Sabata-mpho Mokae
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Freedom of the tongue, by Sabata-mpho Mokae


Full transcript of a speech given by Sabata-mpho Mokae, at the Office of the Premier, Northern Cape, in 2019.

With this year (2019) having been declared a year of indigenous languages by the united nations, perhaps at the beginning one should ask a question: how did we get here? may we also take a minute to appraise the here that i am referring to. here is the present.

Freedom of the tongue main feature I will resist the temptation to borrow from the late Keorapetse Willie Kgositsile who once said “the present is a dangerous place to live”. But is it dangerous? Here I am in the Office of the Premier of the Northern Cape Province, delivering the Heritage Day speech in English, a powerful language of commerce, government and education yet a minority home language in this country and of course across the African continent.

I toil at a university in this city, one of the only two post-apartheid universities in our country, where for about a year, our Department of Languages and Communications, has been struggling to find a senior lecturer in Setswana without any plausible success. In fact at this point in time, in the whole Southern Africa (where Setswana is spoken in five countries), there are hardly six professors of Setswana with only one being a full professor. It is a grave situation.
How did we get to a point where the teaching of African languages has become a scarce skill on the African continent, more so in a country whose constitution espouses not only the equality of languages but has made the development of those languages a legal obligation? Perhaps the answer lies in the question “How did we acquire English?” Or perhaps let me rephrase; how was English thrust upon us?

When the European colonisers arrived in Africa, Asia as well as North America, they had one idea “One God, One Truth”through which they intended that those they colonised across many geographical locations and were of different cultures, languages and creed, would from the time of colonisation speak one common language and be unified under the crown, in this case I refer to English. Basically this meant that attempts were made to melt into thin air, the long established languages that the colonised had spoken prior to the arrival of the white man in their shores.

The extent of the obliteration of the languages of those who were colonised by the Europeans can be seen clearer when one looks at the figures in relation to the English language: out of 1 500 million people who speak English across the world, only 359 million are first-language English speakers. This means 1 141 million people had the English language thrust upon them. The Anglicisation of the colonised was not a neat and dignified process. It was often accompanied by military invasion which led to economic deprivation of the conquered. These were often preceded by religious missions which sought to civilize the savages.

The results of the above-mentioned actions, in relation to language, include the gradual and systematic obliteration of the languages of the colonised. An example closer to home is a Northern Cape language called /Nuu which is spoken by only four people on earth. Kenyan scholar and writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o recalls how, when you were caught speaking your mother tongue in the colonial Kenya, you would be made to paste on your forehead a piece of paper telling the whole school that you were a donkey. This was done to shame those who spoke the languages of the uneducated, which had no place in a school. This struck an indelible blow on the psyche of the colonised. He began to see little or no value in his language and began seeing the ability to speak the coloniser’s language as an indication of civilisation and sophistication.

After observing the above, Sol Plaatje, a century ago became the first African to translate William Shakespeare’s plays into an African languages. Julius Caesar became Dintšhontšho tsa bo-Juliuse Kesara while Comedy of Errors became Diphoshophosho. He has reasoned that more and more educated Africans were discarding their mother tongue and started speaking English, even at home. Plaatje’s friend and fellow linguist David Ramoshoana remarked that such families spoke “hodge podge”whenever they attempted to speak their own languages. I argue that the introduction of the English language to us was the forerunner of the introduction of Englishness as our new cultural framework.

The other result is that, as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o argued, the English language gets enriched by the languages of the colonised. For instance, words like baboo, toddy and veranda are originally Hindi words that got to be spoken by the British who had settled in India in the 1700s. When you come closer to home and read the poetry of the late Poet Laureate of South Africa, Keorapetse Kgositsile, you will see how often has his native Setswana enriched the English he wrote.

In a poem Son of Mokae which he wrote in memory of his friend, Tony Award-winning actor Zakes Mokae he opens with a line “When you open your eyes and say tha!”Any streetwise Motswana will attest that this is a well-known Setswana phrase that says “fa o bula matlho o re tha!” In the same poem Kgositsile introduces to the English language a word “rootmen” which in its typical derogatory manner, the English would say is “witchdoctor”. “Rootman” is a direct translation of a Setswana word “Rraditswammung”. The last line of the first stanza of the same poem reads “The rootmen say they have fallen like this and like this” which would make not much sense until one realises that it is a direct translation of a phrase used by the rootman when he throws the bones and say “di ole jaana le jaana”. In another poem titled When the Clouds Clear, Kgositsile borrows again from his native tongue. This time from one of the many proverbs with a cattle motif and takes the one of the god with a wet nose. He writes:

What had the ancients observed
When they said of cattle
When I lack it, I have no sleep
When I have it, I have no sleep

A Setswana speaker would not take a minute to identify the proverb: “… ka e tlhoka ka tlhoka boroko, ka nna nayo ka tlhoka boroko.”

