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Africa: Reading for All
Sep 22, 2009 (090922)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
Shortly after sending out yesterday's AfricaFocus Bulletin on the
Global Fund for Education, I received an e-mail from a reader
alerting me to reports from the recent 6th Pan African Reading for
All Conference, held in Dar es Salaam in August. The conference
attracted over 500 delegates from 34 countries, and featured two
keynote addresses by Kenyan author and activist Ngugi wa Thiong'o,
in addition to sharing of research and experience in more than 200
Every two years beginning in 1999, there has been a Pan African
Reading for All Conference, sponsored by the International
Development Committee for Africa, the leadership of African
councils of the International Reading Association. The conference
is independent of government and run by educators in their
In a set of resolutions and recommendations, this year's conference
called on writers, readers, publishers, booksellers, and governments, as well
as educators, to overcome the obstacles to literacy on the continent, including the failure
to prioritize reading materials in African languages.
This AfricaFocus Bulletin, available on the web but not sent out by
e-mail, contains one of the two keynote addresses by Ngugi wa
Thiong'o, and the resolutions and recommendations from the
conference. Additional material from the conference is available on
the conference blog at http://6thpanafricanrfa.blogspot.com/
Access to some of the documents cited on the blog requires
membership in the Google group.
To join the Google group, write to email@example.com.
Once included in the group, you can read all previous conference
information and reports as well as be informed of future events.
The next Pan African Reading for All Conference will be held
in Botswana in 2011.
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Ngugi Wa Thiong'o
Resistance to Linguistic Feudalism and Darwinism: Conditions for
Creating a Reading Culture in Africa:
Keynote Address at the Pan-African Reading for All Conference
University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, 11th August, 2009.
I want to start by congratulating the organizers of this conference
for the nothing can surpass in importance books as entries into
human history. I like to the lines quoted from morality plays in
the Everyman Library series: Everyman will go with thee and
everywhere be thy guide. The book as a guide! That's why what one
of the speakers said yesterday facetiously that that if you want to
hide something from an African, put it in a book, is sad, tragic
even, where it is true. But I would put it differently and say that
if you want to hide knowledge from an African child, put it in
English or French. Tragically this is true; it is what we do to our
I remember when my mother used to send on a journey alone, to sme
relatives for instance, she would give me rigu, food and water for
a rainy day, and then would sit me down and tell me everything
about the path before me to ensure that I would not get lost. Every
instruction was punctuated with: do you understand? Then would she
let me go. Only a very irresponsible parent would give instructions
in words and language that the child does not understand. Now,
nothing is more important than life's journey; and yet we in Africa
following the colonial path, send our children on the journey of
life with instructions coded in European languages. The colonialist
may have wanted us to go astray, but why would we , an independent
Africa, want our children to get lost? More likely, it's a case of
the lost giving instructions on how to lose your way in life.
In my book, Decolonising the Mind, published in 1984, I told the
story of my relationship to my mother tongue, Kikuyu, and my
language of education, English. English was also the official
language of the colonial state. I told how we used to be punished
when we were caught speaking an African language in the school
compound. We were humiliated by being made to carry a piece we
called Monitor around our necks, literally stating that we were
stupid. This humiliation and negativity were attached to African
languages in the learning process. A good performance in English on
the other hand was greeted with acclaim. Two things were taking
place in the cognitive process: Positive affirmation English as a
means of intellectual production; and criminalization of African
languages as means of knowledge production. With English, went
pride: with African languages, shame. For a long time I used to
think that this was an African problem.
But some years ago, when I was researching my new Book,
Re-Membering Africa, which has just been published, I found out
that what was done to Africa had already been done to the Welsh. In
19th century Welsh kids caught speaking their mother tongue in
school compound were also humiliated by being made to carry
something around their necks with initials: WN-Welsh Not. At the
very least, my colonial story had been re-enacted in Wales.
