Language and Othering in African Contexts
Postmodern and post-analytic understanding of African thought was primarily a shift from attempts to understand African thought using Western conceptual lenses to attempt to understand African framework of thought from the conceptual scheme of the people whose thought was being studied. This paradigm shift in the study of a people’s culture championed by such scholars as Ludwig Wittgenstein – notable in his shift from the pictorial theory of language to the game theory – had and continues to have very successful results in the attempts by sociologists, anthropologists, and philosophers to understand African (philosophical) thought. We recall, for instance, the insightful studies of Edward E. Evans-Pritchard, Peter Winch, and Robin Horton and the continuous records by ethnophilosophy. What stands out from this shift to conceptual scheme of a people as a means for unraveling their thought and ideas is the importance of language as a factor that cannot be ignored in understanding various aspects of the being, knowing, and acting of a people. This essay follows in this line of reasoning. It focuses on an underexplored area of the role of language in African thought: how language promotes or impedes positive and negative experiences of othering or alterity in African spaces. It argues that language is imperative to understanding the different levels of othering in African societies. It explores four areas where this is obvious: (1) the lack of competence to speak and communicate in the particular language spoken in the African community in which one dwells naturally in others such as person from the community in a manner that may be inimical to her well-being; (2) the ability to speak in a language of an African people to which one was not naturally born to promote positive relation with the self (the speaker) by the other (the community of selves) to the extent of blurring the gap between the self and the other; (3) the power of language to turn a complete stranger to a close friend when two African strangers meet in a foreign land such as in the Diaspora, a friendship formed solely on the basis of the sameness of language; and (4) the manner in which the other in an African place is conceptually represented to express the people’s understanding of and their responsibility toward the other in such a place. The essay concludes that language remains the richest source to explore and the fastest route to follow in the search for a people’s ideas about othering and difference.
KeywordsLanguage Xenophobia Other African Diaspora
Language is regarded as one of the strongest symbols of shared culture in human, and, particularly for this reason, it has at times been given an almost mystical aura alongside the belief that exclusive language was needed to bond individuals to a singular community, state, or empire. Consequently, language diversity gradually began to be seen as a menace, or at least an inconvenience, that would be eradicated. Language has been defined by different philosophers and from different perspectives. However, it is seen as a means of communication created by humans in history. Many writers such as Ernest Hemingway, William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Kwasi Wiredu, etc. conceptualized language from various standpoints. Worthy of note is the contributions of philosophers of the analytic tradition to the discourse of language in philosophy. Prominent among them was Ludwig Wittgenstein who defined philosophy as “the battle against the bewitchment of our world by the means of language” (Wittgenstein 1986). Language represents the basis which philosophers have been using to explore philosophical expression. Emphasizing on the importance of language in philosophical discourses, A.J. Ayer affirms that “a philosopher who had no mastery of language would be as helpless as a mathematician who cannot handle numerals” (Ayer 1969: 322). This leaves us with the conviction that language is important in achieving the clarity of thought which is central to philosophy.
The world is my world. That kind of my world is tested through language. Without language, no one can claim what is mine and what is not mine. The philosopher advices us: what we cannot speak about, we must pass over in silence. (Wittgenstein 2001)
From Wittgenstein’s position, it can be deduced that language is not only central to communication but also central to our existence. To a considerable extent, there is a connection between one’s language and one’s world, that is, what cannot be captured by language does not exist. On this basis, language articulates worldview or thoughts of the culture of a people. This entails their beliefs and practices; their ideas about God, the universe, fellow men, and women; and their politics, economy, religion, organizations, and so on.
Language is that activity with which man, through vocal or written signs puts himself in communication with his own peers (or with some other intelligent being, for instance, God to express his own sentiments, desires and knowledge). (Mondin 1985: 133)
In the light of the above, it can be argued that language has a lot to do with people’s identity, personality, feelings, ideas, and thought systems.
