Where language meets culture

After the release of his book, “Decolonising The Mind”, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o’s decision to stop using English as the language in which he will offer his work sparked a lot debates about the use of language in African literature. The book, which contains four essays, “The Language of African Literature,” “The Language of African Theatre,” “The Language of African Fiction,” and “The Quest for Relevance,” helped to “cement him as a preeminent voice theorising the “language debate” in post-colonial studies.”[1] And ever since, the release of this book the number of debates on this issue has not decreased.

As a self-proclaimed Pan-African thinker and an aspiring writer, the debate about language and literature has plagued my mind for some time now. Writers of both fiction and non-fiction play an important role in both the preservation and development of cultures. Because of the oral nature of the passing down of cultural practices and traditions by the past generations, the role of writers of the current generation is one of paramount importance. As the people responsible for the documenting and preservation of these cultural traditions and practices, writers need to use methods that will be able to carry forward this almost mammoth task with ease and precision.

Now as a country with 11 official languages, the issue of which language(s) we need to use to document the multiple and diverse cultures, and their practices, found in South Africa is one that needs to be thoroughly discussed. Some have argued that English is the ideal language to use because of its ability to cut through cultures and evolve with time, but even though it is the medium of instruction in our education system, its colonial and oppressive origins tend to rub a lot of South Africans, and Africans, the wrong way.

The use of English in African literature, be it rightly or wrongly, forms a significant part of the debate about the use of language in African literature. With it being one of the most preferred languages to use in literature, questions about whether work written in this colonial language can be classified as “African literature” have led to multiple essays and lectures being given in an effort to answer them.

In his book “Hello Africa: Tell Me How Are You Doing?” Osei G Kofi says ‘we make too much of ethnicity and tribal languages,’ he believes that ‘language is a tool, a vehicle, not an end on itself’ when it comes to culture. Like him, I believe, that ‘a particular language is useful for the particular era it is used,’ and that in this particular era English seems to be that language. According to him, 96 percent of the world’s population account for the top 20 languages, and that every two weeks a language dies[2]

Using English as a vehicle in which we will document and preserve our cultures will not change, whitewash, or dilute them in anyway. The English language, which will soon be outlived or progressively transformed for a new era, will only serve as a tool for us to document our histories as they unfold so that the future generation, and the present one, can be able to know and cement their place in the world. I have never been able to write in my native language – Setswana – but that does not mean I am not able to properly translate the rich qualities of the Tswana people and their different tribes through my work.

My adoption and use of the English language as a writer does not make the work I produce about the cultures of Africans any less important than that of someone writing in Igbo, Tsonga, Venda, Kiswahili or Setswana.

[1] Wikipedia

[2] Hello Africa: Tell Me, How Are You Doing – Osie G Kofi (page 142)

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