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Mothertongue versus English for African Poets?

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There are several informed views about the implications of foreign languages, and specifically the English language, on the creative process and product of African poets, whether they write in their vernacular languages or not.

Ngugi Wa Thiong’o of Kenya believes that “African poetry, true African poetry, is never written in any language outside the African’s mother tongue.”

Emmanuel Ngara of Zimbabwe feels that “to choose a language is to choose an audience and by the fact of writing in English, French, or Portuguese the poet has chosen to address members of the African petty bourgeoisie and westerners.

But others, like Dambudzo Marechera, the late Shona and Zimbabwean poet, choose the English language “as a means of escape and mental liberation while at the same time undermining and subverting the former colonial language and its implications.” (Edited here)

The English language and other Western influences pervade daily life in African countries, like Zimbabwe, once colonised by the British. Even today, the Western way of life is considered the ideal, while the traditional African lifestyles are quickly becoming part of a distant past, and persons who desire to write poetry are systematically forced to decide whether to write in English or in their own African languages.

Whatever their choices, African poets know that they are excluding part of their intended audience and limiting their own creative mode of expression, since most are, because of colonisation, quite literally multi-lingual people. Within these choices of language, such multi-lingual African poets find limitations to overcome and freedoms to enjoy. Use of the English language, which carries the baggage of the oppressor’s culture, usually becomes a mode of stimulating mental exercise.

On the other hand, the Shona and Ndebele languages, which are most Zimbabwean poets’ more natural forms of communication and expression of feelings, unfortunately limit the global exposure of their work.

Taken from Mother Tongue: Interviews with Musaemura B. Zimunya and Solomon Mutswairo, By Angela A. Williams. The Journal of African Travel-Writing, Number 4, April 1998 (pp. 36-44). Copyright © 1998 The Journal of African Travel-Writing

This raises these issues ...

1. Are you a poet dealing with this di-trichotomy? Speaking more than 1 language but writing only in English? Is this a matter of your ability to write best in English or for other reasons?

2. Do you write in your mothertongue(s)? We know that much is lost in translation. In the case of poetry, some believe translation is not possible except via communication of a “sister-poem” in the 2nd language. What is the difference does it make to write in English if this is not your mothertongue? What is gained? What is lost?

What is your experience? Have your say below.

The writer should be mastering the language. The language should be the slave, we must brutalize it into our own shape. This is the best way to fight back our own former slavery. But every time we try, language escapes. And so we have to beat it again and again and to capture and to punish it again and again.

Dambudzo Marechera

  1. Recently when I was looking for O.K. Matsepe’s Sepedi collection, is when I realized that indigenous languages are rapidly fading out and no matter what is said in golden speeches, our government is not doing enough to save them. Small bookshops which tried their best to treasure this cultural wealth are shutting down. I currently had to buy as many books as possible from the only bookshop that sells non-school syllabus Sepedi literature in Polokwane (or Perhaps the entire Limpopo Province) hence soon it might also face closure. Though National Library of South Africa is reprinting SOME of these literary classics in indigenous languages, how can an ordinary man access them? What is done to help and encourage current and future indigenous writers hence English is uplifted by its wide readership and commercial advantage. What are bodies such as PanSALB doing on the ground level? I admit; developing all eleven languages might require serious funds but can’t something be done to ensure that they are at least preserved hence within them; our culture and identity are embedded. In varsities departments based on indigenous languages studies are also shutting down. Taban lo Liyong once said: “If we don’t rescue our own languages, we shall become orphans to our own languages and not even be accepted by the English language that we are using. It is we, the writers, who will have to keep our languages alive.” Sixteen years after democracy, what is it which is done to stop this deterioration? How hopeless is the situation in such a way that folding of arms can be the only option? Where do we start saving our indigenous languages?

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  2. Interestingly enough, by virtue of this being written in English (a non-African language) and this reply following suit, we help push our own mother tongues into the good night. Having said that, I believe that even though we use this particular dialect as the main tool for communicating with each other, it remains as the instrument and we are the musicians that make the music.
    We must never lose sight of the messages we ought to pass on.

    It’s a hard place we find ourselves in. We must keep keeping on.

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  3. i want to become a best poet of my home language isixhosa

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