Even earlier than Wales was the case of the relationship between
English and Irish languages. English Colonial settlement was first
tried out in Ireland in 16th century. But the English were finding
it difficult to conquer the Irish or rather, tame them. In 1598,
Edmund Spencer, a contemporary of Shakespeare and the celebrated
author of the Fairie Queen and other poetic works, published A View
of Ireland at the Present Time. Spencer was an English land owner
in Ireland, a neighbor to Walter Raleigh, the founder of the colony
of Virginia. In the book, A View of Ireland, Spencer literally
prescribes a cultural solution to the political and military
problem posed by the Irish resistance. He argues that if you change
their names, strike out the Mc's and O's of their naming system,
and then impose English, the irish would soon forget the Irish
nation. Language conquest would enable indeed complete political
conquest. The solution to native resistance is thus seen as lying
in the erasure of their memory through changing their memory
through changing their language and main system.
Its real the same colonial process dramatized in Shakespeare's The
Tempest where Caliban loses his tongue and then his land to
prospero. When Caliban complains about the loss of his natural and
human resources, Prospero accuses him of ingratitude for seemingly
forgetting the gift of Prospero's language : but then Caliban
curses back, pointing out that the price of learning Calioban's
language is the loss of his sovereignty: I was my own subject, now,
your slave. Language in other words is part of that transition from
freedom to slavery.
Africans who were taken to Americans by force by Raleigh and his
descendants to become plantation slaves had their languages and
their names literally banned almost as if the colonists were
reading from Spenser's manual. In the place of African names, they
were given those of their owners. Even the drum language was banned
by the act of banning the instrument itself. But the plantation
master never loast his linguistic connection to Europe . The
Spanish ,French, Dutch and English plantation owners remained
connected to their european Languages.
We find similar practices in Asia . Japan banned the Korean
language and imposed Japanese during the brief Japanese colonial
era. We can say the same things relative to the indigenous peoples
of Australia, New Zealand, South and North America. In the history
of modern colonialism all the colonial powers, at one time or
rather , have imposed their languages on the conquered peoples,
thus ensuring that the entire system of production, dissemination
and consumption of knowledge takes place through the colonial
language only. Even the very identity of the colonized is expressed
in the language of conquest. In Africa, in other words identities
based on the language of the colonial conquest.
The case fro mental conquest through language was put best by
McCauley, the British Secretary of Education, who argued, in his
famous minutes on Indian education, that English should be used to
create a class, Indians in the name , but otherwise imbued with an
English mentality; this class , he argued will help the British
effectively governors and the governed.
We can then generalize and say that where there is a situation of
domination and subordination, between any two groups, whatever
their color or religion, this will be reflected in the language
relationship. Unfortunately the linguistic imbalance of power takes
a life of its own and may continue even after the underlying
economic and political situation has changed . I believe that is
how English and other European languages have come to be in the
position in which they are today vis-…-vis other languages in the
world, languages through which instructions for children on their
life's journey, are coded, with the gleeful approval of their own
parents. The result of the many years of imperial relationship
between Europe and the rest of the globe is world of languages
divided into a dominant few, largely from Europe, and marginalized
many, largely from Africa and Asia and Americans. Today , four of
the five languages of the UN security Council, are European. It is
also not a coincidence that European and the West happen also to be
the dominant economically in the world.
There fore the problem is global, not peculiar to Africa, although
it manifests its worst results in our continent. While the problem
is basically economic and political; but philosophically , its
roots lie in the conception of relationship between languages in
terms of hierarchy, a kind of linguistic Feudalism and linguistic
Linguistic and cultural feudalism is the view consciously or
unconsciously held that some languages between and even within
nations, are of higher order than others; that they constitute an
aristocracy while others, in a descending order of being, occupy
lesser positions, different degrees of minions.
