"Against Literary Passports: the Many Languages of African Literature" (Conference Paper)

The long(er) version of a paper I delivered yesterday at the "From Asmara 2000 to Nairobi 2014: New Horizons and Trends in Africa Languages and Literatures" conference at Kenyatta University in/at the edge of Nairobi. Having delivered it, I am now much clearer on what I should have written instead: I should have shown more, told less, though harder about how and less strenuously about what. It is instructive that especially when broad polemics—such as the “declarations” that are ritualistically issued from such conferences—serve as claims of intellectual priority, in practice, there is also a quiet but real tension between such rhetoric and the almost mechanical process of actually-making-it-happen. Perhaps both are necessary, in some mutually dialectic way. But I was struck, for example, by the ways something like the African Storybook Project is engaged in just getting out of the ways of storytellers, of simply enabling and materializing the presence of the ball you need if you want to play soccer, as they put it. Polemics run dry when everyone already agrees on the “what must be done,” and meta-polemics might be even drier.

In short, I wrote this paper, and doing so has made me think hard about the kind of paper I would like to have written instead. I guess that's a good process.


The Asmara declaration of 2000 emphasizes the problem of linguistic “incongruity”:

“We identified a profound incongruity in colonial languages speaking for the continent. At the start of a new century and millennium, Africa must firmly reject this incongruity and affirm a new beginning by returning to its languages and heritage.”

I am interested in the choice of the word “incongruity,” here, and in the implication that an incongruity, as such, is a bad thing. Why would it be? More specifically, why is it incongruous for a colonial language to speak for Africa? In one sense, the answer is obvious, and we all know why. Though the Asmara declaration does not define what makes an African language “African,” or clarify the difference between languages which are really African, and languages which are colonial, and therefore external to Africa, this is the distinction: to be colonial is not to be African, and vice versa.

The neatness of this definition is tempting. And most of the time, it works, and we all more or less know, in practice, what the term “African language” means, and why it is a bad thing for “colonial languages” to speak for the continent. Colonial languages are not African, by virtue of being colonial, which is to say: they are alien, imported, and foreign, imposed by conquering invaders by force and, with the end of colonial rule, left without a reason for their continuing and widespread use. If we can agree about that, then we can probably all agree that, as colonial languages, English, Portuguese, and French are not “African languages.”

To that list, some would add Arabic, in the same way that when people say Africa they often mean sub-Saharan Africa, what the colonial rulers called “black Africa.” Arabic would not be considered an African language, then, in the same way that Egypt or Algeria are sometimes not considered African countries. But it’s always easier to act as if the distinction is obvious and apparent than it is to explain why it is, or defend it. One might even go so far as to call Kiswahili a colonial language. The story of Kiswahili in Africa goes back eight centuries at least, yet even in mainland Tanzania, the history of Swahili is also the story of German colonial administration and then British. Certainly it’s an African language; when pan-Africanists suggest a continental language to unite Africa, Swahili is almost always the obvious choice, since it’s the closest thing to a truly pan-African language one could name. And yet, it would be hard to argue that it isn’t also a colonial language, especially when you start talking about places like Uganda or Eastern Congo, where it was colonization that changed Swahili from a trade language to a necessary language of everyday life. As Johannes Fabian and others have shown, Kiswahili was used as a language of domination by the Franco-Belgian colonizers in many parts of Central Africa, as well as by Germans and English in East Africa. At independence, when Uganda considered adopting Swahili as a national language, Milton Obote's government declared that "Swahili, though spoken widely in East Africa and elsewhere, is not a mother-tongue in Uganda." The minister of education would declare Swahili to, in fact, "as foreign to Uganda as Gujerati."

I hope you’ll forgive me for telling you what you no doubt already know. But this, I think, is the problem: when we have this discussion, we so often already know what we already know. We can say “African language” as if we all agree what we’re talking about. We have to, in fact. The more we talk about what we know, the less clear it can be that we actually know it: if you start talking about the nuances and histories and ambiguities of language, it becomes harder and harder to take a clear and unambiguous stand, or achieve consensus. If the drafters of the Asmara Declaration had tried to define what they meant by “African” language—to draw clear borders between mother-tongues and foreign—that specificity would have made consensus more difficult, as a variety of linguistic realities would suddenly find themselves crossed by the border.

To put it differently, then, linguistic realities—the lived texture of language use and the histories that language contains within it—do not allow for the kind of straightforward polemicizing that a document like the Asmara declaration, and declarations of its kind, require. My point is not to criticize it, then, or the people who wrote it; my point is to illuminate the structural constraints that they were operating under, and which make it nearly impossible to come to any kind of workable consensus on what is, or isn’t, an African language. One has no choice but to beg the question. This is why even the famous polemicists who first defined this debate in Anglophone literary critical circles, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe, have much more complicated relationships with language than their polemic stances might sometimes indicate. Ngugi’s famous “Decolonizing the Mind” was to be his farewell to the English language, but he has written his last two memoirs in English, first, and always been more widely read in English than in any other language. And Achebe, though a defender of English as a national language of unity for Nigeria, has also written in Igbo, and his dreams for the state of Biafra might have included an adoption of Igbo as a primary literary language, had the fortunes of war not intervened.

