I have been a keen follower of your weekly TV talk show, Discovering Truth, and let me use this opportunity to recognize and appreciate the invaluable knowledge and wise counsel you impart to the viewers, through this program, on various issues bordering not only on religion, but also pertinent social, economic and political matters. Your consistency, intellect and power of communication have made the program a unique current affairs brand transcending religion.
I must however say, that over the past several months, I have noticed with concern how you have tried to persistently dissuade the leadership of our country, government officials, our school going children and the public at large from speaking Gambian local languages in public. Often I heard you make reference, if I construe your statements and inferences very correctly, to the fact that English is our official language as well as the language of instruction and international engagement, therefore it must be the medium of public discourse around which a new national culture and identity must be built. You further decry the low level of proficiency and performance in English in our educational system, and attribute the problem partly to the disappearance of the olden days’ strict regime of discipline enforced through discouraging students from speaking vernacular both at school and at home.
Pastor, whilst English has become a public good essential for education, business and international connectivity, and as we promote strategies for English language proficiency in our educational system and government circles, it is dangerous for such a conversation to slide into minimizing the utility and value of our local languages. The issue of language is existential, as language is not only a means of communication, but a reservoir and vector of knowledge, wisdom, history, beliefs, and value systems that represent bona fide civilizations. Certainly, the British, or the French, would have had a lot to learn through the Mandinka, Wollof, Fula, Sarahule or Jola languages for example, if our ancestors had embarked on a colonial project or religious evangelism in Europe. The fact that there are words, aphorisms, concepts and philosophies in our languages that do not have Western equivalents is just one thing that explains the Gambia and Africa’s linguistic splendour.
Talking about building a common Gambian culture and identity around the English language is unbelievable. We must revisit the meaning of Gambia, removed far from its every day denotation. Is Gambia the mass of territory lying between Kartong and Koina plus all persons legally identifiable as Gambian; or is it the sum total of our territory, people, history and sub-cultures including our languages, customs, religions, traditions, institutions, laws and so on? For the country to be consequential there is no doubt that the latter is what could reasonably qualify as Gambia. All of the constituent parts forming a whole must be present and active for the whole to be alive.
There is no gainsaying, Pastor, that Western languages have introduced alternative and advanced modes of education in Africa, but our heedless fixation on them, as well as our oblivion to the power of language as an agent of social development have visited on us a state of cultural depravity where our identities have been muddled and our ingenuities subsumed. Effectively, discouraging the use of our languages amounts to systematically corroding their functionality, eradicating them, and eventually attenuating our humanity. Why enable this enduring tragedy when we can continue to maximally harness the opportunities provided by Western languages whilst protecting and preserving the integrity of our indigenous languages.
I am afraid, Pastor, that your position contradicts national education policy, as well as continental development policy – which espouses an African renaissance where Pan-African cultural assets including languages and folklore will be fully embedded in all school curricula and where African languages will be the basis for administration and integration (Agenda 2063). In furtherance of the objective to not only preserve indigenous African languages but also enhance their vitality for cross-border trade and integration, the African Union decided to establish the African Academy of languages (ACALAN) in Bamako, Mali. ACALAN has designated a number of African languages, including Fula, Mandinka and Wollof, as Vehicular Cross-Border Languages that must be promoted to support African integration. For more on the compelling testimony by ACALAN on the need to utilize and preserve indigenous African languages, please visit http://www.acalan.org/index.php/en/about-acalan/background
On the wider international level, UNESCO is leading efforts to promote the use of African languages and bridge the stark communication gaps that permeate governance, education and the social environment. A UNESCO-led initiative on investing in African languages has produced among many ideas, the following two major propositions as game changers for public policy in Africa:
- Opt for valuing and developing African languages as the most vibrant means of
communication and source of identity of the majority of the African people, and
construct all language policies accordingly (e.g. accept African languages as official
languages and as languages for exams).
- Plan late-exit or additive mother-tongue-based multilingual education, develop it
boldly and implement it without delay using models adapted to a country’s unique
vision, conditions and resources.
It was astonishing, Pastor, to hear you postulate that Mandinka is spoken only in the Gambia and three other West African countries (so therefore the language has marginal international import). For the records, please note that there are well over 20 million speakers of various Mandinka dialects in West Africa and parts of Central Africa. An even higher number of people speak different Fula dialects across the African continent and beyond. I refuse to buy the theory of an extant anxiety among some Gambians who identify with so-called minority ethnic groups, that they risk socio-economic and cultural subjugation under the current dispensation led by people who identify with so-called majority ethnic groups. Therefore, I am not inclined to believe that the anti-vernacular rhetoric in your commentary is triggered by such apprehension.
On a final note, I must commend President Barrow for harboring no complex whatsoever in speaking confidently and intelligibly in Gambian local languages. This way, he has surpassed the effectiveness of both his predecessors in communicating to the Gambian people. The President, his Ministers, government officials and the school going generation of young people in the country should be encouraged to take cue from this inspiring example. There is intelligence, wisdom, knowledge, articulacy, and fullness in our local languages, so let us be proud that we have them, let us continue speaking them, and let us preserve them!