‘Trapped By Colonial Lyrics In A Post-colonial Dance’

Gambian Author Mariama Khan/covepark.org photo
Gambian Author Mariama Khan/Cove Park photo

The above words are those of Ms Mariama Khan in describing the ambiguous situation post-colonial nation states are faced with in positioning African endogenous values, including language policy, following the end of colonial rule. This concept and many other ideas of far reaching consequences for language policy and national development are contained in the article entitled ‘Indigenous Languages and Africa’s Development Dilemma,’ published in the September 2014 issue of the journal, Development in Practice. Undoubtedly, there has always been a conceptual understanding on the part of many observers that on matters relating to language policy, there is something fundamental not adding up to the emancipation aspiration. It could be argued in fact that in post-colonial Africa and in the Gambia, to be precise, few more things have not added up to the independence dream. Through this groundbreaking analysis, Ms Khan provided vivid account of the national policy missteps taken by post-colonial governments when it comes to positioning endogenous languages and other African values in their rightful place. Is this only a result of the lack of vision and commitment of national governments or is it also the lack of research efforts, particularly in the case of The Gambia, to provide a theoretical justification requiring a language policy revamp? Is there a relationship between this great national and continental dithering on language policy and other developmental shortcomings we have faced, not just in the Gambia but elsewhere in the continent?

These are precisely what Ms Khan’s journal article aims to tackle. For some of us with the long held conviction, albeit without analytical grounding, that our language policy needed correction, this has come at an opportune time. It will provide the ammunition to pursue our conviction with renewed vigor. By coincidence, the article’s publication was preceded by a sort of national debate relating to the role of endogenous languages initiated by the veteran politician, Sidia Jatta, while on a lecture tour. His argument that African and Gambian endogenous languages and their lack of adequate recognition should be seen as one of the fundamental stumbling blocks to progress, did not go without some form of challenge. One such came from another knowledgeable political commentator, Papa Kumba Loum, who may have thought that the language issue is not one of the national priority areas, probably because it cannot be seen to create tangible outcomes such as job creation, media freedom, elimination of arbitrary arrest, to name a few. Loum admitted to the holistic nature of national development efforts but fell short of analyzing the fact that language policy does have a bearing on even the bread and butter, or in the case Gambia rice and fish, issues of the day, as Khan meticulously showed in, for instance, how language policy shift can increase the pace and quality of educational access and mass participation in the democratic process. The realization of just these two would prove a massive fortress against the 1994 military coup and the so-called ‘second republic’ this engendered.

Khan’s analysis of the subject will be helpful to Jatta’s position as well in that it provides the theoretical underpinning that the media may not have conveyed of his lecture tour. The scope of Khan’s analysis covers the whole continent but provided a detailed case study of language policy failings of The Gambia since independence. On the continental level, philosophical perspectives of the importance of state formation and its inherent linkage with indigenous values such as language was made drawing lessons from Gandhi and Fanon, for instance. Khan argued that language is the expression of the society through which its values can be effectively communicated. The use of foreign languages at the expense of indigenous languages therefore implies an implantation of imperialist values and in the post-independence period, the nations sleepwalking to consolidate those values. Indeed language policy failures highlighted in the article are at the forefront of many other forms of neglect of endogenous values. Furthermore ideas expounded by Khan raised a question whether there was a hidden momentum in the colonial project, similar to what has been identified in population growth theory that causes populations to continue growing even after birth rate have fallen. A similar scenario may have enabled colonial institutions to grow in greater strength even after the nation states gained independence. Dr Baba Galleh Jallow, apparently exasperated by President Jammeh’s constant berating of the West for his country’s ills while also denying Gambian citizens some of the most basic rights, reminded the demagogue of the institutional frameworks he is riding on, such as the National Intelligence Agency, and their origin from European colonialism. Dr Jallow’s assertion also seemed to justify the presence of this hidden momentum.