While language is regarded as a carrier of culture, it is also a signifier in a cultural belonging. As such it has potent sociocultural implication. This then is to argue that language does not promote the culture of a group of people but also constitute a key means by which a group of people can gain dominance over others. Consequently, language can serve as an instrument of othering of an individual or group of individuals in the scheme of things in the society. From this perspective, language breeds social disorder. Since the inability of one not to communicate in the dominant language of a certain culture makes him isolated, it therefore means that such individual is bound to be treated differently compared to those who understand the language. The fundamental crux of this chapter is to examine the implication of language as the basis of friendship and difference within African contexts. This is because the philosophical foundation of language sees it as a sociocultural phenomenon. To this end, we set out in this chapter by elucidating the concept of language as the basis of treating an individual as a stranger in an African place. This is followed how language forms the basis of friendship in not only an African place but also in the Diaspora. Consequently, we examine language and the conceptualization of the other in an African context.
Language and the Stranger in an African Place
The thrust here is to provide a systematic account of the implication language can have on the dynamic interrelationship in Africa. The language that a person speaks within African thought system reflects the language community’s dominance. A useful way to think about a language community’s dominance is through the ethnolinguistic vitality model. On this basis within African context, an individual may be treated as a stranger due to his inability to speak or use a language as expected in an African community. This inability to use a language effectively as expected in an African community may include some features of the individual’s speech, such as accent, the size of vocabulary (whether the individual uses complex and varied words), modality, and syntax. Consider these scenarios:
Chukwka, an Ibo man, had just relocated to a community where Yoruba language is the dominant language. However, settling down becomes a barrier due to his inability to communicate in Yoruba language. And the people, having known that Chukwuka does not understand their language (Yoruba language), treat him differently as compared to someone who is fluent in the language; in particular, he is treated as a stranger.
From another perspective in an interpersonal setting:
Obajana and Ajibade hail from Osun state in the South-western part of Nigeria, and they have a friend by name Okonkwo who is an Ibo. Whenever Obajana and Ajibade are having conversation, it is always done in their native Yoruba language. Okonkwo who does not understand Yoruba have been watching for some time. At a time, he was frustrated with them discussing in their native language, and made them to understand that they are not only isolating him, making him a stranger if they cannot communicate in a language he understands.
No man should travel until he has learned the language of the place he visits. Otherwise he voluntarily makes himself a great baby, so helpless and so ridiculous. That is so true. Languages give us access to understanding, and the more languages we acquire, the better. (Emerson 1836)
Emerson’s position above succinctly captures the unfriendly situation an individual who does not understand the dominant language in an area, especially within an African context it may be subjected to. To capture it, such individual will be seen as nothing but a stranger. It is natural for humans to want to identify with others. One way we do this is by categorizing individuals into social groups. While some groups may readily be noticeable, such as those defined by ethnicity or gender, other groups may also be defined by their choice of language.
It can be deduced from the above that the inability of an individual to communicate in a dominant language in an African context automatically makes him a stranger in the scheme of things. This leads to discrimination that is purely based on language. In Africa, linguistic discrimination is culturally and socially determined due to the preference for one use of language over another.
Language and the Friend in an African Place
The diversity of language is an asset; it helps build cohesion in small communities and sustains unique cultures, thereby bestowing distinctive identities on individuals and reducing alienation and marginalisation. The variety of linguistic idioms carries with it an equally rich variety of cultural forms and ways of thought, and maintains for humankind a diversity of devices for coping with uncertain challenges of human existence. And who knows what cultural and intellectual tools we will need in tomorrow’s world? In this sense, diversity in language resembles biodiversity. (Tonkin 2003: 6)
From Tonkin’s position, it is evident that while multiplicity of language may exist, especially within the African context, the role this multiplicity in bringing about unity in diversity is in no small way. Consider this scenario:
Chukwuka, an individual of Ibo origin, travelled to the Eastern part of Africa where Swahili is the dominant language. However, before now, Chukwuka already understood the Swahili language. On this basis, communication and socialisation within such community will not be difficult as the people around him already know he understands their language.
