The 2nd August 2019 edition of the New Era newspaper carried two very interesting opinion pieces. One piece was written by Lawrence Kamwi and the other was written by Professor Jairos Kangira. Kamwi’s piece was titled “African togetherness is a character-reclaiming exercise” and that of Kangira was titled “Swahili: A punishment to turn learners into polygots.”
The two opinion pieces were about the same thing – the language debate in Namibia and in Africa in general. Both pieces opened up a debate about the need to construct a national identity through a common language; which national identity is currently very fluid and fragile in Namibia. Language is central to the construction of a common national identity; and Swahili in Tanzania and, to some extent, Chi Nyanja in Zambia and Chichewa in Malawi are cases in point.
Professor Kangira argued that because of cost implications and other challenges, the introduction of Swahili in Namibia would not be a realistic option at this point in time – much as the Government intention is noble. In what seemed to be a response to Professor Kangira’s piece, Tjirera and Harris eloquently weighed in on that debate, by making a strong case for Swahili (The Namibian, 23rd August 2019). For now, I do not want to enter that debate.
Although Kamwi’s piece was very educative, his argument was, however, deconstructive in the sense that it bemoaned the usage of a European language in an African context without offering a viable alternative. He quoted extensively from Ngungi wa Thiongo to make his point that “…language, any language, has a dual character; it is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture”.
Kamwi went on to quote Ngungi again that: “…the choice of language and the use to which it is put is central to a people’s definition of themselves in relation to their natural and social environment, indeed in relation to the entire universe.” I fully agree with Kamwi because the dichotomy between the previously disadvantaged African languages and the colonial languages in Africa hinges on those two quotes from Ngungi. Language is central to the Pan Afrikan debate about self-definition and self-identification.
Kamwi also clinically zeroed in on the debate between Kenya’s Ngungi wa Thgiongo and Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe. The bone of contention between these two celebrated African men of letters is whether African writers should use a European language in their writings or their mother tongue. Ngungi argues that as part of the decolonisation of the mind, Africans should write in their own languages; whereas Chinua argues that the language of the coloniser has become part of our social reality and we should “Afrikanise” it. Chinua also argues that writing in your own African language can be very restrictive when it comes to sharing your ideas with a wider audience – including with fellow Africans. In short, Chinua’s argument is that, as Africans, we should have the liberty to put in African phrases and sentence constructions in our usage of English (for example). This is how Pidgin English that is widely spoken in West Africa came about. The heading of my opinion piece that was published in the same issue of New Era, titled “Do you speak the language small” was borrowed from Pidgin English. One African literary writer once wrote “…the lady was with the moon.” As an African I could easily relate to that because in my language “… the lady being with the moon” means that she is, in Biblical terms, “…in the custom of women…” That is one example of Africanising English.
For practical reasons we have adopted English as our official language. However, why should we fall over ourselves to prove as to who can speak better English? Whose language is it? Perhaps to put it differently, we tend to admire an African who speaks good English, but pay very little attention (if any) to someone who speaks his/her African mother tongue well. More often than not, we even tend to scorn them. That is a sign of inferiority complex; and as I have argued somewhere else “…the danger of inferiority complex is that the victim is not aware that he/she is a victim.”
Regarding the Ngungi-Chinua debate, I tend to agree more with Chinua rather than with Ngungi. We need to remember that Pidgin English spoken in West Africa and the African-American Slang, started the same way as our Namlish. Given our ethnic identity politics which has a bearing on language, or vice versa, which African language would you introduce as an official language in Namibia? Therefore as Namibians we should embrace Namlish, which started off as a joke shortly after our independence. Namlish is alive and well and we should not be ashamed of it. I am not saying we should use it in official business communication, but what is wrong with our young people using it in everyday informal communication. Who knows, maybe by the time they become grandparents, Namlish would have taken roots.
Consider the following typical imaginary conversation in Namlish (mainly employed by young people) that we may take for granted: “Hella bra, hoezit? It’s nxa man, otherwise? I’ll do that now, now because the time is going! Are we together kao? Etse, jy het hoeka that shantie gepromise that you’ll kamstag do it now,now, but aaye, you think mos I’m just a laeti, just a kapana seller hapo?” Welcome to my world in Namlish.