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Black Sahibs: Decolonising Language

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Because erasure of memory and culture is a condition for successful assimilation, the burial of African languages by Africans themselves has ensured their total immersion into colonial culture. This is a death wish that occurs in societies that have never fully acknowledged their loss – like trauma victims who resort to drugs to kill the pain.

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Black Sahibs: Decolonising Language
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We all know Kenyans who, after a short stint in the United States, come back home with a mangled American accent – the kind you know is put on or forced and which makes you cringe because you know how much effort it has taken for the speaker to develop it.

It makes you wonder what it is about America that makes people quickly put on accents that are not theirs. Is it lack of self-esteem, or is it a fervent desire to fit into White America? Do people who adopt American accents believe they have a better chance of being assimilated into American society? Or do they believe that they can only move ahead in their careers if they are better understood by their American audiences? Is changing one’s accent a route to career advancement?

The Sri Lankan journalist Varindra Tarzie Vittachi wrote about this phenomenon in his book The Brown Sahib, in which he describes post-colonial Indian administrators and top-level civil servants who became mere caricatures of the British and Britishness when the colonialists left India. Eager to please their former masters, they went to great lengths to adopt British accents and mannerisms – not realising that: a) they could never pass off as British no matter how hard they tried, and b) by denigrating their own language and culture, they generated even more contempt for themselves among the British, who viewed them as mimicking buffoons who had no dignity or respect for their own culture and identity.

I lived in the United States for five years when I was a student there, but did not come home with an American accent. I think it’s partly because I am multilingual (I’ll explain why this matters later) and also because I don’t like the loud nasal screechy tone of American accents. I find the accent off-putting. It lacks the subtle sensuality of French, the lyricism of Urdu or the sophistication of coastal Kiswahili.

Later on, when I worked in the diverse multicultural environment of the United Nations, I realised that American accents were the minority, and had very little to do with career advancement, so there was no need to put them on. Though race and gender mattered when it came to getting the top management jobs, it was not rare to have a Senegalese with a heavy French-Senegalese accent heading a department or a Russian with very little knowledge of English running an IT section. Most UN staffers are valued not for their knowledge of English, but for their fluency in a variety of languages. So speaking English with an American accent is hardly a plus point.

Kenyans who develop American accents overnight remind me of something Sharmila Sen, an American writer of Indian origin, wrote. In her recently published book, Not Quite Not White, Sen talks about how she used to rehearse speaking with an American accent when her family migrated to America from their native India when she was a child. Her family had moved to Boston from Calcutta and she was afraid that her Indian Bengali accent would be mocked by her classmates. So she spent hours watching American television, learning to speak like the characters in Little House on the Prairie and Dallas (probably not realising that accents vary across America; Texans speak with a specific drawl that is quite distinct from the speech pattern of someone born and raised in New England).

When the twelve-year-old Sen arrived in America with her immigrant parents, she was fluent in three languages: Bengali, Hindi and English. But in her almost all-white school, she pretended that she did not know any Indian language and did not even watch Indian movies, even though she loved them. She was afraid that her classmates might find out that Bengalis eat with their hands and that she would be the laughing stock of the entire school, so she never invited friends home. Her parents, keen to assimilate in their new country, insisted on using forks and knives, even though they had little desire to use them. She says she and her family didn’t want to be associated with “fresh off the boat” people in America, who fail to assimilate into American society, and live cocooned lives in ghettoes. Most importantly, she didn’t want to appear “threatening, unnatural, or ungrateful”.

She also smiled a lot, which she says is common among brown and black people living in America. As an African American man, a fellow doctoral candidate, explained to her, “We smile because it is the only face we can show. If we stop smiling, they will see how angry we are. And no one likes an angry black man”.

Going native

Sen says that as she grew older and understood white privilege, she decided to “go native” and not smile too much because she was tired of being the entertainer, the storyteller, the explainer of all things Indian to white audiences. She also did not want her sons and daughter to be viewed as “people of colour” (a designation she resents).

Another writer who decided to go truly native is our very own Ngũgi wa Thiong’o. In Ngũgi’s case, not only did he not adopt an American accent when he went into self-imposed exile in the US, but he decided to abandon the English language altogether in favour of his mother tongue, Gĩkũyũ. Perhaps that is why his acceptance speech for an award he received recently was entirely in his native tongue.

Ngũgi believes that when you erase a people’s language, you erase their memories. And people without memories are rudderless, unconnected to their own histories and culture, mimics who have placed their memories in a “psychic tomb” in the mistaken belief that if they master their coloniser’s language, they will own it. Because erasure of memory and culture is a condition for successful assimilation, the burial of African languages by Africans themselves has ensured their total immersion into colonial culture. He calls this phenomenon a “death wish” that occurs in societies that have never fully acknowledged their loss – like trauma victims who resort to drugs to kill the pain.

Many people of my generation are multilingual because they were encouraged to speak their mother tongue at home. While I was taught in English in school, I learned to speak and understand Hindi and Punjabi at home and picked up Kiswahili on the streets. Later, I picked up a bit of French in high school, and Urdu as well, because my father loved Urdu poetry and ghazals.