Kgositsile’s poetry gives credence to argument by Ngũgĩ that English gets enriched every time it gets written by people whose mother tongue is not English. In fact Kgositsile himself used to say that English is “a sophisticated fanakalo.” He would even argue that the Queen of England probably does not know more than half of what is called “The Queen’s language”.

Another argument was made by professors Recius Melato Malope in the 1970s at the University of the North and Shole Shole in the 1980s at the UNISA that Sol Plaatje’s epic novel Mhudi, which was the first full-length English novel by a black South African, was “essentially a Setswana novel” though written in English. The same argument can be made of Ellen Khuzwayo’s Call Me Woman, Martin Koboekae’s Taung Wells and Kagiso Lesego Molope’s This Book Betrays My Brother.

Ideally languages should enrich one another as they borrow from each other. However, this seems to be one-sided, with the European language continuously borrowing from the languages of those once colonised by Europeans. The two examples we have employed above being Hindi and Setswana. There are many other examples that we will find in the English writings of people who speak Shona, Igbo, Twi, Swahili, Igbo etcetera.

A counter-argument to this would be: our languages borrow from English all the time and in that way get enriched by English too. This argument battles to hold water because time and time again one hears people bemoaning that African languages lack the relevant terminology and therefore cannot be used as languages of government, education and commerce. In The Rise of the African Novel Mukoma wa Ngũgĩ argues that these languages have not been given the opportunity to develop the said terminology simply because they are not written. Mukoma quotes Obiajunwa Wali who wrote in The Dead End of African Literature: “One wonders what would have happened to English literature for instance, if writers like Spenser, Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton, had neglected English, and written in Latin and Greek simply because these classical languages were the cosmopolitan languages of their times.”

In My Home Under Imperial Fire Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe evokes an Igbo proverb which translates: “every village has enough firewood for all the cooking it needs to do”. This means the speakers of every language, when given an opportunity to develop its terminology, will be able to express anything they wish to express. When all is said and done, the development of languages rests upon its users who must use it without any shame, its writers who must develop new vocabulary and terminology and lead the people in using it on a daily basis. Practically and on “a daily basis”means writing letters, emails, text on the phones and holding official meetings in African languages that are widely understood in a specific area. One struggles to find a plausible reason for council proceedings in Ga Segonyana Municipality or legislature proceedings in Mahikeng to be in English.

Is there any reason why Molo Mhlaba in Cape Town is the only private school in the country where the medium of instruction is an African language when most private schools’ existence and success is on the backs of hardworking black parents whose home languages are not English? Is there a convincing argument why Setswana is only an official language in two out of the five southern African countries in which it is spoken? In fact, it is astonishing that in Botswana, Setswana is in terms of their constitution a “national language” whereas English is the sole official language. Could all these be manifestations of the internalised colonial racism which reasons that there is nothing of value in African languages, cultures and ways of life? Could this be the realisation of the dreaded hierarchy of languages, which puts languages of the once conquered at the rock bottom? Perhaps in conclusion we need to revisit Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s argument that central to one’s identity is one’s language and marry it to Achebe’s assertion that no man would be able to enter his house through another man’s gate.

A language is not just a means to communicate; it is a body of knowledge, a philosophy, a way of knowing and seeing, a cultural framework and at times even a political framework. Abandoning one’s language is abandoning oneself, so much akin to a tree without its roots.

Giving credence to this broader definition of language, Deborah Seddon in her PhD thesis wrote of Sol Plaatje’s Setswana writing: they “represent a commitment to teaching and developing the language, and to preserving history, [and] the oral tradition.”

I conclude this presentation with a Kikuyu poem Titi la Mama by Shaban Robert. I will read the English translation by Mukoma wa Ngũgĩ. The translated title is My Mother Tongue.

My mother-tongue
I declare I will sing your brightness
to the blind and those who have long lost memories of you
a mother’s breast is sweet to her young,
even a swine’s Mother, feed, flow, salve our wounds and clotted veins.
A mother’s breast is sweet, another simply would not fulfill
Mother, as a child my tongue was weighed down.
Now that I can speak I see you were all around me, a perfume to my heart and senses.
Whether through the wilderness the river Nile or the Indian ocean
Mother, you carry me across.

Ke a leboga. Enkosi.
Dankie. Thank you.

This is a transcript of a speech delivered at Northern Cape Office of the Premier, in November 2019.

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