These inconsistencies are not criticisms of these writers, however; the problem is that linguistic borders are messy, ambiguous, and impossible to clarify. And to put it more bluntly, it is often not a good idea to clarify the difference between us and them:

To declare that "Swahili is not a mother-tongue in Uganda,” or that it is “as foreign to Uganda as Gujerati,” is to call upon the same system of racial classification that colonial law used to differentiate Africans from Asians. And as Mahmood Mamdani has powerfully demonstrated, this binary division between Africans and Foreigners has continued to structure the ways in which certain postcolonial African states have defined some Africans as less African than others, sometimes with genocidal consequences. Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians from Uganda in 1972 and the Rwandan genocide, after all, were both conducted under the official claim that Ugandan Asians and Rwandan Tutsis were foreign invaders, and could thus be targeted for repression. The same linguistically xenophobic dynamic can inform ethnic violence anywhere; in 2007, when speaking the wrong mother-tongue could mark the speaker as the target of political repression and violence. And what does it mean to speak Somali in Kenya, today?

My point, simply put, is that striving for clarity and simplicity in these matters may not be a good thing. In Africa, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, borders are fictions whose fantastical claims are revealed the closer you get to them: when the Berlin conference of 1885 created the borders of British East Africa, they created political divisions between Somali speakers, Maa speakers, and Luo speakers that had not previously obtained. They started calling the Swahili speaking people of the coast “Arabs” even though they had been living there for centuries. There are so many similar examples that I won’t belabor the point. What makes Eritreans “African” while the people of Yemen are Arabs is the Red Sea and politics. But the languages most commonly spoken in both countries—the “mother” tongues for both peoples—are more similar to each other than they are different: while Modern Standard Arabic is the most commonly used language in both countries, the many South Semitic languages spoken in the region connect the horn of Africa to the middle East and vice versa. Language is better at showing the falseness of boundaries—and the violence necessary to police them—than at making them seem natural and God-given.

Now, nothing I’ve said so far should be interpreted as any kind of dissent from the desire to encourage and honor the status of African languages in Africa, especially vis-à-vis English and French; it’s my own shame that my Swahili is as bad as it is. My argument is different: to embrace the linguistic diversity of the African continent’s cultures and societies, it’s important to think about the kinds of diversity that the colonial mind could not comprehend, and sought to stamp out. For the British and the French—and for the United States, today—the norm has long been monolinguistic non-diversity: to be British or American is to speak English; to be French, French. In my own state of Texas, to be a “Hispanic,” which is to say, a speaker of Spanish, is to be treated as if you are a member of a foreign ethnic group. “Hispanic” is almost a synonym for Mexican. This is what settler colonialism does: Spanish speakers whose families have lived in Texas for longer than the United States has existed are suddenly marked as foreign.

But is there anything less “African” than speaking only one language? What family tree describes an unbroken line of linguistic continuity going back to the dawn of time? In fact, if we think of language in terms of family trees, what we get is intermixture, going all the way back: Swahili is filled with Arabic ancestors (and so is Spanish), the same way English is filled with German, French, and other European languages. This is just as true almost anywhere in Africa: if you can describe the languages spoken on the African side of the Red Sea as belonging to one branch of the Semitic family of languages, and languages on the southern Arabian peninsula as belonging to the other, the metaphor of trees shows us how what we’re really talking about is a single, broad family, joined by the hyphen in Afro-Asiatic. But just like human families, languages are exogamous, and they grow and evolve by taking in new information as they expand and intermix and karibu strangers to come closer. If English is a good literary language, it’s because it has promiscuously picked up a tremendous amount of genetic material from other languages, and the same is true of Arabic or Swahili, and probably every language ever. We should embrace this diversity. Hybrid vigor is a good thing; inbreeding is not.

If we think about language in this way, it becomes harder and harder to draw clear distinctions between authentically African languages and colonial languages. Which is not to say that it isn’t still important to decolonize the mind, but that it means something different to do so. The problem with colonial languages was never that they were foreign, it was that they were a means of domination and control. But an African language can also be a means of domination and control; it isn’t where a language came from that determines the difference, but how it is used and what it is used to do. After all, when the Asmara declaration demands that “All African children have the unalienable right to attend school and learn in their mother tongues,” this is a different claim than “All African children have the unalienable right to attend school and learn in African languages.”

I want to close, then, by observing something that my friend Keguro Macharia pointed out to me, as I was preparing this essay. In a eulogy for a friend, Ngugi wa Thiong’o referred to himself as living not in California, but in “Karibonia.”

In the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors named part of North America after a mythical country in a popular novel of the time; today, it’s one of the fifty states in the United States, as well as two states in Mexico, Baja California and Alta California Sur. Some scholars think the Spanish novelist Garcia Rodríguez de Montalvo took the name from the eleventh century French epic, La Chanson de Roland, in which it appears as a line describing two of the places where the speaker expected rebellion:

“And in Africa, and those in Califerne”

When placed right after “Africa,” the speaker might mean “Califernia” as a derivative of Caliph, or “Caliphate,” a reference to an Islamic state ruled by a Caliph.

What language is the word “California”? If it includes Arabic, French, Spanish, and English—and lives right next to Africa—why can’t it also be Kikuyu, as in “Njikaraga Karibonia Amerika”? Why not all of the above?

Not to make too much of this, but it’s a nice reminder of the fact that even Ngugi’s Kikuyu was always a reinvention, never something to return to but always a means of marking the way forward, especially by taking on new words. In that vein, let me stop by suggesting that maybe language itself, is—if you’ll pardon me—a kind of karibunia, a country that welcomes everyone and never checks your papers.