The above scenario suggests that Chukwuka does not belong naturally to the community where Swahili is the dominant language. However, the fact that he understands the language of such makes him a friend of such community. This implies that the ability of Chukwuka to understand the Swahili language already gives him a role in the community, and to play this role effectively, language is imperative. As Halliday argues that for a man to effectively play his/her role as a member of a society, they must first occupy the social role by way of language (Halliday 1978: 14). He further argues that a society does not consist of participants but rather relations. Thus, the continued existence of the societal relations is lubricated by language. Language therefore facilitates friendship between the individual who was not naturally born to such community and the individuals who were.
Language and the Forming of Relations Among Africans in a Foreign Land
Africans living in a foreign land otherwise known as Diaspora are united by many factors. Language has been one aspect of their identities that has not only endured geographical space from Africa but has also aided the formation of friendship in a foreign land. Accordingly, Ndhlovu opines that despite all odds against Africans such as monolingual ideologies of language policies and the drive for a homogenous global culture, African languages have continued to promote a friendship atmosphere among Africans in a foreign land (Ndhlovu 2008: 137). Consequently, languages form an integral part of how Africans form relations and continue to register their presence beyond the traditional confines of geographical boundaries. According to Onadeko, the Yorubas live in three distinct regions: at home in Western Nigeria; in other West African countries such as Benin Republic, Togo, and outside Africa; and especially in South America, West Indies, and Cuba (Onadeko 2008). One factor is imperative in the formation of the relations among the Yorubas outside Nigeria; it is the Yoruba language. Aside from the language, no other factor can form relations among the Yorubas in Diaspora, thereby promoting their cultural identity. In the absence of the language, there will not be any basis of forming relations in a foreign land. On this basis, language does not only form the basis of relations among people of similar culture in Diaspora but also promote their cultural identity. Therefore, it can be said that language reflects and symbolizes some kind of identity: regional, social, ethnic, or religious. Analogously, a unitary language among Africans in Diaspora plays the role as that of standardization and would therefore end up enhancing the integration of such African community that is interested in coming together for common good. Whorf captures this position thus:
Particular languages embody distinctive ways of experiencing the world, of defining what we are, that is, we not speak in particular language, but more fundamentally become the person we become because of the particular language community in which we grew up – language above all else, shapes our distinctive ways of being in the world. Language, then, is the carrier of a people’s identity, the vehicle of a certain way of seeing things, experiencing and feeling, determinant of particular outlooks on life. (Whorf as cited by Afolayan 2006: 44)
According to Ndhlovu, presently, nearly 20–30% of Africans in Newcastle in England are Swahili speakers. On this basis, Swahili brings Africans from Congo, Kenya, and East and Central Africa together. This submission points to the need to interact within narrow circle of friends and relatives and also to engage cross-culturally beyond one’s continent, giving rise to language characterizing the coexistence of individuals and communities. Most participants made this point about the potentials of language in uniting people (Africans) across borders. For instance, the increased role of Swahili in foreign cross-cultural and cross-linguistic alliances among people who originally came from different African countries cannot be overemphasized. Swahili undoubtedly is one of the most developed and widely used indigenously African languages nationally and internationally. Indeed its contribution in the struggle for independence and in the second liberation movements in across Africa is immense. Africans founding fathers such as Kwame Nkrumah deemed it as the most appropriate language for the African Unity within and outside Africa. Swahili therefore has over the last 50 years participated in the national, regional, and international integration of Africans.