Ms Khan touched on the ambiguous nature of language policy in Africa in more ways than one. Gandhi was an ardent advocate of indigenization of language policy in India. But India is very much like Africa with multiplicity of ethnic and language groupings. While in most African nations the approach had been to employ the use of European languages for governance, underlining what the colonialists intended, India planned to adopt an indigenous language to take over the central role the British created for English. Whilst also in the case of Africa the failure is palpable as shown by Khan, the Indian approach was not without difficulties. Other ethnic groups who do not speak Hindi continued to resist its use as a national language of India, a contradiction that remains largely to this day. Khan’s prescription differs from both approaches. A central prescription is absent and instead policy measures should be geared towards the use of a multiplicity of languages, and diversity in language use should be seen as an asset rather than a burden. And for reasons of competitive advantage in the age of globalization, European languages including English can continue to serve us. The use of mother tongue languages as medium of instruction has been shown to yield improved cognitive development and better learning outcomes. On the broader level, an emerging theoretical perspective recognizes that the concept of one language policy, prescribed initially by colonial regimes and which to a large extent is applicable in the Western context, is unsuitable for many parts of the world including India and Africa.

The Gambian case study also provided interesting analysis on Gambia’s language policy development since the 1970s. She recalled, not in the literal sense of the word but through painstaking research, the Gambia government’s enactment of a national education policy in 1979 which also coincided with the International Year of the Child. This and other national education policy measures recognized the importance of mother tongue languages in education. But because of political expediencies, they have not been followed through adequately, exposing the gaps in policy rhetoric and implementation, a recurring theme in our national development effort.
Nor has the opposition movement pointed to any major diversion from the attitude shown by government, but will this change with Jatta’s advocacy? He too, in the past, had been known to send out ambiguous messages on the issue of mother tongue languages and their role in policy formulation. On his lecture tours, Jatta made reference to the constitutional provision stipulating that Members of Parliament of the Gambia must be able to speak English, a provision justifying the debasement of indigenous Gambian languages. There is a curious irony in that over a decade ago, he quoted the same constitutional provision at a political rally in Sutukonding in Wuli, one that I witnessed, but to argue on this occasion that he was a better candidate because of his opponent’s perceived inability to speak proper English. Another speaker, Jundu Keita, echoed Jatta’s statement and lambasted the opposition for daring to compare their English language proficiency and educational level to those of Jatta. Now that Jatta is speaking a new language, or reverting to the old mother tongue languages, depending on how one looks at it, this is welcome news.

The article questioned regional level efforts as well in indigenous language policy. For instance, at the same that the Gambia government commissioned the writing of a Mandinka dictionary in 1980, a similar project was being undertaken in Senegal on the same language. The wisdom in harmonization of the two projects was pointed out especially as it could promote regional communication and integration. As the author undertook the monumental task of diagnosing failures in elevating endogenous value systems in the African and the Gambian context, the prescription put forward for the revival of those values are equally radical. And perhaps this is where the Herculean task lies for the societies. She recommended a whole new set of ideas that if adopted could bring a major transformation in cultural development. It requires an ‘all hands on deck’ approach where government, civil society and the general population elevates the language issue as priority area for social transformation. It also requires the implementation of conscious efforts for developing indigenous language resources and for the utilization of these language resources in all echelons of the education system, in government and in the media.
Khan recognized the need for giving greater recognition to African languages as part of a broader approach in situating African values systems in the centre of development agenda, because through this ideas can be better articulated, audience more effectively targeted and values can be preserved. In conclusion, she pointed out the critical ingredient for both understanding and resolving the language dilemma by stating that ‘the magic is commitment and dedication from all sectors’ in the Gambia and in Africa.
By Dodou Jawneh

One Comment

  1. Very interesting. Indeed learning in ones’ mother tongue first, is the foundation stone for mastery of all other languages, sciences etc and for natural progression in general.

    Many thanks and please keep coming. alabarika deh