Africa, linguistics and neo-colonialism: in search of the “right” path?


Africa is the cradle of humanity. Every scientist in the world admits today that the first human being has emerged in Africa. Even though nobody contests it, a lot of people forget it. I’m sure that if Adam and Eve were born in Texas we would hear about it everyday on TV.

The slow asphyxia of the African languages would be dramatic, would represent the way down to hell of the African identity.

Joseph Ki-Zerbo in «For when Africa?» (2006)

For most Europeans (and for some non-Europeans as well) the history of Africa begins with the history of colonization. Widely seen as a continent without history, Africa was living in pre-history until such event, passively waiting to be civilized and exogenously integrated in the world system and ultimately in the history of humanity (deprived of autonomy, playing a secondary role on other continents’ history). Such erroneous (and full of prejudice) idea still persists in European imaginarium despite the evidence that Africa has always been (1) an open system and (2) a diverse continent full of (3) dynamic forces and societies. Of course such dynamics are not easily observable with imported concepts and grills of analysis or through the eyes of someone who doesn’t know the African reality; to see and study such dynamics requires a deep knowledge of the continent’s culture(s) and historical path(s). Africa is still regarded as a Continent to be “civilized” (civilized is out of fashion and even Catholic entities now privilege the verb “to teach”) and as a passive agent in the sense that all good and, for some, all bad comes around exogenously (from outside the continent). To promote African development one must learn the African history from an African stand of view (with Africa in the center of the map): what happened in the continent since the beginning of times, when, by and for whom, how and for what reasons – pretty much like we learn European history. The inside-out approach must replace the failed academic neo-colonialism; probably this is the only possible way to overcome the present territorial and historical fracture between Europe and Africa.

Viriato and Afonso Henriques were seen as the founders of Portuguese nationality and therefore  as the ancestors of all Angolan populations. Huílas and muílas, mbundus and quiocos, bangalas and cuanhamas, all were “lusitanos” and all had as eponymous figures the uncertain Viriato and the more than certain Afonso Henriques.

Isabel Castro Henriques in Os Pilares da Diferença (2004)

The importance of African history and culture for the development of the region allows me to trace a parallelism with my last post Economics: does linguistics matter? (Part 1) – the part 2 is still to come. Colonial powers without exception always privileged the expansion of their language overseas and emphasized the overwhelming importance of such cultural tie; true that, cultural tie it is. Or should I say colonial tie? Who benefits from it? Cape Verde’s official language, and therefore language of instruction, is Portuguese even though the majority (students and teachers) of the population speaks creole at home and among friends; result? decreased effectiveness of country’s commitment to education due to participants’ poor command of the Portuguese language. Obvious isn’t it? The impact on the populations is ambiguous.

In the immediate post-colonialist era the African countries’ language policy aimed at reducing the great variety of languages and dialects in the continent in order to facilitate communication, reduce ethnic conflicts, promote social unity and cohesion and decrease transaction costs. However, as the awareness rises relatively to the importance of the continent’s cultural heritage, multilingualism gained importance. I’d love to see Cape Verde adopting a more sensitive approach to the language problem, favoring its culture, its society and its development and of its children.

Professor Ki-Zerbo advances with the idea of culture trade imbalance. North-South trade (and probably the increasing South-South trade as well) with Africa largely favors the developed world and the expansion of its model of society and development: industrial powers export industrial goods with a great added cultural value (coca-cola, jeans, mp3s, computers, cars) in exchange for primary goods with no embedded cultural value. Such imbalance leads to the prevalence of the foreign social and cultural values in the African societies. The adoption of colonial languages or, more recently, of the anglo-saxonic language in certain sectors comes to increase such effect and together with other factors they create a model of neo-imperialism and neo-colonalism and limit Africa’s ability to pursue its development with base in its history and culture.

Restrictive language policies are dangerous as well as the adoption of colonial ties because (1) it promotes all the erroneous ideas evidenced in the first paragraph and (2) it limits our perception of culture, history and context and, again, our ability to see. Rather than uniformity we must contemplate specificities and incentive diversity as a central element to good development policies and literature. Literature itself should be diversified instead of increasingly uniform. The missionaries’ time is over, shaping policies for or writing about Africa is not any different from doing that to anywhere else – work it out together with the society.

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One response to “Africa, linguistics and neo-colonialism: in search of the “right” path?

  1. Helena Esteves

    João,
    Finalmente a oportunidade e o nível de concentração para dar mais do que uma vista de olhos no teu blog. A propósito deste post lembrei-me de uma economista que tive a sorte de a ver numa conferência: http://www.dambisamoyo.com/
    Continuação de bom estágio ;P

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