|Bottle-necks of Development in Africa (HABITAT)|
At independence many African States adopted imperial European languages as official languages and all official communication (in the mass media, courts, administration, education etc.) is conducted in those languages. These languages are formally learnt in the classroom. They are the medium of instruction and communication on school compounds and children are encouraged to speak it at home. That way, it is hoped, students become more proficient and follow instructions of other lessons which are also given in the same foreign languages. Therefore, from the onset, children are cut off from much of family and community conversation and exchanges. The children gradually become alienated from the community's culture and values and identify with the culture and values of the foreign people about whom they read and talk.
People equate education and progress with the ability to speak and write in these languages and entry into the job market, or upward social mobility, is virtually impossible without the ability to read and write in them. Yet only a small number of the African elites speak and write fluently and competently in these languages, even at the University level. This is a small group which communicates with itself, minimizes local languages and culture and feels proud speaking foreign languages and mimicking foreign cultures and values. By so- doing this class of Africans control information which reaches their people. They deliberately keep them from sharing or receiving information in their languages, and therefore, keep them largely uniformed and ignorant about matters that affect them but which are communicated through press. It is partly, fear of an informed civil society which forces governments to ban local pamphlets and newsletters in local languages. They consider them subversives.
For example on 23rd February, 1995 the Kenya government banned a pamphlet titled, Inooro which was published by the Catholic Diocese of Murang'a. It was the only source of national news in a local language with a circulation of 15,000 copies which changed hands several times in the rural areas. Similarly, Mwangaza Trust which was producing its information on democratization and methods of empowering the civil society in 9 local languages was threatened with a government ban. It fought in a Court of Law for survival but eventually succumbed to pressure and folded up. Why would a government and the African elites prove unwilling to allow their people to communicate in their own mother tongues?
In a continent where illiteracy is high, communication technology sparse, transport slow and inadequate and mass media is censored by the State, use of foreign languages further marginalizes the majority of the indigenous populations and greatly reduces their capacity to participate in the development agenda. There is something grossly wrong with a government officer who addresses a group of illiterate rural folks in a foreign language! As a recent article by Ail Mazrui noted, "English in Africa for example, has both weakened and stultified indigenous languages by marginalizing them in national life and in the education system". He continues, "The huge imperial prestige enjoyed by the English language distorted educational priorities, diverted resources from indigenous cultures towards giving English pre-eminence, and diluted the esteem in which indigenous languages were held". This, Mazrui noted in the article, has been at a high price of psychological damage to the colonized African.
Most Africans seem to have accepted that their own languages are fundamentally inferior to the English language and assume linguistic fatalism. Unfortunately, that fatalism also affects cultural and spiritual experiences and values. Denied pride in anything indigenous a person can only degenerate into a shuttle that anyone can influence and manipulate. That is particulary true in spirituality and cultural values. The damage this experience has in Africa is devastating. Perhaps the time has come to give it a hard look and ask relevant questions.
The inability of a country to communicate effectively with itself ought to be recognized as a major obstacle to development, especially at this time of communication revolution. Inability to communicate effectively disempowers people, gives them an inferiority complex, kills their selfconfidence and destroys creative energy. It minimizes indigenous knowledge and expertise, make people perpetual students of the glnrified foreign ways of life and encourages them to despise their own culture and values. Perhaps it requires some courage to admit that European languages, so highly valued in the world, may not be essential for all the 1/2 billion Africans and that may in fact be a bottle-neck to their development and participation in national affairs.
The few elites and vestiges of former colonial powers may be excused for believing that development is impossible without these foreign languages. But so did those who believed in Greek, Latin and French ( the former language of diplomats and royalty). Insisting on foreign languages for universal functional literacy in Africa is tragic because literacy, use of own language and culture are very important in human development and in cultivating self- worth, self-confidence and self-pride.
Is there a people in the world today who are proud of who they are, who have escaped under-development and poverty without a unifying language, a basic cultural heritage and spiritual philosophy inherent and indigenous to that people? How proud would the English be if they were forced to speak French or German and vice versa? Why should Africans be different? Or is it lack of self- conscienceless and a feeling of inadequacy?
Is it this feeling of inadequacy that led Africa to copy the development paradigm of the West in the mistaken belief that Africa can also develop and catch up with the West even though Africa has no masses and colonies to exploit and no people to enslave? Can Africa succeed if it has to continue succumbing to the open free market and to the borrowing of capital from those who have accumulated it through unjust trade practices? Well, it has been so adviced by those who themselves could not have reached the level of affluence they are enjoying without exploiting others, and especially Africa.