Language has always played an important role in the formation and expression of identity. The role of language in identity construction is becoming even more central in the postmodern era, as other traditional makers of identity including race, are being destabilized. (Warschauer 2001: 1)
Swahili is big. You can speak Swahili with a Congolese; you can speak with somebody from Rwanda. Swahili is common, you know. Even some people from Sudan, they speak Swahili; even in Kenya; even Uganda. So I have different friends who speak Swahili most of the time. Even Tanzanians, I speak with them. I think I have more friends in Swahili than in Kurundi. (Ndhlovu 2014)
The individual quoted by Ndhlovu here was from Burundi and mentioned five more national groups that she easily identifies with in foreign land on the account of her ability to speak Swahili. This represents a clear example of how Africans in Diaspora are occupying spaces in the entire discourse of transnational identity formation and community, building friendship among people who would otherwise be seen as belonging to different national identity categories. In furtherance, Ndhlovu opines that cross-border languages were noted as being useful among speakers of minor African languages whose ethnic group is not well represented within the wider African community (Ibid). Cross-border languages enable these people to form relations with other Africa migrant groups thereby avoiding isolation and overreliance on service providers to do basic things for them. The issue of social isolation for minority groups will not be a problem since they already understand the language which they will use to communicate with other Africans.
The narratives above show that Swahili is one of African languages of communication within Africa and in Diaspora. As a lingua franca, it has gained prominence among Africans living in foreign lands. For instance, the language has gained recognition beyond East Asia, and it is taught in various departments of African languages in Europe, America, and Asia. Consequently, Swahili is adopted by many Africans in Diaspora to form social cohesion as a symbol of national identity. It is worthy to note that Swahili is not the only African language that has been unifying Africans in foreign lands, as other African languages have been doing same among Africans who understand such language in Diaspora.
Language and the Conceptualization of the Other in African Traditions
Language is important in communicating ideas, feelings, and thought. Thus far, the chapter has focused on how language can influence one to become a stranger within a communal framework in Africa. It has also discussed the role of language in uniting individuals within an African place and how language forms the basis of identity in a foreign land, thereby forming relations among Africans in Diaspora. The aim here is to elucidate from an African point of view how language forms the basis of othering an individual or group of individuals.
It was Wittgenstein who famously opined that “the limit of our language is the limit of our world.” This submission by Wittgenstein succinctly captures how the existence of some individuals has been limited due to their inability to speak or understand a language within an African community. Evident, for instance, is the xenophobia attacks that have been ongoing for some time in South Africa. Conceptually speaking, the term xenophobia comes from the association of the Greek words: the word xenos which means foreigner or stranger and the word phobos which means fear. Accordingly, the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (2006) defines xenophobia “a strong feeling of dislike or fear of people from other countries.” This definition highlights that xenophobia is a kind of hate that is based on the notion of nationality: people may show hate toward each other because of their belonging to different nations and countries. Here, the feelings of hate and dislike reflect a sort of egoism and selfishness marked by the supremacy of the self and the denigration of the other. The Online Thesaurus Dictionary (2017) gives two brief definitions of the term xenophobia: firstly, “the fear or hatred of foreigners, people from different cultures, or strangers” and, secondly, “the hatred or dislike of the customs, dress, etc., of people who are culturally different from oneself.” These two definitions stress the notion of culture: people may express their feelings of hate and dislike toward others who are culturally different from them. These cultural differences are diverse and encompass various social features such as customs, language, traditions, modes of dressing, modes of thinking, etc. The definitions provided by the Oxford and the Thesaurus Dictionaries prove that the notion of belongingness is at the crossroads of the issue of xenophobia. This implies that xenophobia can take place between social groups of the same country, but they must be different on some bases: linguistic, ethnic, religious, cultural, etc. For the purpose of this chapter, xenophobia will encompass the attitudes of hates and dislikes and also the resultant effect of these inhuman treatments.
