Something quiet, subtle but historic happened in our country on Wednesday March 20th 2013. On this day, amidst great expectations and celebration from the families and graduating students of the Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, Ondo state, Akinwumi Isola, a retired professor of African language and literature (Yoruba), in a warmth and serenity that have come to define him, walked gingerly and to the podium of the convocation hall to deliver the 2013 convocation lecture of the Adekunle Ajasin University.
Professor Akinwumi Isola did it in Yoruba language. In the context of Professor Isola’s convocation act, a fact many of us sadly fail to recognise is the connection between human agency which language engenders and human progress and advancement. A quick global and historical gaze around the world and of societies and races will reveal this subtle connection between language, agency and human development which is engendered and enabled by an interiorized subjective human state and capacity we have named as agency. This connection is subtle, so in the absence of space for quiet reflection on this matter, and amidst the din of crisis and chaos that dominate our cities and imagination, this connection can be easily missed. Let me quickly explain what this means. Someone who has agency centers himself. Someone who lacks agency subordinates himself. It does not matter if it is a country, or a human such that he is a President, a writer, a minister or a university academic. The source and cause of that lack of agency and eventually the subordination of self is the loss of an internally generated language as the first cognitive, cultural and moral tool with which one relates to the external world beyond oneself.
So when Mr. Akinwumi Isola walked to the podium to deliver his convocation lecture in an African language in a setting, which has failed to realize how deep colonialism, and slavery left an indelible but increasingly incurable mark on Africans, he-Mr. Akinwumi Isola re-centered the discourse. A question will help us re-understand the Akinwumi Isola issue at a more critical level. That question is: Beginning from 1960s after independence, we have critiqued and written about our continent –Africa. But despite all these efforts, African countries have failed to radically break into a stage where their progress and development are irreversible. Therefore, the question is why is this the case? I give an answer to this in one word: agency. Where we Africans lack agency at a mass level, we will copy, we will talk, we will criticize, we will earn our pay as scholars on Africa talking, writing and researching on Africa, but there may never be progress and development because of the lack of agency at an African mass level.
Writing on culture, Amilcar Cabral puts the same problem as the intersection of the material and immaterial in our lives. The material aspect of culture such as technology and science which are markers of progress are the expressions of and are shaped by an immaterial aspect of culture which generates an agency which is internal to any culture. Language as an introspective act which has a body and content, and which urges us to act is an item on Cabral’s immaterial aspect of culture. And this is capable of generating an agency which urges us forward to center self. Agency, which we Africans lack at a mass level, is a form of the immaterial, which Cabral talks about in his discourse on Africa’s dilemma. When you lack agency, you lack a sense of urgency to repair your situation. At a more political and practical level, Obafemi Awolowo alludes to this as a lack of sense of urgency of Africa’s political leadership. As Africans in all things we are inclined to copy others, we look at ourselves through the eyes of others, we do not start from ourselves. It is a metaphysical void we are happy to live with so long as our next pay, our next vacation outside Africa, our next paid “international” seminar and conference, our next “big” research fund (as we often put it), our next treatment in a foreign hospital, our importation of foreign goods are all guaranteed. We live with these happily and hand over this void, this crippled agency or lack of agency to the next generation who must again start from a void or a crippled agency Cabral talks about. And so the cycle of living with a void and being subordinated to the agency of others continues and is recycled and handed over from one generation to the other.
