Language is to group identity as spirit is to earthly personality. As the spirit grows weak you still see the body walking about as if the actual human being is still alive. But it is just an illusion – at physical death, the real human spiritual personality will disintegrate for good.
The same thing with groups. When a group loses its language, you will still see its indigenes walking around, congregating und socializing, and calling themselves the group name… but it is an illusion. A people without a language have ceased to exist as a people – what holds them now is memory and a wish. At the next tragedy that strikes them they will scatter and have no center of orientation that triggers a sense of belonging which pulls them back together again in any meaningful way. We witness the end of yet another branch of civilization.
The death of African languages was initiated when Africans stopped – or did not at all really determinedly try – translating and transsituating their rapidly expanding world view, new knowledge, science, technology and philosophy into their indigeneous languages. Thereby they caused a break between the African psychic identity which had indigenously developed over millenia and the new African mentality whose birth was being so forcefully and unnaturally midwifed. It was also a missed opportunity to embrace the challenge of exertion that catalyzes growth.
Any indigenous national psyche worldwide that has achieved the feat of transforming ITSELF on its own foundations into or towards a so-called First World Country, has not done so on the back of the scientific and philosophical lingua of a foreign language. They have instead forced their own language to expand, to deepen, to evolve, to grow, to be alive and exhibit the characteristics of a living thing – self-preservation through movement, exertion, growth, self-upgrade within a healthy sense of self. Thus these peoples did not just move, they took their cosmos and their roots along with them. Therefore, no matter to what dizzying heights of technology or abstract new thought they arrive, they always feel at home. They never feel lost. Because their world always exists in their language, and their language is the structure within which their world pulsates and expands.
Africa’s deepest, most intimate and most imediate break with the preservative Spirit and Act of INNOVATION therefore was the failure to translate and transfer new world knowledge into their own indigenous languages, and make their language the vehicle for transfering knowledge and civilization to the next generation. This was an act of indolence or carelessness of gargantuan proportions whose degenerative after-effects will continue to manifest exponentially from one generation to the next. In Igbo language, this is the true example of “i fu” – to become lost. Everything that is familiar to you feels simultaneously strange, and you don’t know why.
The fact that I am expanding and writing this thought in English and not in Igbo is the very evidence that I too am a product of that colossal careless break in transmission, and thus I carry within me also the unending thirst for rebalancing, that deep-seated African search for identity in a world, of shared human responsibility, in which aptly the Afticsn often feels MISUNDERSTOOD.
In Africa, African languages have for over a century rapidly lost their role and function as the medium via which knowledge and civilization are transfered from one generation to the next. Ancient proverbs and perception patterns, yes, but every other thing no. The African, as an agent of innovation and civilization, is today a divided personality. When the European colonialist wanted to give us his religion he translated it into our language. But when he wanted to give us science and technology, he kept it in his language and forced us to learn it in his language. The Arab colonizer went a step further and taught everything only in his own language. Little wonder then that we are masters of Christianity and Islam in Africa today, but not of Innovation and Invention.
And to those who will tell me that attempts have recently been made here and there with inconclusive or initially uninspiring results, to them I will say: Civilization is not a sprint, neither is it a game of materialism and quick profits where you jump trains at will in search of quick gratification and the illusion of fast progress – indeed that is what has brought Africa to where we are today.
Civilization is a long long race, a marathon, a movement of the people, like Moses’ Israelites wandering (and wondering) for decades in the wilderness on the way to their promised land. You are in it for the long haul; solid progess is slow and hard if you want it to be real, and you must be dogged, persevering and patient. And, above all – this is the crunch – you must trust and rely in your own creativity and abilities; and develop these.
Setting off onto the right path does not mean that you automatically take over the lead or catch up immediately with the rest. It simply means that you have created the right conditions for a growth which, no matter how initially hard, if managed diligently, will be lasting and always feel natural. A growth that will be indigenous and make you the master of your own fate in this uncertain future into which Mankind is currently herding.
Thus at the occassion of this World Igbo Cultural Day, I want us – as we eat and drink and make merry – to also recommit ourselves to the task of exerting ourselves into making our language the carrier of the new civilization which we hope to attain – spiritually, culturally, socio-politically, intellectually and technologically.
– Che Chidi Chukwumerije.