia’s very own Nyanja. Globalisation already begins its work in the home of Dennis and Sylvia Liwewe in 1960s Zambia. The binational couple communicate in English, the only language they have in common. As students in colonial Zimbabwe it is unsurprising that in their respective missionary schools, the two became fluent in the language of the colonists and the church. It is therefore not by design that their four children are born into an English speaking home.
I asked my dad what his excuse for being unilingual is. The taunts make it a necessity for English only speakers to be armed with a legitimate reason for their inability to speak an African language. The response for many of us is circumstance. Not only was the common language in his parent’s home English but, the colonial tongue permeated his school, institutions, media and church. My dad was educated in an English speaking school, in a Zambia still dealing with an inferiority complex. Peters who are now happy to be called Mutale, would deliberately adopt English names as a vehicle for maneuvering a bureaucracy still infatuated with its English ‘master’. The idea that success in those days was equated to English language fluency is not a unique one. A Nigerian activist whose work I read recently, echoes the notion that it would not have been possible to attain an education and secure decent employment without fluency in English. It is absurd to think that the quality of one’s life might be determined by their ability to grasp a language which they should never have had to speak in the first place but, this was the plight of many Africans.
I grew up in post-Apartheid South Africa. My home was surrounded by high brick walls adorned by electric wires and armed security guards. I lived in Johannesburg’s leafy northern suburbs were the only trace of isiZulu was in the accent of the petrol attendant (who might I add, also spoke English). I attended a private school were my only exposure to Afrikaans was in a classroom filled with English speaking whites, blacks, Asians and Indians. The teacher, an Afrikaans speaker, would spend a substantial amount of her teaching time instructing us, in English. This environment was hardly conducive for learning a South African language. Another bilingual friend once advised me to spend a year speaking Bemba. Total immersion is said to be the best way to come to grips with language and culture. I agreed with his sentiment but the idea remains unfeasible. How many of us can afford to uproot ourselves from our lives at school or work in order to learn a language? Would I be able to defer work and study such that I could move to a village in Zambia? Could I afford to further delay my career for extracurricular learning when I already had accumulated thousands of dollars in student debt that needed to quickly be resolved?
Curiosity led me to type ‘learn Bemba’ on a Google search. Unfortunately, my attempts did not inspire quite the same search results that ‘learn French’ did. So perhaps the question should not be whether or not I am African because my ‘Africanness’ is non-negotiable. Instead we should ask what those with the privilege of bi or multilingualism can do to assist unilingual who are willing to learn. Furthermore, how those privileged with knowledge of vernacular can preserve our languages for generations to come. Given the position history has left us in, learning African languages cannot be a responsibility that rests solely on a parentage who too were denied the opportunity. Instead it should become a part of the agendas of our educators and policymakers. Our young intellectuals might invest their talents into multimedia that says ‘Learn Swahili online’ and our entrepreneurs in ‘Learn isiZulu abroad’ programs that promote cultural exchange and feed African mouths. Those who deliberately circumvent opportunities to become fluent in their mother tongues can be left to their own devices. However we must be careful in the assumptions we make about others, particularly with no understanding of their history. I remain puzzled by the dichotomy that is language in Africa. Someone once remarked of how at a stadium full of African teams, African players stood up to sing national anthems that were in French, English and Portugese. Our work and thus my interest on this topic remains quite unfinished.