All these languages have enriched my life in ways that would not have been possible had I not learned them. Without them, I would have never been able to understand the subtle meanings and nuances embedded in certain Punjabi words. I would not have been able to communicate with my grandmother or watch and enjoy Bollywood films. Nor would I have realised that President Moi’s speeches in English were very different in meaning and tone from his speeches in Kiswahili. I would not have developed an understanding of my own and other people’s cultures or developed empathy and tolerance for other races and ethnic groups had I not been multilingual. Language is the pathway to a culture’s soul.

Sadly, the generations that come after me have abandoned their native tongue in favour of English. Some parents even encourage their children not to speak their mother tongue at home because it might “contaminate” their English accent.

At a public lecture he gave at the University of Nairobi a few years ago, Ngũgi derided Kenyan parents for discouraging their children from speaking their mother tongues, a phenomenon that has led to what he called a “linguistic famine” in African households. This would never happen in countries such as Germany or France, where German and French children learn their own language before they learn English. Nor would it happen in China, India or Brazil, all of which are emerging economies. (I have yet to meet a Chinese person who feels ashamed about not knowing English.)

Even in neighbouring Tanzania and Somalia, people become fluent in Kiswahili and Somali, respectively, before they learn other languages. A few years ago, I participated in a two-day local government meeting in Dar es Salaam which was conducted in just in one language – Kiswahili. Like many Kenyans who visit Tanzania, I became painfully aware of the fact that my mastery of this beautiful language was woefully inadequate. My only (lame) excuse for this is that in my school days, Kiswahili was not a mandatory subject.

Knowledge of many languages promotes inter-cultural dialogue and understanding, and is essential in a globalising world. If Kenyans are to be successful citizens of the world, they must learn their own and other people’s languages. And we should stop putting on accents just to impress others. Putting on an accent that is not natural is not just silly and painful to watch; it is also a sign that those who feel compelled to change their accents have a large amount of self-loathing going on, which is just plain sad.

The late Wangari Maathai said that “culture is coded wisdom”, and must be preserved. Language is one of the vehicles through which that culture is transmitted. We must preserve our languages for the sake of present and future generations.

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Rasna Warah
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Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

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Haiti: The Struggle for Democracy, Justice, Reparations and the Black Soul

Only the Haitian people can decide their own future. The dictatorship imposed by former president Jovenel Moïse and its imperialist enablers need to go – and make space for a people’s transition government.

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Haiti: The Struggle for Democracy, Justice, Reparations and the Black Soul
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Haiti is once again going through a profound crisis. Central to this is the struggle against the dictatorship imposed by former president Jovenel Moïse. Since last year Mr. Moise, after decreeing the dismissal of Parliament, has been ruling through decrees, permanently violating Haiti’s constitution. He has refused to leave power after his mandate ended on February 7, 2021, claiming that it ends on February 7 of next year, without any legal basis.

This disregard of the constitution is taking place despite multiple statements by the country’s main judicial bodies, such as the CSPJ (Superior Council of Judicial Power) and the Association of Haitian Lawyers. Numerous religious groups and numerous institutions that are representative of society have also spoken. At this time, there is a strike by the judiciary, which leaves the country without any public body of political power.

At the same time, this institutional crisis is framed in the insecurity that affects practically all sectors of Haitian society. An insecurity expressed through savage repressions of popular mobilizations by the PNH (Haitian National Police), which at the service of the executive power. They have attacked journalists and committed various massacres in poor neighborhoods. Throughout the country, there have been assassinations and arbitrary arrests of opponents.

Most recently, a judge of the High Court was detained under the pretext of promoting an alleged plot against the security of the State and to assassinate the president leading to the illegal and arbitrary revocation of three judges of this Court. This last period has also seen the creation of hundreds of armed groups that spread terror over the entire country and that respond to power, transforming kidnapping into a fairly prosperous industry for these criminals.

The 13 years of military occupation by United Nations troops through MINUSTAH and the operations of prolongation of guardianship through MINUJUSTH and BINUH have aggravated the Haitian crisis. They supported retrograde and undemocratic sectors who, along with gangsters, committed serious crimes against the Haitian people and their fundamental rights.

For this, the people of Haiti deserve a process of justice and reparations. They have paid dearly for the intervention of MINUSTAH: 30 THOUSAND DEAD from cholera transmitted by the soldiers, thousands of women raped, who now raise orphaned children. Nothing has changed in 13 years, more social inequality, poverty, more difficulties for the people. The absence of democracy stays the same.

The poor’s living conditions have worsened dramatically as a result of more than 30 years of neoliberal policies imposed by the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), a severe exchange rate crisis, the freezing of the minimum wage, and inflation above 20% during the last three years.

It should be emphasized that, despite this dramatic situation, the Haitian people remain firm and are constantly mobilizing to prevent the consolidation of a dictatorship by demanding the immediate leave of office by former President Jovenel Moïse.

