Heart of Arts

African Languages and Epistemologies


Photo: Nsibidi

African Languages and Epistemologies

Toyin Falola

(This is the first interview report with a panel of African scholars on March 3rd, 2024. For the transcript, see YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xZvjnRUnEMI

In opening the lengthy conversations on African languages on Sunday, March 3, 2024, the great linguist and translator, Professor Ghirmai Negash, started with the crucial importance of epistemologies. I want to start my analysis of this dialogue on the crucial relevance of epistemologies.

The conventional understanding of epistemology as the theory of knowledge produces a mind-opening overview in that it explains that underneath that theory is the intricate connection between the human mind and reality. To that extent, the theory of knowledge is not generated as an isolated concept that rids itself of every perceptible connection it has with the human mind, and neither does it sever its ties with the realities of the human world. Therefore, the interplay of the human mind and the realities of their world form the basis of all knowledge, and conversations about epistemologies have continued to open minds as to the partial, passionate, and emotional connections that what we think we know has with what our realities are.

Photo: Professor Ghirmai Negash

A very puzzling thing about reality is that, as much as the human world is sometimes independent of its forms or formation, in other cases, its formation is exclusively dependent on human projection. It becomes a puzzle, does it? Rainfalls are a natural activity that takes place occasionally, and their coming has always brought concrete changes into the human world, thereby making it a reality that rainfall is inevitable to life, especially plant lives, human lives, or others that are reliant on it. Here, rainfall is a reality that is independent of our influence or involvement. In another case, a particular set of human behaviors could be conceived as their age-long internalization of external opinions about them (whether assumed opinions or replicable ones). The distance between the time of the opinions and the demonstration of such behavior or attitude might make us discount possibilities of connection, but it was nonetheless the cause of that reality.

Photo: Professor Ngom Fallou

In this case, certain things that Africans, or other people of the world for that matter, know today are drawn from the opinions and positions that external critics of their historical and cultural legacies have. Generally, these negative opinions are deliberate schematics and mechanisms that the perpetrators understand as necessary instruments for the conquest of the people’s minds, and for that reason, it has never experienced a shortage of investment in all ramifications.

Morally, the universalist world, for instance, is invested in getting misinformation dominant in academic engagements so that its target would have a false sense of themselves and would become incapable of addressing their problems. When the likes of Hugh Trevor-Roper were vociferous about his opinion that Africans did not have historical accounts from which they could draw their inspiration and on which they could build modernity, it was a soft warfare targeted on Africans to trap them from attempting to access their history on their own, with the implicit assumption that nothing is potentially available there that could be great enough to rescue them. That thinking makes it very difficult for self-realization and discovery, and more perniciously, it creates an African citizenry that is docile and uninterested in anything their forebears have discovered. It becomes an obvious epistemological problem not because of the indirect involvement of the Trevor-Ropers but because his discontent is bridged by the earlier misassumption of Immanuel Kant, who had made similar remarks centuries before.

Photo: Professor Ousseina D. Alidou

Recall that we have mentioned prior that epistemology creates an important bond between human minds and their reality. If the reality of Africans today is that they depend on Western epistemology, in that case, we cannot, in good faith, argue that it does not share a relationship with the age-long bastardization, dehumanization, or insubordination of their invented epistemic traditions, which have struggled to gain voices due to the problems highlighted above. Suppose the assumption about Africans is that they are acutely dependent. In that case, people will begin to generate another set of untested hypotheses about that, asking, for example, if Africans were actually created to be mentally and intellectually inferior. One way or the other, it would validate the Hamitic hypothesis about Africans.

