Why Africa Remains Backward

Mr Jawara, I really appreciate your thoughtful and brilliant piece on the importance of maintaining our local languages. We should embrace and encourage speaking our local languages. The backwardness of Africans is lack of common language which can be used as a medium for communication. Looking at West Africa, there are two major distinct languages — Mandinka and Fula — that are spoken in many countries. In the case of The Gambia, Mandinka language should have been developed long since as the national language since the majority of indigenous citizens are Mandinkas. This does not mean we dump all other local languages. All of them should be preserved.

Having a national identity in the form of language will be single most effective way to unite our diverse people, enhance better communication and greater understanding which would encourage better economic development and democratisation process. A national identity language builds national cohesion, eliminates tribalism in our politics and gives us the sense of empowerment.

English is a colonial language that had been imposed on Gambians mainly to allow the British colonial master to infiltrate us, entrenched his political, economic and cultural hegemony. Since we have allowed the outsiders to impose their cultural identity and values on us, why can’t we recognize one of our own languages as a national identity language to replace colonial language. This should be the vision of our 21st century political leaderships. I know the narrow-minded souls will frown on this idea. I refer them to revisit the history of many Europe where every country has her own national identity language. Each of them recognized one major language as a medium for communication. Since the majority of Gambian people speak Mandinka language, it would be best communication strategy to develop this language as a national identity language. Other African countries should also do similar thing to develop a major local language as a national identity language. For example, since majority of citizenry in Guinea Conakry (about 40%) speak Fula, the country must not hesitate to use the language as a tool of unification.

Development of one local language as a national identity language in each country is the first step towards national and regional integration that promotes trade, social cohesion, better economic development, cooperation as well as improve better security for all. We must remember that our African conflicts all derived from tribal and language differences. Therefore, the development of national identity language is the single most conflict prevention strategy geared towards promoting common interest, prosperity and guaranteed security. After developing a national identity language in each country, the next step will be to identify one language that is common in many of our people countries. Once we identify this common language, we can develop it as a regional language for political, economic and institutional communication purposes. As we embark on identifying a common language, it behooves on us to preserve all our local languages. Where possible we should integrate these languages in our education system.

Africa’s renaissance can be realized through political, economic and cultural advancement only when Africans promote their own languages. I am sick and tired of seeing people who continue to belittle themselves through their ignorance and to dismiss their own heritage or culture. We must love ourselves which can only be done if we show people who we are through the art of speaking our languages and expression of our cultures. It is time for Africans, especially Gambians to promote themselves through their languages. The development of our national identity language will be right step in the right direction for our advancement and civilisation.




  1. I agree with a National Language, and you have made a good case, but I disagree that we should just adopt Mandinka because it constitutes the largest group. Unless you are advocating the use of force to impose Mandinka on more than 50% of the population, how are you going to get everyone to accept Mandinka, as a National Language? That’s the multimillion Dollar question because many will resist it, just like Mandinkas will resist Fula as a National Language, for example. More work is needed here, Max.

    • Bax , I think if you are honest with yourself, you will realize that it is easy to adopt mandinka language than any other language in the country because mandinkas majority is over 50% of the population. If Gambian people can accept British English language so why they will resist the mandinka language as national identity language. This is easy solution . I think we hate ourselves more than we love ourselves. Comparing mandinkas with Fula is just like you compare UDP and PDOIS. PDOIS was always reluctant to accept the fact that they don’t have the support base in the country , it is the same way mandinka language will have majority support as national language in the country than fula . It is just a matter of political will to tackle this issue. No one is advocating to impose any language on any citizen. The government has to make it a policy to make mandinka language as national identity language then the rest of population will follow .

      • Max, how can you say that we accepted English? Have you forgotten the history of English? Let me remind you that English is the language of the conqueror, and as such, it was IMPOSED on the population. The generation that fell victim to the Colonial conquest did not just accept the language with open hands. They resisted it to the best that they could, until they were finally subjugated.
        Why do you think that even decades after independence, our government still had problems getting some parts of the country to send their kids to school? What was school associated with?

        You are kidding yourself if you think the whole country will jump on the Mandinka bandwagon, if government decides to adopt it as a National Language.
        Our problem would have been easier, if we had a language (lingua franca) that all can speak, regardless of ethnicity. If you look at Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau, as examples, you find that they have such a language, called Creole, which is grounded in English (in SL) and Portuguese (in GB).

