African tongues los­ing favour?

Lan­guages must be spo­ken in all their va­ri­ety, in streets and gath­er­ing places, writes Prof Nyameko Bar­ney Pityana

The Star Early Edition - - INSIDE -

THE East­ern Cape has a rich seam of in­tel­lec­tual and cul­tural her­itage. This arises from the fact that in the early en­coun­ters between the colo­nial set­tlers and the in­dige­nous in­hab­i­tants of the area of the East­ern Cape now known as the Zu­urberg, the Euro­pean set­tlers es­tab­lished a foothold fol­lowed by the mis­sion­ar­ies.

With their pres­ence the colo­nial set­tlers and the mis­sion­ar­ies es­tab­lished mis­sion sta­tions, and schools and hos­pi­tals. Thus it was that the East­ern Cape be­came not just a theatre of war, but also of ed­u­ca­tion and west­ern­i­sa­tion.

The East­ern Cape mis­sion­ary in­sti­tu­tions de­vel­oped the in­dige­nous lan­guages into writ­ten lan­guages, es­tab­lished print­ing presses, trans­lated the Bi­ble, es­tab­lished schools and trained evan­ge­lists.

Among th­ese in­sti­tu­tions the Lovedale Press was fore­most in pub­lish­ing books in Xhosa, and other lan­guages.

In time many of th­ese books were writ­ten by African writ­ers. Now that her­itage of pub­lish­ing is no more. Lovedale Press was closed many years ago. It was re­ported that the last of the print­ing presses was stolen.

Rhodes Univer­sity in Gra­ham­stown hosted a Col­lo­quium this week un­der the theme: Re­think­ing South African Canon­i­cal Writ­ing – Cen­ter­ing the isiXhosa Writ­ings of the 19th and early 20th Cen­tury.

The theme, place and mo­ment is sig­nif­i­cant. This comes at a time when African lit­er­a­ture writ­ten in in­dige­nous lan­guages is los­ing favour at our schools and at uni­ver­si­ties. Book pub­lish­ing by writ­ers in Xhosa has lost mo­men­tum, and only pos­si­bly one news­pa­per is be­ing pub­lished in Xhosa and an­other in Zulu.

There are claims that read­er­ship in African lan­guages is di­min­ish­ing. And yet South Africa has com­mit­ted it­self in the con­sti­tu­tion not only to recog­nise 11 of­fi­cial lan­guages. It obliges “the state to take prac­ti­cal and pos­i­tive mea­sures to el­e­vate the sta­tus and ad­vance the use of th­ese lan­guages.”

A col­lo­quium of this na­ture, though, not held to ad­dress this dis­crep­ancy, can hardly avoid the pol­i­tics of lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture.

How­ever, its call is for a re­think­ing of the canon­i­cal writ­ings in Xhosa of the 19th and early 20th cen­truy.

Th­ese writ­ings have en­joyed the sta­tus of the canon in that they are usu­ally re­ferred to as ref­er­ence points of qual­ity lit­er­a­ture. Although they em­body the en­vi­ron­ment, and mi­lieu of their time, they do re­tain a time­less qual­ity about them. They tell of the his­tory and cus­toms and uses of the lan­guage that may be lost in con­tem­po­rary Xhosa so­ci­ety.

It must be re­mem­bered that much of that early Xhosa writ­ing was au­thored by the prod­ucts of the mis­sion­ary in­sti­tu­tions, un­der the tute­lage of such in­sti­tu­tions.

There is a sense that such writ­ing earned the ap­proval not just of the colo­nial and mis­sion­ary in­sti­tu­tions. This is not un­usual be­cause writ­ers and artists have al­ways func­tioned best with the sup­port of the in­flu­en­tial and those who have the fi­nan­cial means in so­ci­ety.

And yet the craft of a writer is best ex­er­cised un­der con­di­tions of in­de­pen­dence, so that cre­ative arts can draw from the ex­pe­ri­ence and in­sight of the writer. For this rea­son, writ­ing be­comes an in­tel­lec­tual ex­er­cise.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, for ex­am­ple, says in his fa­mous book, De­colonis­ing the Mind, that writ­ing tests the ver­sa­til­ity of lan­guage, and such ver­sa­til­ity opens lan­guage up to ex­press deep thoughts, cul­ture, char­ac­ter, his­tory and cus­toms.