I am sure Professor Akinwumi Isola is aware of this lack of agency among we Africans of all vocations for in a conversation with him on the eve of his convocation lecture he told PREMIUM TIMES that he had wanted to deliver his inaugural lecture in a Yoruba at the Obafemi Awolowo University, in the city of Ile Ife, Osun state western Nigeria when he taught there before retiring. But he was refused. The reason given by the authority according to him was that it was not a practice to do an inaugural lecture in an African language! You can only do it in English! Now take the phrase “it is not a practice” and apply it to any situation you confront daily. Let me list some. I will like to be as simple, basic and ordinary as possible. It is not a practice that African parents speak to their children in African languages. It is not a practice that African children speak to one another in African languages. It is not a practice that African countries use African languages as the languages of politics in the parliaments. It is not a practice that non-Africans learn African languages for more serious reasons beyond using them for reasons of tourism and mere sight seeing in African countries. It is not a practice that African scholars write papers in African languages. Wait a minute, Asian and European scholars do. Ah ah! It is not a practice that you take a degree in your study of Africa with knowledge of at least one African language. It is an african version of the “mis-education of the negro which Carter G. Woodson refers to in the African American context. It is so ridiculous and absurd that even in some universities around the world some scholars are beginning to hold the illegitimate, unsound and intellectually lazy and patronizing view that you can study Africa and take a degree in your study of Africa without knowing or learning an African language. And you find Africans to be complicit of that intellectually patronizing and condescending move. So unknown to Mr. Akinwumi Isola he was carrying a historical burden, narrative and story on his aging but noble, and dignifying shoulder as he walked towards the podium on that historic day in the city of Akungba-Akoko in Ondo state Nigeria.
Many reasons have been adduced even from strange quarters as to the displacement of African languages at homes, in public and in the academia. Some argue that it is a “global” world. This means we should speak “global” languages. Meaning African languages are not “global”. Some talk about “relevance”. This means African languages are no longer “relevant”. It is significant that Africans themselves including scholars hold these strange and historically scary views. For whatever reason some of us African academics are complicit and are part of this racket and conspiracy against the soul and agency of Africa. Third, some look at obvious challenges of policy implementation and argue that for a country like Nigeria it will be difficult to pick a language. The third reason is a simple fallacy, which appeals to ignorance. One is being mild if one says it is silly, for given our colonial experience the view of African languages as a source of African agency is not one about a so-called lingua franca for Nigeria or for Africa. It is about the conscious apprehension of multiple African languages as a way of being and a way of seeing the world, and a way of centering oneself just as others. You do not need to be a rocket scientist to see the connection between language as a source of an interiorized agency and human progress. We only need to look at the European and Asian world to see this simple point. The stubborn refusal to even accept this reality that stalks us in the face is part of our crippled agency. But more importantly, holders of such self-serving view that it might be difficult to cultivate African languages for public use are wrong because it is not true that something is not correct simply because it has not been done or that it is not being done by us. The fact that there are countries such as South Africa, US, etc, which have one official language while consciously promoting other languages, shows the un-tenability of the third reason. So what is wrong with a multilingual Nigeria where we consciously promote all our indigenous languages with English merely as one of the more commonly used languages? What is wrong in Igbo or Hausa being the languages of parliament in Enugu state and Kano state respectively such that if I decide to exchange my residency and live in Enugu I simply learn Igbo? Similar scenario will be valid for other states and languages. But suffice to say that the first two reasons are the worst intellectual contempt one can inflict on oneself. It is the reason most Africans show a complete lack of agency while making true for Africans what Carter G. Woodson and Web du Bois allude to as the miseducation of the negro in the African-American context. We screen that lack and that complicit and conspiracy by consciously not talking about it.
Thus, Akinwumi Isola’s quiet decolonizing act raises pertinent and simple questions: what is the value of a “big” convocation lecture which common folks who are the tax payers and carriers of the culture of the university environment where the convocation lecture is taking place do not understand? What is the value of knowledge that is not directed at engendering, empowering and strengthening the agency of a people at a mass level? Where a language is the source of all cognition –both empowering and disempowering-how can a foreign language empower people and their agency cognitively at a mass level? In the context of the political which shows that love for one’s country can be a mere functional act (you love a space for what you can get from it, and not for what you can contribute to it) or a more engaged act where one loves one’s country and race unconditionally (the two types of love is a complex mix which is dominated by the latter for without a country which has been loved unconditionally and already created there cannot be the former-functional love), is it possible that if one does not speak and use one’s country’s language that one can love one’s country unconditionally and passionately? Here I do not speak of the sense of language as a mere interactive tool, which kids desire to know in order to be able to have conversation with grandma and grandpa. I do not speak of the use of language where the speakers see it as a piece of museum to be used as a reminder that “I can also speak an African language and I speak it once in a while.” I am speaking of language as a way of being, the soul of being that engenders and invites a natural commitment to a space and peoples we call our own. Thus, language in this regard is the cognitive well from which we generate a sense of urgency, an agency to act for public good and our society.
