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Translation and African languages are important, but we need to move beyond activism

Following the Pan-African writers’ collective Jalada Africa’s translation of “The Upright Revolution: Or Why Humans Walk Upright” by Ngugu wa Thiong’o, described as ‘the single most translated short story in the history of African writing’, they hosted an event with the author in Nairobi, focusing on literature in African languages, among other things. Oduor Jagero was there and examines what it means to write in African languages today.

Whenever the controversial topic of translation or writing in African languages is brought up in art spaces such as festivals and workshops, or in conversation, I see myself as both victim and perpetrator. My first language is Luo, a Nilotic tongue that is widely spoken in Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, Sudan, and other countries. Even though my first language is Luo, I wrote two novels and an upcoming one in English. It is a language I often find extremely complicated but it gives me more options for vivid description than my mother tongue does. Even though I have tried over the years to perfect the English language, it often fails to capture the nuances of my mother tongue. In its self-appointed role as the vessel I use to deliver my African stories to the world, it often fails to capture the spirit of my language.

Jalada Africa, led by Moses Kilolo, the managing editor, and Richard Oduku, have taken translation a notch higher. They recently set the literature scene ablaze by achieving what could be called an unofficial Guinness world record: translating a single African story into 55 languages in one publication. “The Upright Revolution” is a story –a fable, according to some – that revolves around the idea that “a long time ago humans used to walk on legs and arms, just like all the other four-limbed creatures.”

The translation has received wide acclaim around the world and, in the aftermath, Moses Kilolo was invited to Stockholm Literature in Sweden. Prof. Ngugi was also a guest at the event. On the sidelines, an arrangement was made to have a reading in Kenya during his very short stay.

The Jalada Conversation

Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o was pleasantly surprised by the budding publisher. He said that this translation “empowers Africa by making Africans own their resources from languages – making dreams with our languages – to other natural resources – making things with them, consuming them, consuming some, exchanging some.”

It was an event put on in a rush. Pawa254, described as ‘a space for creatives who meet, network, share and collaborate on social impact projects designed to foster social change’, and referred to by many as ‘the heartbeat of art’, and writivism became the most convenient venue and event in Nairobi. An invitation to the event was quickly put up on Facebook. Book lovers were thrilled. Even though the Nobel Committee dished out the literature prize to Bob Dylan, now somewhat of a villain in literary circles, Kenyans still hold Wa Thiong’o close to their heart. He is a beacon of hope for young writers. Despite the fact that he left Africa for what many have referred to as ‘looking for greener pastures’, they speak of him as Nigerians speak of Chinua Achebe. He is the father of Kenyan literature.

The room was filled to capacity. To capture the overflow, latecomers had to bundle up on the floor in the narrow, single aisle. Instead, Wa Thiong’o, in his iconic African Kitenge shirt with heavy neckline embroidery, was left to mingle with the people who matter: readers. Moses Kilolo would be in conversation with Wa Thiong’o on identity, language, translation, and the role of a writer in times of political upheaval. But before all that, the curtain raisers – musicians and poets – were epic.

Leading poets and writers such as Ngartia Bryan, Kennet B, Abu Sense, Laura Wanjiru, Wanjiku Mwaura, Njagi M’Mwenda, and Natasha, dramatised excerpts of the story in seven different languages. Those languages were English, Swahili, Dholuo, Gikuyu, Sheng, Kinyarwanda and Kimeru.

The message still lives: All languages are equal

Moses Kilolo invited Ngungi onto the stage by invoking the legend’s words in Decolonizing the Mind that “all languages are equal. All languages deserve a place. And all languages are arbiters of cultural wealth.”

“But the larger part of that work has been either mere rhetoric, or so removed from immediate literary and artistic consumption,” Kilolo said. “It has had little if any impact at all among our generation of readers and writers.” This, I believe is the crossroad where proponents of identity and language find themselves. They say it, they preach it and yet it largely remains just a conversation. The celebrated Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, asked by her interviewer why she did not write in Igbo, said that English was her language and if she were to write in Igbo it would be purely for emotional reasons.

Photo credit: Leah Kanda

Kilolo also acknowledged that platforms started exclusively for African languages have suffered an unforgiving mortality rate. Conversations have been inconsistent and disconnected. But the message still lives, he said. Only the message lives.

These new ideas and propositions are well intended. However, African languages appear to be on a losing streak in as far as the preferred language of telling African stories is concerned. The biggest challenge for me is how this conversation will move out of the glittery literary stages and slowly get into some sort of reality.

As a Luo living in Nairobi City, I would reach absolutely no one if I wrote in that language. Richard Oduor, the programme manager at Jalada, disagrees. “Have you tried it and failed?’ he asked. But as a novelist, how do I write 100 000 words as a trial?

Wa Thiong’o has said, “The moment we lost our languages was also the moment we lost our bodies, our gold, diamonds, copper, coffee, tea.” This rings true for Oduor. He says that the colonisers “introduced a systematic demolition, at least demotion, of the African language to the position of inferiority”.

What is the role of African leaders?

But this argument falls short. Rwanda, for example, was colonised by Belgium, a French-speaking country. But the balance between French and Kinyarwanda is interesting. The French influence did not diminish the local language. As a matter of fact, Kinyarwanda is almost superior. The same can be said of Uganda, where Luganda, even in the middle of the city of Kampala, is more prominent than the coloniser’s English.

But even these two governments have opted to give in to people’s shyness to adopt Western languages rather them leading from the front. The current president, Paul Kagame, has a public distaste for the coloniser. His language has been very enthusiastic in doing away with French. But instead of elevating Kinyarwanda, he has spent much of his energy installing English in learning institutions. While we cannot say the same of President Yoweri Museveni, his government has largely been uninterested.

My take is that after independence, the leaders, who had been largely educated in the West, were fans – even fanatics – of the Western language and they preserved the status quo – allowing no room for the African languages to thrive. They made sure that the coloniser’s language ruled the learning institutions. This is true for nations such as Nigeria and Kenya, where English has ruled both the streets and books. And surviving in Ivory Coast without understanding French is hellish.

For Africa to tell its story in its own languages, we need less activism and more action.



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