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Africans must learn in their own languages - English only takes you so far

Monday July 24 2017

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Rwanda may have taken the bold step of starting the decolonisation of Africa by adopting Swahili as one of her official languages, along with Kinyarwanda, English and French.

This bold move will be met with scepticism by those who still believe that the West is best.

They will put forward rather useless theories that French and English do not belong to France and the United Kingdom respectively, but rather are universal modes of communication that are used by much of the world’s population.

These are also the languages of the colonisers who terrorised Africa for over 100 years, a historical fact we cannot change. But it is time to move on.

Rwanda is brave enough to say, in action and word, that Swahili does not belong only to the Swahili or Bantu communities from which it has heavily borrowed, but is a language spoken by over 100 million people in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and Congo (DRC) among others and therefore it is time it was also considered a universal mode of communication.

I totally agree with the Rwandan visionary who is crafting and pushing through such ideas. South Sudan has also indicated that it will take the same step and has started by introducing the learning of Kiswahili in schools as a precursor to making it one of her official languages.

Swahili, and "African languages", are official, though not necessarily working, languages of the African Union. Previously, sadly and ironically, the official languages of the AU were English, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Arabic.

How ridiculous are Africans, really? African unity, whose mode of communication, except for Arabic, is all borrowed from their previous slave masters? For over 40 years none of the African leaders thought to establish an African language as a mode of communication?

So what was the foundation on which they hoped to lay the Pan Africanism we desired? It would not have mattered what language they chose, it just needed to be of African origin.


The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) has, since 1960, tried to initiate efforts that enhance the quality of learning and that promote inclusive education. The language factor cannot be over-emphasised.

Think about it. It is very hard for a child to understand basic scientific concepts if the language of instruction also has to be learned.

This can only work if it is supported by policies and learning materials.

Even where learning materials are in another language, the teacher will have to fully understand and synthesise a concept for onward transmission, as opposed to making children memorise it in a foreign language.

Language, read mother tongue, or its nearest closest denominator, is one of the equity-enhancing policies necessary to make access to basic education universal.

We keep fretting that Africa lags behind Asia in economic development, but refuse to admit that their children are instructed in their mother tongue.

That may mean that they understand science and technological concepts that are not based in their own traditional indigenous systems much earlier than our own children.  

So yes, English children continue to understand concepts faster than Kenyan children because they learn in their native language.


Even better, look at the economies that are production-based, ask the Chinese and Japanese. They generate Japanese and Chinese-language instruction manuals that the rest of the world has to sort out into whatever language it can.

Before you pull the old and tired tribal trump card on me, I will be the first to admit that societies are increasingly embracing multiculturalism and multilingualism.

That is the perfect situation, but one cannot climb a tree from the top. Start with your own language, your own culture. It will be the basis of understanding other people’s language and culture.

There is absolutely no cultural conflict on the various layers that define a person, a people, a nation and or a nation-state.

How is it that Kenyans are able to accept the various layers that can make a person only in so far as they are negative?

We are okay with a politician who loots public coffers, is a church elder and belongs to an ethnic community but are unable to unpack a child who learns in mother tongue and can speak the national language (Kiswahili), the official language (English) and is a Kenyan citizen.

The still colonised should not come for me guns blazing. This is not about other languages: speak and master as many as you desire but start with your native language, then your national language and then all the others.

If you are one of those sad types whose children live in Kenya and walk around saying they speak only English or French or whatever, the colonisers left with your mind and you will have to retrieve it at your own expense.

Charity begins at home and the only true love is the one within you. It is what reflects as a mirror image out there!