Wednesday, January 23, 2008

My final paper of African History course

The Important Position of the English Language in Colonial Africa

It is true that from the linguistic point of view, every language is equally important, beautiful, and applied. However, sometimes, when a certain language is put in a particular social context, the situation is going to be changed dramatically. For example, during the colonial Africa, English was something else that far more than a language. From the political aspect, English was a weapon Africans had to use in order to fight for freedom and equality. It was also microphone that made Africans’ opinions was possible to be heard in the world. Moreover, the English language made strong impact on ordinary African people’s lives too. People fluently speaking in English could obtain better job opportunities and move to higher social level. Although it is a rational concern that the widespread English could undermine African original languages and culture, the English language has made significant contribution on the political and economical aspects throughout colonial Africa; it was indispensable for both the African nations’ liberation and the common people’s everyday lives.
Acquiring English was one of the important factors that allowed Africans to make effect in the abolitionism in the nineteenth century. Slavery was a two-side issue related to European slave owners from one side and African slaves from another side. Before the emergence of African English writers and speakers, the Africans’ life, feeling, suffering was ignored; the Europeans’ enormous misdeeds were possible to be deliberately hid. Although it is not true that in Europe and North America, everybody supported slavery and tolerated the dehumanization toward Africans, people believed in justice were blinded by the voice from only one side; consequently, Africans received little assistance from the potential resources. However, while Africans who learned English, a nearly boundless new world opened for them. They could communicate and conduct with people who were friendly and willing to help, but debating, arguing and challenging with some people who were hostile and appositive on the way of African’s liberation. Africans’ will and opinions became available to the world; their influence was increasing and they were closer to their dream of freedom and equality.
Olaudah Equiano can be considered a good example that former African slaves learned English and used inspire more people rising up to against the slavery. Olaudah Equiano’s autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano Written by Himself, was an influential abolitionist book in Britain that first published in 1789 and went through eight editions in 1790s. This book, from the description of Equiano’s personal experience, reflected the miserable fact that all the African slaves encountered. Equiano’s depiction was vivid and impressive; especially, at that moment African slaves were shipped and about to set off from their homeland. Equiano said that he was terrified by the idea that “[he] had gotten into a world of bad spirits and that they were going to kill [him].”[1] Also, he said, “Indeed such were the horrors of my views and fears at the moment that, if ten thousand worlds had been my own, I would have freely parted with them all to have exchanged my condition with that of the meanest slave in my own country.”[2] He accused the whites were “in so savage a manner.”[3] Because of Equiano’s English capability, he offered Europeans valuable first hand information of how European slave owners brutal treated towards Africans and what the actual lives of Africans were. Besides writing books in English, Equiano delivered speech in the public in British towns and cities. He was considered that he “must be given at least some of the credit for the act of Parliament in 1807 that abolished the British slave trade.”[4]
While Equiano used English to make influence and gain understanding and support from Europeans, Nelson Mandela, a famous African political leader, used English as a tool to fulfill his political duty, fighting for freedom and equality for his country and people. Because of his fluent English, Mandela could easily communicate with whites, delivering speeches in public, and organizing protests and negotiations. His autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, which presented his excellent English writing skill, was inspiring and very enjoyable to be read. In fact, this book was not only about his personal life, but promoted the African issues to be known by both Africans and people in the rest world. The audiences of this book include whites and blacks, commoners and elites. In short, Mandela’s English capability directly contributed to his political life.
In addition, Mandela’s early life experience represented how African intellectuals took a serious concern on education and English. Mandela’s father was a chief in the local tribe and an advisor of kings, a typical elite in African society. Through his career and life experience, it is reasonable to assume he was a thoughtful man and keenly understood the meaning of education and English language to his son’s future. Although the narrative about him occupied a little length in the book, the fact that he entrusted the regent to be Mandela’s guardian before his death revealed how he was wise. Indeed, supported by the regent, Mandela attended school and studied English and other subjects since nine years old.[5] Because of the decision and effort from his father and the regent, Mandela was walking into a path of great accomplishment though it was indeed difficult.