Meanwhile, scholars have seen through such deceit as they are able to understand even from a distance that the danger of epistemic silence is unmitigable and even self-immolating. Particularly disconcerting is the case of Africa and Africans in this debate. Africans, for a great part of their life, have believed lies about themselves. They do not have the right information about their forebears, and by that design, they have imagined themselves to be descendants of poor souls without foresight and quality intellection. Discussants highlight the very angles where such misconception of the past has generated an undeserved attitude towards anything African and, by implication, enhanced an attitude of rejection, rebuttal, distance, and disconnect to their historical past. Without mincing words, it is evident that they have to magnify the magnificence of their forebears’ contributions. Without a generation of active intellectuals such as Fallou Ngom and James Mugane changing such oddity, the possibility of redemption is unquestionably doubtful.

Contrary to the misconception that Africans do not have their established epistemic traditions, evidence abounds that Africans produced knowledge in all areas and employed the paradigms in creating functional societies across ages. Fallou insisted on the validity of non-Western epistemologies. It appears very apparent that they were focused on generating ideas considered to be helpful in their development and have always remained consistent to the extent that each idea formed is documented and transferred to successive generations in the hope that it would enable them to build and sustain formidable civilization that can stand the test of time. In fact, the foresight of these forebears is illustrated by how they deposited knowledge in nearly every aspect of their engagements.

Photo: Professor Abiodun Salawu

Arts, literature, engineering, architecture, economics, and agriculture, among other areas of human existence, all experienced the exponential input of the earlier Africans from whom succeeding generations drew to help themselves in the best ways possible. Meanwhile, all these are documented in their languages. For that reason, access becomes relatively easier because, by virtue of their language use, authority is conferred on individuals who share similar languages. They can thus transfer these ideas to their youths in many ways. Today, it is quite difficult to access African epistemic traditions because of the language used to protect and preserve them. The colonial languages become incapable as they cannot effectively express the realities of the people.

Guilty, as observed above, those epistemological foundations are deeply rooted in perceptions, minds, and psychology of the individual projecting them; it becomes surprising that literature and languages have their respective roles in its redemption war. Scholars are of the opinion that literature, especially the ones in the language of the colonial imperialists, have assisted in wrestling African epistemic traditions from the claws of the mindlessly callous universalists who unquestioningly believe in the unproven absence of African history. In spite of its documentation in the British language, Things Fall Apart, produced by Chinua Achebe, has helped to contain the excess of Hegels, the Trevor-Ropers, among others who have earlier on fiercely stated that the Africans are without impressive cultural foundations and epistemic traditions. To that extent, literature, as argued by Professor Negash, is considered very powerful in epistemological dialogues, especially because there is the possibility that it becomes an instrument of social mobilization and political transformation needed at critical moments. That moment peaked during the time of colonialism when assumptions, opinions, and uninformed generalizations were made about the people. It is necessary to argue that literature written in colonial languages is useful to the extent that it spreads its influence on the world otherwise barricaded by the barriers of language. Although such an approach to global influence received critical positions, it nonetheless works in a world filled with colonial imperialism marked by political dominance.

Photo: Professor John Mugane

But then, things change with time. The energy needed during colonialism, where repudiation of European uninformed generalizations was necessary, has shifted to a more reformed one where efforts towards decolonization are significant, especially to African liberation. As important as literature written in Western languages was during the time, it became a very darkening prospect for literary writing in indigenous languages. This means that as one was growing, the other was gradually being drawn to marginalization.

Today, there is a revitalization of interest in reconsidering how immersion in Western languages has inadvertently brought about the internalization of Western culture, by which condition it has brought about the repudiation of African values. Scholars trace this problem to the issue of linguistic alienation in epistemic interactions in contemporary times. And as well-versed scholars, they have come up with useful and pragmatic responses to the anomaly. With the proposition that African literature should now be written in African languages, there is a determination for the enhancement of these languages as instruments of social and cultural resurgence so that ideas that would be transmitted to the leaders would reflect their understanding of the phenomenon of life and thus help them in creating a reality where they can function most effectively. Arguments around this are long-lasting, but they nonetheless would continue to resurface in the understanding that they must be solved if true change and development are achieved.

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