Speaking About Africa…


In Africa, there are very few people who speak of the continent as a singular place. The people of Africa joined and separated into hundreds – if not thousands – of various groupings living in given countries on a large continent. But the truth is that their underlying loyalties are to family and tribe and that is how an ordinary African think of himself/herself.

They may be Ghanaian, Nigerian, Sudanese, Congolese, etc. – and they do identify themselves as such when abroad, in their homeland they first think of themselves as tribal and sub-tribal members. Their loyalties begin with their extended family identity. Westerners who have lived among these people, for the most part, recognize them in that manner. Among Kenyans, Barack Obama was viewed through his father’s identity as a Luo. That he was the American President did not change his tribal identity in their minds. Those outsiders passing through – and this includes official observers and even journalists – tend to see only the immediately obvious whether it’s the hotel facilities or the degree of professionalism of those who are paid to serve them. At best these visitors barely see and sense the essential character and concerns of those of the “interior.”

For these reasons, commentary on Africa as a unified whole is ultimately irresponsible and perhaps even specious. The first phase of what might be adjudged dissimulation occurred as a result of the various colonial powers insisting the colonies learn the language of their “masters. ” This, in turn, brought about an artificial transformation of the surface culture of the region concerned. Legal documents of all kinds had to be in the colonial language along with the appropriate legal actions deemed appropriate. Educational institutions constructed by these European powers, of course, were again based on the appropriate colonial language and formulas. It is true, however, that in some areas generally accepted lingua franca such as Swahili was in common use among many tribes in East Africa. Nonetheless, English predominated in all serious colonial governmental affairs.

Interestingly, in today’s independent Africa the colonial language tends to remain in general use, though more through convenience rather than any governmental necessity. However, indigenous language has regained its original importance and is certainly a factor in local political movements. These local languages and dialects stemming from them act to bring a sense of cohesion. Where there once was a social as well as a political discordance in speaking in tribal tongues, today both locally and nationally indigenous languages are no longer frowned upon  – although sometimes the more obscure becomes difficult for others to understand.  Nonetheless, these linguistic issues are worked out and it is accepted that in spite of these problems a greater true sense of independence evolves.

It is this sense of independence that drives all phases of African political life, but it also, unfortunately, returns old barriers and rivalries to the larger community that colonial control tended to diminish or obscure. A conspicuous example of an alternative arose many decades ago in South Africa where there evolved an entirely new language melding Dutch, German, French and even English with a smattering of other Euro and African languages. The use of Afrikaans, as it is known, stretched northward to a degree into Zimbabwe, Namibia, and the bordering states. However, it did not become politically significant as one might suspect. In the Northeast African states where Islam has had a stronghold, Arabic has returned as a powerful linguistic and political tool.

It is true, however, that in most of the former colonial states, leaders tend to have a working fluency in the old colonial languages. Thus French, English, Italian, Portuguese and even a sprinkling of Spanish still can be heard, though the German of their pre-WWI colony of Tanganyika is rarely encountered. European language speakers in the political sphere in Africa find it both a convenience and a tool for dissimulation when they wish to. This is a device not unknown to European or even Asian history. In Africa language can open and close doors, sometimes at the same time.