In the world today, a handful of western languages constitute that
aristocracy. They dominate in the production and dissemination of
ideas; they dominate in publishing and distribution and consumption
of knowledge; they control the flow of ideas. Intellectuals who
come from the supposedly lesser languages find that, to be visible
globally, they must produce and store ideas in Western European
languages, English mostly. In the case of most intellectuals from
Africa and Asia, they become visible on the world stage but
simultaneously invisible in their own cultures and languages.
Global visibility comes at the price of local or regional
This is because the dominant languages become perceived, even by
the dominated, as having all the magic power of knowledge and
production of ideas, culture itself, where the dominated languages
are seen as having the opposite. They are incapable of producing
knowledge and good ideas. But I wish it was simply a case of
linguistic feudalism is being transformed into linguistic Darwnism.
Linguistic Darwinism is the extreme product of hieratic dominant
language is dependent of the death of other languages. Languages
can grow but only on the graveyard of others, an attitude that
underlies all practices of monolingualism. In this most extreme
form of monolingualism, lingulstic. Darwinism sees the growth of a
national language as being dependant on the death of all the other
languages. This is the assumption behind many national language
policies: in order for the national language to be, other languages
The death of any language is the loss of knowledge contained in
that language. The weakening of any language is the weakening of
its knowledge producing potential. It is a human loss. The saying
cited yesterday that the death on old person is the death of a
library is probably more true of languages. Imagine the
impoverishment of world culture if all the learning in say
classical Greek and Latin had died with the languages? Today we can
only imagine but never know the loss of knowledge with the
disappearance of so many languages on earth. Each language on
matter how small contains the best knowledge of its immediate
environment: the plants and their properties, for instance.
Language is the primary computer with a natural hard drive.
African languages face the destiny of dinosaurs: things of the
past. For the national, African and even global good, the
prevailing power relationships of languages and cultures, has to be
challenged and hopefully even shaken up. This was the thinking
behind my books, Decolonizing the Mind, and also Re- Membering
My first prescription was that writers from marginalized cultures
and languages had the duty and responsibility of making themselves
visible in their languages. As I did not want to be saying do as I
say but not as I do, I made the decision way back in 1978 to break
with English as the primary mans of my writing, particularly in
fiction and drama. My first novel in Gikuyu, Devil on the Cross,
was first written on toilet paper in a maximum security prison
where I had been put by a postcolonial African Government for
having participated in the writing and performance of a play in my
mother tongue. Today, I still believe that writers and other
intellectuals have the duty to challenge and shake up that view of
languages in theory and practice
But later I realized that though writers bore the primary duty of
producing ideas in African languages, there was another equally
important player. Writers do no do so in order to decorate their
home shelves with unpolished manuscripts. They want to be published
in order to reach the reader. But alas there were no major
publishers in African languages. So lack of publishers in African
languages lead to lack of writers in African languages and
therefore few readers of African language productions and therefore
few publishers willing to risk money by venturing there, and you
can see the vicious circle.
The publisher then is an integral part of any meaningful challenge
to linguistic feudalism and linguistic Darwinism. I have written
several works in Gikuyu. But this would have been impossible
without the willingness of Henry Chakava and the East African
Educational Publishers to invest resources and skills into the
It is not question of books only. There are no journals of creative
and intellectual production in African languages. So a young writer
beginning to write has absolutely no forum in which he can showcase
short pieces, at least. Let me show you what effects a journal can
have by citing my own practice. Conscious of the problem of
journals and with the assistance of the New York University where
I then worked as Professor of Comparative Literature and
Performance Studies, I founded a journal of culture and modern
literature in 1992. Mutiri was the first of its kind in Gikuyu.
Even under very limited circulation the journal has made some
impact. Let me cite one example.