        From personal experience, I think that the closest language we have to a lingua franca is Wollof, because more non-Wollofs are likely to speak Wollof, than any other language, including Mandinka. In other words, a non Mandinka is more likely to speak Wollof than Mandinka.
        When I was growing up, my community is still had remnants of Creole, but I and my generation spoke Mandinka. Today, the upcoming generation speak Wollof and this is not an isolated occurrence. Wollof has now gained a foot hold in those communities where it never used to be noticeably present. You will be surprised how many people spoke Wollof, outside Banjul, Sere Kunda and Bakau, just 20-30 years ago. You may disagree, but I think Wollof is the most influential language in The Senegambian region and the fastest growing too. So, it will make sense to have a National Language with a base in Wollof: may be up to 50%.

        • Bax , you do not have any idea which language is most influential in the country, certainly it is not Wolof by any standard and measure . Looking at The Gambia as a whole , you will realize that Wolof is spoken only in Banjul and serekunda proper . In suburban serekunda that is its surrounding like Bakau , sukuta , Lamin and up to Brikama, Wolof is not the most popular language. In kombo south and north , most influential language is not Wolof but mandinka language. Therefore it is fallacious to state that Wolof is the most influential language in Senegambia. In The Gambia, it is not the most popular and influential in the country side or provinces. Logically if Wolof is most popular language in the country then it would make sense to consider it national language but that is not the case. In Senegal, it is most popular in northern Senegal but in the southern Senegal it is not . You are right that it is growing in serekunda since Banjul is becoming a ghost city . This is the phenomenon you are seeing. Bakau , Brikama, sukuta and all of kombos are predominantly mandinka speaking towns.
          When you consider the population, it would make sense if you consider mandinka language as national identity language because more than 50 % speak mandinka . However, what we need is national identity language whether it is Wolof or mandinka but I believe mandinka is indeed best choice since the majority speak the language.

  2. Why would one want to introduce such a controversial policy as a national policy, when one can introduce a national education policy in which all our local languages would be integrated.

    Even in our national broadcaster, our radio and television, the seeming predominance of one local language preference to another generates a certain degree of distress and concern to some people. More over trying to impose a national language which have no justifiable basis for its introduction.

    We have more national policy objectives that should be more discernable and necessary than local languages that most Gambians can speak and have no problem in communicating to one another.

    There are certain fundamentals that are quite crucial in our quest to build and entrenched a well functioning democratic and governing system, and a national language regime is not one of them especially now that we are managing a transitional government that is yet to find its bearing.

    • Kamalo, once again you are dead wrong to indicate that introduction of national identity language is indeed controversal and has no justifications.
      The English language was imposed on us which today is playing a role to eradicate and eliminate our cultural identities and values especially our local languages. Having a national identity language will be the most important factor to unite our diverse population and eradicate communication barriers , tribalism or tribal politics and promote genuine democracy based on common interest and values.
      I believe that now is the time to introduce such a policy because it should have introduced since independence. We must not allow current crisis or political opportunity go into waste . During the crisis is the best time to formulate policy gear towards to national unification and better democratic consolidation. In this transition period, we have the majority in National Assembly who can simply pass a legislative agenda or vote on this important national endeavor. When we have a National identity language, it should be the first language that our national broadcasters will use as a medium of communication and English language will be secondary.
      Adopting our national identity language is form of empowerment and endearing of our own cultural values and identity.
      Why would anyone be distressed or concerned about predominance of one local language in our national broadcasters ? Are you suggesting that those people love English language more than our own local languages when English is the predominant language as we speak? Let us stop hating ourselves just because majority speak a particular language or particular language is predominance. It is pure ignorance for anyone to get distressed or concerned about predominance of local language. Gambians must start to love our languages. Looking at the diaspora community, it is even sad to see people abandon their local languages for English language which they cannot even speak properly. Having a national identity language will help to protect and preserve our national identity language and others languages.

  3. Max, what you need to ask yourself is: are there communication barriers among Gambians? Certainly there are no communicating barriers because most Gambians can speak Wollof or Mandinka or both.