Mandela himself had a strong belief on English study too. He had done all the courses in English that were required for a B.A..[6] After he attended the University of the Witwatersrand, he valued that “the English-speaking universities of South Africa were great incubators of liberal values.”[7] Also, Mandela’s life in Johannesburg was an important period in his life in which he completed his B.A. and got his first job in a law office. His English skill became a necessary tool to fulfill his ambition to become a lawyer and a future political leader.
A common village boy, Njoroge, in Weep Not, Child by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, possesses same the enthusiasm for education and English language as well as the political leader Mandela had. In the very beginning of this book, there is a conversation between Njoroge and his mother. Njoroge shows his zeal to study, despite the difficulty of the family, his mother decides to support him. The motivation of Njoroge’s strong will to go to school is not to be a political leader or for any great ambition, but, as his brother suggests and he agrees, to “have a new and better home for the whole family.” [8] Njoroge is an example to represent the common Africans who expected through study English to improve the financial and social situation of themselves or their families.
There is a point that may be worthy of further explanation. Strictly speaking, Education is a much broader field than English study. However, because of the particular situation in colonial Africa, English became the synonym of education. English meant education, and education meant a good future and to be rich. “A knowledge of English was the criterion of a man’s learning.”[9] In the book Weep not, Child, the author describes Njoroge’s understanding of education as, “I think Jacobo is as rich as Mr Howlands because he got education. And that’s why each takes his children to school because of course they have learnt the value of it.”[10] While Njoroge discusses how the white took all their land with his friend Mwihaki, they conclude that because “There was nobody to teach [black people] English.”[11]
Despite the benefit that English has provided, Africans held a complicated emotion towards English. On the one hand, they demanded it for the subsistence of reasons; on the other hand, it was impossible that Africans considered English as seem as their own languages; after all, it was their enemy’s language. For a more realistic reason, the widespread English language, among with other Western civilization such as Christianity has been undermining African language, culture, and traditions. African children had been thinking that it was a wonderful thing to go to a missionary school. However, while children who attended the schools, they were almost allowed to speak English only. As Wangari Maathai described, to avoid punishment, “Even when [she and her friends] went home or met children from school in the village, [they] tended to speak English.”[12] Through many years under Western education in missionary schools, those children might forget many of their African traditions. When they grow up, because of their education, they will occupy the most important positions in African society. If they spoke English only and preferred western civilization, one has to doubt how the original African languages and culture could be carried on. It is one of the saddest things that a nation or an ethnic group lose their identity. Thus, despite the advantage the English language provided to Africans, the negative aspects of it are necessary of concern.
In conclusion, the English language made a huge impact in colonial Africa. It was not only the weapon the African politicians and elites took to fight for freedom, but also a key that common Africans used to access a richer life and higher social status. For this reason, Africans put an extreme emphasis on it and appropriately valued it as the whole meaning of education. Although there were some challenges to English due to its over influence, the important position of the English language in colonial Africa is doubtless.

[1]Olaudah Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano Written by Himself. (New York: Houghtom Mifflin, 2004) 118.
[2]Equiano, The Interesting Narrative. (New York: Houghtom Mifflin, 2004) 118.
[3]Equiano, The Interesting Narrative. (New York: Houghtom Mifflin, 2004) 118.
[4] Andrea and Overfield, The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano Written by Himself. (New York: Houghtom Mifflin, 2004) 115.
[5] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom. (New York: Little Brown, 1994), 15.
[6] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom. (New York: Little Brown, 1994), 60.
[7] Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom. (New York: Little Brown, 1994), 78.
[8] Ngugi wa Thiong’o,Weep Not, Child. (Oxford: Heineman, 1964), 4.
[9] Ngugi wa Thiong’o,Weep Not, Child. (Oxford: Heineman, 1964), 44.
[10] Ngugi wa Thiong’o,Weep Not, Child. (Oxford: Heineman, 1964), 4.
[11] Ngugi wa Thiong’o,Weep Not, Child. (Oxford: Heineman, 1964), 37.
[12] Wangari Maathia, Education and the State of Emergency. (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2006) 60.


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