Possibly the most remarkable feature of xenophobia experienced in South Africa is that it appears to have taken on a primarily racial form; it is directed at migrants, and especially black migrants, from elsewhere on the continent, as opposed to, for example, Europeans or Americans, who are, to a certain extent, practically welcomed with open arms. This racially selective xenophobia is exemplified by the fact that many of those in leadership positions are of “foreign” origin, suggesting that exclusion is not simply directed against “foreigners” but against those who seem to correspond to stereotypes of the stranger, especially that from Africa (Neocosmos 2006).
There are eleven (11) major languages in South Africa. During the xenophobia attacks, individuals from other parts of Africa who cannot speak any of these major languages encountered loneliness, hostility, alienation, fear, and difficulties in almost all aspects of the South African society. To buttress this, there is a term being used by South Africans to describe an individual who does not have a mastery of any of the eleven South African major languages. Language usage reflects the personality of a culture. Language thus gives a particular individual that uses it, some form of identity. The languages that South Africans speak and the way we talk about people from outside South Africa often serve to reinforce the common myths and stereotypes about non-South Africans. Sometimes this is clear to see; in other cases we may be stereotyping without even realizing it. For example, referring to people using the insulting term Makwerekwere obviously sets them apart as people to be treated differently.
With inspiration from the apartheid years, South Africans subject Makwerewere (a derogatory term used for a black person who cannot demonstrate mastery of local South African language and who hails from a country assumed to be economically and culturally backward in relation to South Africa) to the excesses of abuse, exploitation and dehumanizing treatment on the basis that they may have “wrong colour” and speak the wrong language to invest in citizenship. The rights of undocumented Makwerewere are particularly severely circumscribed as they are reduced to living clandestinely and being explained with virtual impunity by locals enjoying the prerogatives of citizenship. (Nyamnjoh 2006: 20)
When we go to clinics for check-ups, some of the nurses are of Xhosa origin and are coloured. They are different, especially if we meet the Xhosa nurses, sometimes they can speak to them (Zimbabweans) in their language, of which we do not understand their Xhosa language. If you speak to them in English, they ignore you, or they will shout at you. It is that bad for us. Of course we do not understand their language. (Jo and Rother 2017)
They came to me when I was sick, and I had no husband there, and I was told to sign. I had no idea what I was signing. And they did the process (tubal ligation)… and I can’t deliver anymore, even permanently. So when I went to the hospital to complain, they said “you signed”, but I don’t understand because I was not only sick, I also did not understand the language. That is why I am very concerned (ibid.).
The above scenarios imply that without any means of communication, stereotypes and misunderstanding could not be challenged, resolved, or discussed. The language barrier, however, is symbolic of deeper perceptions and attitudes of lack of trust. The language barrier is an intentional imposition on English-speaking Zimbabweans. It represents an example of xenophobia and adds to the phenomenon of treating an individual as the other. These attacks expose the inhuman treatment citizens of other countries in South African are being subjected to. Their inability to understand any of the South African major languages, especially the Xhosa language, is solely responsible for this inhuman treatment.