Above all, through lan­guage an un­der­stand­ing of phi­los­o­phy, sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy and all other ar­eas of hu­man cre­ative en­deav­our are cap­tured.

Xhosa writ­ing of the 19th and early 20th cen­tury, writ­ten un­der the cir­cum­stances of colo­nial and im­pe­rial rule, of dis­pos­ses­sion, poverty and in­equal­ity un­der apartheid was bound to ex­press the peo­ple’s search for iden­tity, and self-de­ter­mi­na­tion, the ex­pres­sion of pain, and their con­stant re­volt against the pow­ers of de­hu­man­i­sa­tion.

This lit­er­a­ture also de­picts the peo­ple’s strug­gle at the point of cul­tures that seek to over­whelm them, ur­ban­i­sa­tion and Chris­tian­i­sa­tion. In other words the theme in such early writ­ing was about the search for the hu­man and the power of re­sis­tance.

“Words”, says Chinua Achebe, “be­come weapons again rather than tools; ploughshares are beaten back into spears. Fear and sus­pi­cion take over from open­ness and straight con­ver­sa­tion…”

But writ­ings serve other pur­poses. They do not just rep­re­sent so­ci­ety as it is. Writ­ers are the so­ci­ety. In real­ity they also show that which so­ci­ety wishes to be­come. It raises the level of pos­si­bil­ity and that which is achiev­able to a level where it makes the strug­gle worth­while.

For that rea­son the writer ex­presses a moral truth and an eth­i­cal chal­lenge to one’s own so­ci­ety and read­ers, but also to those in power. Truth telling and moral in­tegrity are a bur­den writ­ers can­not avoid. For, to do so, would be to rob writ­ing of its essence and power.

In the sketches of char­ac­ter that are the skill of a writer are the na­ture and qual­ity of re­la­tion­ships, the ex­tent to which char­ac­ters en­able that qual­ity of be­com­ing hu­man to shine through the chal­lenges of liv­ing, and the abil­ity to evoke emo­tions like love, ha­tred, com­pas­sion, car­ing, and to man­age and over­come emo­tions. In that sense the writer be­comes an eth­i­cal agent.

Wa Thiong’o states it bluntly that when­ever writ­ers are true to their craft they be­come sub­ver­sives. They seek to over­throw the hege­monic mod­els of thought and the qual­ity of re­la­tions. That is be­cause at the hands of a writer, words be­come a soul force.

The con­struc­tion, devel­op­ment and or­gan­i­sa­tions of words into sen­tences, the search for the right word to ex­press the deep emo­tion or idea pro­duces such beauty that be­comes un­for­get­table.

That is the case that wa Thiong’o, es­pe­cially makes for the use of one’s own in­dige­nous lan­guages be­cause they reach deep into the re­cesses of one’s con­scious­ness in a man­ner that trans­lated thought can never achieve.

What then is the chal­lenge for South Africa? The first thing is that lan­guages must be spo­ken. They must be spo­ken in all their va­ri­ety in the streets and places where our peo­ple gather.

Sec­ond, lan­guage arises out of lis­ten­ing. South Africans must learn the art of lis­ten­ing and learn­ing from one an­other. Third, we need to ac­cept that lan­guage is dy­namic. It grows and it gath­ers, all the bet­ter for bor­row­ing from other lan­guages, con­texts and cul­tures. There is no such thing as “pure lan­guage”.

The peo­ple of South Africa must be set free to speak as they feel.

The Re-think­ing Col­lo­quium is set to place South Africa’s writ­ing in Xhosa onto a new par­a­digm of the hu­man, the moral agency and trans­for­ma­tive val­ues for this new South Africa. In other words we learn from the canon­i­cal writ­ings, but we also ad­vance from where they left off. Pro­fes­sor Nyameko Bar­ney Pityana is a hu­man rights lawyer, the­olo­gian and the Thabo Mbeki Foun­da­tion’s pro­gramme ad­viser

READ­ING THE FU­TURE: Teacher Regi­nald Sikhwari with his class of Grade 11 pupils at Sekano-Ntoane school in Soweto. While it is im­por­tant to learn other lan­guages, one’s mother tongue should be cel­e­brated in text and the spo­ken word.

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