    And most Gambians can also speak Fula and Jola and the other local languages. And the language that is mostly spoken within these language groupings is either Mandinka or Wollof. And sometimes interchangeably. If one cannot speak Wollof one would be communicated to in Mandinka, and if one cannot speak Mandinka one would be communicated to in Wollof.

    It is not true that English has played a role to eradicate and eliminate our cultural identities. In what sense are you making this assumption?

    For 52 years since we attained our independence how did English eliminate and eradicate our cultural identities? We are still who we are: Gambians who are proud of our cultural heritage, and our cultures across all our ethnic groupings are very much alive, relevant and giving us a unique perspective of who we are and where we came from.

    Whether we speak English, Mandinka or Wollof as our national language does not really change the circumstances of our political reality, and our diverse people have ever been unified regardless of the fact that English is our national language since we attained independence.

    And for 52 years, more than three decades in the first republic, and 22 years in the second republic, our national communication regime for the news has been in English, Wollof, Mandinka, Fula etc. This has not created any of the things you have assumed like tribalism etc.

    The question then becomes: why would you want to change this arrangement that has been n place for 52 years because of a narrow nationalistic agenda, and with a transitional government that has a coalition mandate to govern for three years?

  4. kamalo, Nationalistic agenda is never narrow or small thing . All our agendas should be nationalistic agenda because we should care about our national identity or nationalism. A national identity language will enhance nationalism and promote unification. There is communication barriers among the tribes and because of that we have tribalism. National language will eradicate tribalism. Having English as national language has resulted to many people not able to fully speak their local languages , therefore our local languages are facing extinction in next generations. Many young people cannot speak wolof or mandinka without adding english language and this is a cause for concern . If Mandiknka language is use as national language in the Gambia , it will eliminate tribal differences in 10 -20 years period. The main differences between tribes is the language but other differences are minor. Senegal can use wolof for the same reason.
    The new government has a mandate of 5 years which was decided by the Gambian people and during this five years , the new government should formulate a policy of national language to unite our diverse people.

  5. Max, when I say narrow nationalism it means a nationalistic agenda that is extreme, unrealistic and uncalled for.

    Now examine all the statements you have made above and see for yourself whether they are extreme, unrealistic and uncalled for.

    Having Mandinka or any other local language as a national language is uncalled for. There is no need to attached the label “national” to any of our local languages. They can equally be spoken anywhere in the country.

    And the beauty is tribes intermarry and the delineation between tribes and our local languages get narrower and narrower. Therefore there is no basis for any local language to be identified as a national language to unify the people.

    The people are already unified: they intermarry; they speak variously one or two of the local languages and there is no seeming communication barrier because everyone can speak at least one local language that can be communicable to the rest of the population.

    It is laughable for you to suggest that there is tribalism because of a communication barrier. More so when that communication barrier does not exist. And what is more disconcerting is to even suggest that the identification of one local language as a “national” language will eradicate that tribalism.

    It is also unrealistic to suggest that having Mandinka as a national language will eliminate tribal differences in the next 10-20 years. Would Wollof as a national language also eliminate tribal differences in the next 10-20 years?

    And if the main difference between tribes is the language, and tribes can speak each other’s language where then is the difference between the tribes?

    The mandate of the new government is still debatable. I am of the opinion that it is a transitional government with a coalition mandate to serve for three years. What happens after the three years is yet to be determined.

    Our national anthem unify our diverse people. We should now let justice to guide our actions towards the common good. And join our diverse people to prove man’s brotherhood.

    • Kamalo, you stated that it is unrealistic to have Mandinka language to eliminate tribal differences in the next 10-20 years but you went further to ask if Wolof would achieve similar goal. Why would you ask such question in the first place?
      Yes, having a Mandinka language as a national identity language will eliminate tribalism and political bigotry we currently have. It is fallacious to state that there is no tribal vitriol or tribalism in The Gambia. In the last elections, the voting patterns based on demographic records has indicated how tribes voted. There was 100% certainty that some electorate voted based on tribal line. We can eliminate this phenomenon when we have national identity language that everyone speak. Political vitriol of the former dictator was tribal and he systematically insulted and targeted mandinkas for extermination and deportation. If every Gambian speak Jola as a national language, Jammeh would not have singled out mandinkas as biggest threat to his illegal regime .

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