In this regard, given the displacement colonialism and slavery caused at a mass level on the African psychology it is impossible for the African (even those older ones who technically speak African languages) to have and exhibit an agency at a mass level with foreign languages, foreign tongues for a language is beyond its mere alphabets and interactive function. Language as a state of being (not its mere technical use) is a source of agency. We need to draw this distinction between language as a state of being and hence a source of our agency and the mere technical ability to speak an African language because there are many of us older Africans who speak African languages but who exhibit a strange lack of agency or a crumbled and crippled one.
That African countries never paid attention to this subtle and almost lost connection between language and human progress, advancement and unconditional love for one’s identity, race, country and continent in the affairs of human societies is the reason we as Africans fail to center ourselves, our agency in all units of life. Castrated, this is the case perhaps because we-Africans- no longer have an agency to center and privilege in the world. It is the reason a corrupt politician who even speaks an African language will steal and cannot even invest the stolen money in the local economies. He has to take it abroad and invest. It is the reason our elites will visit foreign hospitals for their health and be proud about it. It is the reason many African scholars (I understand if non-African scholars hold this view-it should be expected given the commercial and merchandising nature of scholarship as mere piece of commerce in the 21st century) will defend the view that you can study Africa, take a degree in your study of Africa without an African language. It is on record that some if not most of us believe this tragic failure of the mind. This is because no one ever says you can take a degree in European studies, Asian studies without European or Asian languages. But Africa is supposed to be a junkyard, the African mind is supposed to be junk, it lacks agency, so you can study Africa without an African language! Africa, in a docile manner, simply accepts anything. It does not lead. You can do anything with Africa.
From the science angle, sadly, we do not see the connection between the material and technological underdevelopment in Africa and the lack of agency of Africans at a mass level. This happens because we miss the point when we limit science to its mere technical face. But science has a core, which is located in self, the immaterial, the agency, and the sense of urgency exhibited by the possession of an agency. Please check with Obafemi Awolowo, Nkrumah and Amilcar Cabral. A de-centered self as we have it at a mass level in Africa can never engender an agency, and hence will be dependent on others for solution to its own problems. The consequence is the poverty of or absence of an internally generated scientific viewpoint for we Africans do not start from ourselves. We are permanently in a self-negating state and we do not even know for it is convenient for some of us not to know.
Professor Isola must have been thinking about all these when he quietly perhaps cynically mocking and humoring us all (I do not know) carried the historic task of delivering one of our country’s university convocation lectures in a Yoruba. But despite that historic act , sadly it is a hopeless situation at a mass level for Africa. This is because if Professor Isola’s act does not become a public act and mass act that is internalized and interiorized by all, then it seems Africa faces a grim future.
In a situation where Africa is a merchandise with native and foreign merchants, is it going to be ever possible for Mr. Akinwumi Isola’s quiet act to be apprehended, internalized and become a mass public act? Only the future can tell. But what we have today is that Africa follows. Africa does not lead. Yet the leader dictates the tune. No one can lead without an agency. And language is at the core of that agency. African languages are at the core of African agency. The death of a language is the death of an agency. Is someone listening to Professor Akinwumi Isola? Did anyone miss that? I am taking a risk to wager an answer. From what I see, read and hear, I think it is possible that we might have missed that point! But when the dead wake in another century-the 22nd century- in Africa Mr. Akinwumi Isola will definitely have the last laugh. I am African. I am part of this historical mess but we have the Akinwumi Isola act to look up to just in case we think Africa deserves some respect and therefore deserves to be saved.
Adeolu Ademoyo (firstname.lastname@example.org) is of the African Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca NY.