By Francis Kagolo
African languages and cultures are likely to die because scholars have abandoned their call and remained intellectually enslaved to the western world, renowned Kenyan novelist Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o has said.
Ngugi said African scholars have let down the continent by failing to publish in native languages, which is detrimental to social transformation and economic development.
He made the remarks during celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the University of East Africa on Saturday.
The celebrations, which attracted scholars from across East Africa, were a continuation of Makerere University’s 90-year anniversary.
Ngugi condemned scholars, who claim to be specialists of African history, culture, society and politics, without accepting the linguistic challenge and the responsibility.
He said it was a sign of backwardness that knowledge about Africa continues to be filtered through European languages and their vocabulary as was invented at the beginning of colonialism.
“If you know all the languages of the world and you don’t know your mother tongue or the language of the culture of the community into which you are born, that is enslavement,” he said. “But if you know your language and add to it all the languages of the world, that is empowerment. The choice for us is between intellectual enslavement and intellectual empowerment.”
Ngugi dismissed claims that African languages are incapable of handling complexities of social thought because they lack adequate vocabulary and are riddled with poverty like their speakers.
Ngugi, the author of popular plays like I will marry when I want, argued that no language had a monopoly of cognitive vocabulary and that every language could develop its terms for science and technology.
“Even English and French had to overcome similar claims of inadequacy as vehicles for philosophy and scientific thought against the then dominant Latin,” he explained. “African intellectuals must do for their languages and cultures what all other intellectuals in history have done for theirs.”
Ngugi advocated for enlightened national policies that focus primarily on strengthening mother tongues, Kiswahili as the regional language then English and any other international language.
According to Ngugi, English and French should be used to enable dialogue among African languages and visibility in the community of world languages instead of being a tool of disabling by uprooting intellectuals and their production from their original language base.
The University of East Africa, which started on June 28, 1963, was formally dissolved on July 1, 1970, transforming into the three national universities: Makerere, Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam.
President Yoweri Museveni was among the seven graduates of the University of East Africa, who received awards as distinguished alumni for significant contribution to society.
Former education minister Geraldine Namirembe Bitamazire and former Makerere University vice-chancellor Prof. Livingstone Luboobi also received awards among other alumni.
Environment minister Prof. Ephraim Kamuntu, who represented the President, launched former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere’s book titled: Women’s Freedoms- Women are Eagles, not Chickens.
Nyerere wrote the manuscript of the book in Kiswahili in 1944, when he was 22 years old and still a student at Makerere. Makerere’s professor Ruth Mukama translated the book into English.
Nyerere’s son Charles Makongoro said the proceeds from the sale of the book will go into Makerere’s female scholarship programme to enable needy girls across Africa go to university.
Prof Ngugi Wa Thiongo Keynote Address Sat 29th June 2013 by The New Vision