Never in Zimbabwe did we dream that our country would be in a situation like we have today. We had the best of everything until one day, without expecting it, we found ourselves in an economic situation that is difficult to endure. After much deliberation, we decided to come here to South Africa because we needed help with our situation. Every person who left Zimbabwe left for reasons best known to them, and why they choose wherever they went is a long story. Most of us left because we did not agree with the policies in our home country, and there was nothing we could do to change them. Some of us even got into trouble for voicing concerns or disagreeing with those polices. All I know is that it is never easy for anyone to leave home without any plan or a thing to your name to go and start your life all over again. It is even harder when you are rejected because you are a foreigner. What foreigner? I am an African. From a distance I look like one of the black South Africans. Its only when the locals speak to me in his native language and I answer back in English that they pick it up that I am a ‘foreigner’ and the reaction thereafter leaves one stunned to say the least. The reaction ranges from a rude insult or mockery, to silence. Imagine you are on the train or taxi and the journey becomes quite unbearable just because you don’t understand the language being spoken. You are afraid to ask for directions because they will go out of their way to make you lose your way. This is not all of them. There are a few saints who love and respect other people and who are helpful and friendly. But it is always a nine out of ten chances. They will make it worse for you if at work the employer prefers you because you are educated and you understand common sense. Because of where our nation has been, Zimbabweans will work anywhere, regardless of education, just to better our lives and for that fellow Africans here in South Africa get very jealous. We have stuck it out here in South Africa with all the hostilities that we have to tolerate. But never in my wildest imagination did I ever think that it would get to xenophobia/afro-phobia attacks: Blacks against blacks. As I am writing this, I am very emotional. I cannot stop crying. I cannot believe it is happening. I have been displaced, and I find it very hard to trust anyone. All I want is to go back home but after three years where do I start? My whole life and those of my children is now part of South Africa, and through every trial and struggle, we had hoped that it would get better. I have never experienced this cruelty at home, and I am in a dilemma as to what to do. I am lucky because I am staying in an old flat that is being renovated, and I have had a lot of support from friends here in Cape Town. What if it gets worse? The emotional trauma makes one sick. (Chitongo as cited by Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention, 2015)
Another context which language fueled the conceptualization of individuals as the other within African context was the Nigerian Civil War otherwise known as the Biafran War (6 July, 1967–15 January, 1970). This war was fought between the government of Nigeria and the secessionist state of Biafra. Biafra represented nationalist aspirations of Igbo people, whose leadership felt they could no longer coexist with the Northern-dominated federal government. The war resulted from political, economic, ethnic, cultural, and religious tensions which preceded Britain’s former decolonization of Nigeria from 1960 to 1963. Immediate causes of the war in 1966 included a military coup, a counter-coup, and a persecution of Igbo living in Northern Nigeria. Control over the lucrative oil production in the Niger Delta played a strategic role. Minorities in the Biafra suffered atrocities at the hands of the Nigerian federal government. Although it is common to posit that the root causes of the war are tied to political, ethno-religious, economic, and cultural factors, however, one cannot rule out the role language played in conceptualizing the Ibos as “others” and also on the basis of how they (the Ibos) were treated differently. This factor as known made it possible for the federal troops to easily identify those who are Ibos and those who are not. This was evident in the way the minorities in Biafra were killed and maimed, for instance, the Efiks and other ethnic groups especially from the Niger Delta region. Here, an individual who does not have a mastery of the Hausa language is treated differently as compared to one who understands the language.
From the discourse thus far, it is evident that the roles language in forming relations within Africa and in Diaspora cannot be overemphasized. Language remains a vital tool of communication. Discrimination is based on “othering” people. This involves dividing the world into “good” and “bad” elements, usually “us” (the good, normal ones) and “them” (the ones who are different, the stranger, the foreigners, the threat). These divisions are based on existing racist, ethnic, religious, cultural, or national prejudice. However beneath the facade of this discrimination lies the individual’s ability or inability to speak or understand a language within a particular framework. This is because as argued by this chapter an individual’s inability to speak or understand a language within African context might lead to him being treated as a stranger and differently compared to the individual who understands such language, as evident in the xenophobia attacks and the Biafran experience. The most important reasons behind the prevalence of xenophobia in South Africa are economic and the tendency to criminalize foreigners. Existing explanations in terms of economic crises, political transition, relative deprivation, or remnants of apartheid all contain an element of truth but are not in themselves sufficient, as inability of foreigners and migrants to speak the South African indigenous languages has made the xenophobia attacks prevalent.
As it is known, no individual can attain the level of proficiency a native speaker would, in his use of language; and this has caused what some people never bargained for. Evident is the xenophobia attacks in South Africa. While language remains a tool to express ideas and communicate feelings and thoughts, it also serves as an instrument of discrimination and othering individuals differently from oneself. It is therefore imperative for philosophers never to rest on their hoax as language remains a rich source to be explored in the search for a people’s ideas about othering and difference.
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