I had thought that this week I will continue a discussion on Setswana names. I have decided to suspend that discussion to a later date. Instead, this week’s column considers last week’s Thematic Seminar Series on Regional Integration – No 7 held at The University of Botswana Library Auditorium, 15 – 16th March 2012 under the theme: Languages as tools of regional integration in the SADC region. It was co-sponsored by SADC, The French Embassy in Botswana and the University of Botswana. By the end of the first day, I was despondent and discouraged. I could not believe my ears. The dominant argument was that we should teach more French, English and Portuguese, especially more French so that we could converse with francophone Africa. There was also a dominant argument about the need to learn international languages so that Batswana could have international relevance. The former President, Rre Mogae, argued that Africa needs to move away from defining herself as either Francophone or Anglophone. What is critically important, he argued, is for African countries to define themselves as African and learn and acquire any language than enables then to converse on the international plane, whether English, Spanish, Chinese or French. The second day was dominated by arguments in favour of African languages. The colonies replied. Prof Sozinho Matsinhe, a Mozambican national, presented a paper entitled ACALAN mandate in promoting vehicular cross-border languages in the SADC region. ACALAN is The African Academy of Languages, a languages arm of the African Union, mandated to promote the development and use of African languages. ACALAN does not argue for the replacement of European languages by African languages, instead it argues for the use of African languages alongside European tongues. Prof. Herman Batibo, one of the finest scholars in African languages, outlined some of the challenges faced in promoting cross-border languages in SADC region. One would think that naturally Africans would welcome the idea of developing their own languages. No, far from it! Actually, many have argued that not using any of the African languages is a blessing in disguise. This observation is not new, a couple of years ago it was made by Alidou (2004) who observed that “In former British colonies few African languages and English were used transitionally as medium of instruction and English became a dominant language after the fourth grade and the only language in secondary school and higher education. In former French colonies, on the other hand, African languages were excluded completely from the education system. However, in post-colonial Africa, in avoidance of ethnic wars, African governments ironically retained colonial languages which were viewed as neutral means of communication.” The practice of viewing European language as neutral means of communication is what has sustained their dominance in Africa. Another contributing factor to the dominance of European languages is the endless bickering between African language activists about which language to use in African states. This internal strife is in part a consequence of Africa’s large number of language, over 2000 languages in fact, most of which are threatened and fighting for their existence. Therefore any establishment of an African language as an official or a national language engenders envy in activists of other languages. They then argue that they would rather have no African language functioning in those positions than to have any performing an official function. The most vociferous resistance of such activists is to be found in universities. It is no wonder that Motsaathebe (2010:102) observes that “African institutions of learning such as schools and universities can best serve their communities if they strive to function as embodiments rather than eroding forces of indigenous knowledge, history and culture. They are usually their own enemy agents in disguise, as they do not promote African cultures and languages.” The blame therefore should not be placed on the door of the French, Portuguese or the British who come to our sandy shores promoting their languages. They are mere salesmen and women promoting their cultures and languages. The onus lies with African governments, intellectuals and communities on whether they accept the offers of the former colonies. One colleague who has accepted the sales from these salesmen is the university professor, Prof Maruatona, who says he has now turned his back on local languages and embraced English because of its economic and educational value. He is a living example of how alienating the attractive force of a European language can be on an African.
As already noted by Mr. Festus Mogae, French is very important to the African continent, not just for Africa to dialogue with Paris, but more so for Africa to dialogue with herself. Senegal, Mali, Niger, Togo, Gabon, DRC, Cote d’Ivoire are some of the countries which are francophone. For Anglophone Africa to speak to francophone, both English and French remain essential. There is however a third option which is being proposed by ACALAN, and that is the use of Swahili as Africa’s lingua franca. Many believe that Swahili should be taught as African’s mega language since it is Africa’s most popular language. This again has met some resistance with some arguing that Swahili is as much of a foreign language to most of Africa as English and French. The question therefore is why should Swahili be taught instead of these European languages? Is a foreign African language better than a foreign European one? So the day the French came knocking on our door demonstrated that we are still largely European in our thinking, but that there are growing voices of those who think African languages deserve a space in which to flourish. The challenge still remains for African leaders to discover the importance of their languages and cultures. A much more attractive proposition is not for African governments to encourage their citizens to speak local languages or to love and be proud of their cultures and languages. To resolve the apathy towards African languages, African governments must ensure that they imbue African languages with economic and education value. That is, they have to require that for one to qualify for professions such as nursing or medicine they should have passed an African language. African languages should also be used in labelling of products in African stores. This will be a tangible way of making African languages attractive and useful. If we fail to implement this simple strategy, we will forever open the door when the French come knocking on our door.