A Kenyan student, Gatua wa Mbugua, was doing his senior paper at
the university of California, Santa Cruiz, when he came across the
journal, Mutiri, at a friend's house. It was the first time that he
was seeing modem poetry and essays in Gikuyu. He immediately
started writing his own poems and songs in Gikuyu. Later at Cornell
University, he wrote the first ever Masters Dissertation on Crop
science in Gikuyu. And early this year, he successfully defended
his Doctorate in Agricultural science at Wyoming university. Where
his field work for his Masters was done in Kenya, that for his
dissertation was carried out in the central Highlands of Wyoming.
He had to be very dedicated to his task. For his examiners in both
cases at Cornell and Wyoming, he had to give a English transition
of the thesis and dissertation. As for as I know, this was the
first doctoral science dissertation in an African language,
certainly so in Gikuyu. The point here is that it was a Gikuyu
language journal that inspired him to do what he has done, and now
he is committed to producing smaller and simpler science texts in
The writer and the publisher need another partner. The government.
Many African states don't have a national language policy in a
multilingual situation, meaning African languages. In some cases
they have shown hostility. Whatever we may say of colonial states,
they, through literature Bureaus, often came up with some sort of
policies. Some post colonial governments have even shown active
hostility to African languages. Governments have to create an
enabling environment in terms of policies and resources. We have
only to look at Kiswahili in Tanzania today, the result of
Nyerere's progressive linguistic foresight, continued in the
successor Tanzanian governments. By Kiswahili having a home and a
base, it is the one African language that is becoming an active
player in the globe.
The fourth partner is of course the seller of books. Booksellers
have to be willing to stock books written in African languages. At
present this is largely missing. There are very few bookshops that
sell African language books.
I could add other partners: award givers and conference organizers.
At present many awards meant to help in he growth of African
literature actually work against African literature and readership.
They give awards that stipulate English as the linguistic means of
literary production. Conference organizers within and outside
Africa recognize only those intellectuals and writers who write in
English. I was talking to Zanzibari writers and on the mainland,
and they all felt that global visibility only went to writers in
English. This obviously has to change: African languages have t
speak for the continent. I have never heard of awards for French
literature that stipulate that such writers, to qualify af French
writers for purposes of French literature awards and conference
invitations, must written in Chinese or Zulu.
There is finally the reader. The reader is the most important
component of the four partners. Without readers and buyers of
African language books, there can never be such a literature. But
then those books have to be there, in the first instance. In other
words the five elements have to work together: writer, visibility
in the world for writers and books in African languages, will come
automatically, from a solid base in Africa.
The choice open to the world should not be between monolingualism
and hierarchy of languages; but between those two models and a
network system among languages. Language relationships within and
between nations should not be in terms of hierarchy but rather in
terms of net-work, with transitions enabling the transmission of
knowledge and ideas between languages, a theme we can explore
I hope this conference will debate and share experiences that will
really create the African reader of African literary and
intellectual productions, a reader who is an integral active member
of the global intellectual productions, a reader who is an integral
active member of the global intellectual community. Father, do not
send me into the dark alone among strangers, says the persona in
one of Sonia Sanchez's poems. Parents have the responsibility to
send their children out into the world quipped with the self
confidence that arises from a clear knowledge of one's base. Let me
put it this way. To know one's language, whatever that language is,
and add others to it is empowerment. But to know all the other
languages while ignorant of one's own is slavery I for one choose
empowerment rather slavery and I believe that this I what this
conference is all about: empowerment through reading.
6th Pan African Reading for All Conference
University of Dar es Salaam,10- 14 August, 2009
Resolutions and Recommendations
1. On reading materials for children and adults
All stakeholders have noted with alarm the lack of both children's
and adult reading materials
- All partners in the book sector (publishers, writers,
governments, booksellers, readers) should cooperate in making sure
that children's and adult books are made available to learners.
- Given the scarcity of books for children in many schools, there
is need for teachers in collaboration with students to make their
own reading materials.
Children's books that are available are often written from the
writers' point of view, instead of the child's, thus making the
book hard to relate to.
- Writers of children's books should focus on issues and themes
that are relevant to children's interests and contexts.
2. On teaching literacy in schools
It has been noted that the habit of reading and writing in schools
- Governments and stakeholders should formulate national reading
and writing policies and guidelines for primary education.
- Every primary school should formulate its own targets, teaching
arrangements and regular assessments in regard to reading and
- In order to enhance the reading habit, teachers should promote
what is called the 'healthy book cycle', i.e, creating books,
reading books and sharing books.
- Teachers should be trained in the current methods of teaching
the skills of reading and writing.
- Teachers should use proper techniques in teaching reading and
writing, bringing into play student-centered approaches.
- Literacy lessons should be linked to every day lives of
- Schools and parents should work together to create a print-rich
environment that beckons children to be inquisitive.
- It is important to ensure that reading and writing remain the
central preoccupation and goal for all stakeholders.
- Socio-economic variables play a significant role in literacy
learning and should be addressed when teaching literacy in schools.
3. On literacy and education for the visually impaired
In matters of literacy, the problems facing the visually-impaired
have not been given sufficient attention.
- Access to reading materials in both Braille and normal
orthography needs to be enhanced.
- More teachers for visually-impaired should be impaired.
- The World Union for the Blind should be made internationally
known and supported for the steps it takes towards literacy for the
4. On mother-tongue literacy and multilingualism
It is noted with concern that African countries have not started
implementing the Harare declaration of 1997 on the use of African
languages in education and the Asmara declaration of 2000 as
regards the use of African languages in the writing of African
- African countries governments should start implementing the
Harare declaration of 1997 on the use of African languages in
education and the Asmara declaration of 2000 as regards the use of
African languages in the writing of African literatures.
- Positive reinforcement of mother-tongue language use should be
encouraged in schools and supported by governments through policy
- For proper teaching of mother-tongues to students, governments
should support fully the training of mother-tongue teachers.
Research has shown that it is easier to become multilingual when
beginning with literacy in one's mother-tongue.
- All stakeholders should work towards promoting and strengthening
the teaching and learning of African mother-tongues.
- Schools should encourage the promotion of mother-tongue
languages through use of traditional story-tellers.
It has been noted that there is a weak link among book sector
stakeholders as far as literacy promotion in African mother-tongues
- There is need for forging a strong partnership among authors,
publishers, booksellers, government and readers.
- The book sector partnership should hold regular reading and
writing competitions in African mother-tongues in order to promote
Most children of the educated families today in African communities
do not learn their mother-tongues.
- All stakeholders should create opportunities and conditions for
our children to learn their mother-tongues.
5. On adult literacy
Adult literacy is an important issue as many adults worldwide lack
reading and writing skills.
- Governments should plan and implement adult literacy programs
that would eliminate illiteracy.
- There is need tp train skilled teachers for adult education in
methodologies specifically designed for adults.
- Governments and other stakeholders should establish permanent
educational facilities which would make adult learning 'life-long',
functional and sustainable.
6. On libraries and literacy
It is noted with concern that there is a visible lack of reading
centres, especially in rural areas.
- Governments and stakeholders should plan and implement the
establishment of reading centers and libraries down to the
grassroots and, where possible, mobile libraries should be put in
- Governments should seriously consider mainstreaming the literacy
successes of local non-governmental organizations such as that of
CBP (Tanzania) and LETTER.
7. On literacy and cultural integration
Africa is endowed with a rich repertoire of literatures that has
not been translated into different African languages.
- Good African stories should be translated in as many African
mother-tongues as possible in order to share cross-cultural and
philosophical experiences, which may be common or unique.
8. On preservation of mother-tongues
Most African languages are on the verge of disappearing owing to
their being marginalized in the current globalized
socio-linguistic, socio-economic and literary setting.
- In this ICT age, there is strong need to plan and implement the
localization of computer programs into the marginalized languages
as a way of promoting and preserving them.
- Broadcast media should also be actively engaged in promoting
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