Taking into account the importance of this struggle and that this dictatorial regime still has the support of imperialist governments such as the United States of America, Canada, France, and international organizations such as the UN, the OAS, and the EU, the IPA calls its members to contribute their full and active solidarity to the struggle of the Haitian people, and to sign this Petition that demands the end of the dictatorship as well as respect for the sovereignty and self-determination of the Haitian people, the establishment of a transition government led by Haitians to launch a process of authentic national reconstruction.

In addition to expressing our solidarity with the Haitian people’s resistance, we call for our organisations to demonstrate in front of the embassies of the imperialist countries and before the United Nations. Only the Haitian people can decide their future. Down with Moise and yes to a people’s transition government, until a constituent is democratically elected.

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Deconstructing the Whiteness of Christ

While many African Christians can only imagine a white Jesus, others have actively promoted a vision of a brown or black Jesus, both in art and in ideology.

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When images of a white preacher and actor going around Kenya playing Jesus turned up on social media in July 2019, people were rightly stunned by the white supremacist undertone of the images. They suggested that Africans were prone to seeing Jesus as white, promoting the white saviour narrative in the process. While it is true that the idea of a white Jesus has been prevalent in African Christianity even without a white actor, and many African Christians and churches still entertain images of Jesus as white because of the missionary legacy, many others have actively promoted a vision of Jesus as brown or black both in art an in ideology.

Images of a brown or black Jesus is as old as Christianity in Africa, especially finding a prominent place in Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which has been in existence for over sixteen hundred years. Eyob Derillo, a librarian at the British Library, recently brought up a steady diet of these images on Twitter. The image of Jesus as black has also been popularised through the artistic project known as Vie de Jesus Mafa (Life of Jesus Mafa) that was conducted in Cameroon.

The most radical expression of Jesus as a black person was however put forth by a young Kongolese woman called Kimpa Vita, who lived in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century. Through the missionary work of the Portuguese, Kimpa Vita, who was a nganga or medicine woman, became a Christian. She taught that Jesus and his apostles were black and were in fact born in São Salvador, which was the capital of the Kongo at the time. Not only was Jesus transposed from Palestine to São Salvador, Jerusalem, which is a holy site for Christians, was also transposed to São Salvador, so that São Salvador became a holy site. Kimpa Vita was accused of preaching heresy by Portuguese missionaries and burnt at the stake in 1706.

It was not until the 20th century that another movement similar to Vita’s emerged in the Kongo. This younger movement was led by Simon Kimbangu, a preacher who went about healing and raising the dead, portraying himself as an emissary of Jesus. His followers sometimes see him as the Holy Spirit who was to come after Jesus, as prophesied in John 14:16. Just as Kimpa Vita saw São Salvador as the new Jerusalem, Kimbangu’s village of Nkamba became, and still is known as, the new Jerusalem. His followers still flock there for pilgrimage. Kimbangu was accused of threatening Belgian colonial rule and thrown in jail, where he died. Some have complained that Kimbangu seems to have eclipsed Jesus in the imagination of his followers for he is said to have been resurrected from the dead, like Jesus.

Kimbangu’s status among his followers is however similar to that of some of the leaders of what has been described as African Independent Churches or African Initiated Churches (AICs). These churches include the Zionist churches of Southern Africa, among which is the amaNazaretha of Isaiah Shembe. Shembe’s followers see him as a divine figure, similar to Jesus, and rather than going to Jerusalem for pilgrimage, his followers go to the holy city of Ekuphakameni in South Africa. The Cameroonian theologian, Fabien Eboussi Boulaga, in his Christianity Without Fetish, see leaders like Kimbangu and Shembe as doing for their people in our own time what Jesus did for his people in their own time—providing means of healing and deliverance in contexts of grinding oppression. Thus, rather than replacing Jesus, as they are often accused of doing, they are making Jesus relevant to their people. For many Christians in Africa, therefore, Jesus is already brown or black. Other Christians still need to catch up with this development if we are to avoid painful spectacles like the one that took place Kenya.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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In Magufuli’s Shadow: The Stark Choices Facing Tanzania’s New President

One immediate concern is what steps Hassan will take on the pandemic, and whether she will change direction.

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In Magufuli’s Shadow: The Stark Choices Facing Tanzania’s New President
Photo: Flickr/Gospel Kitaa
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The sudden death of Tanzania’s President John Pombe Magufuli has thrown the East African nation into a period of political uncertainty.

Vice-president, Samia Suluhu Hassan, has been sworn in as his successor, making her Tanzania’s first woman president.

The transition is all the more challenging given the major rupture – both political and economic – caused by Magufuli’s presidency. Magufuli, who won a second term in October 2020, dramatically centralised power and pursued an interventionist economic policy agenda. He courted controversy on a number of fronts, most recently, by claiming that Tanzania – contrary to mounting evidence – was Covid-free.

Hassan has called for unity and counselled that now is not the time to look at what has passed but rather to look at what is to come.

Despite the 61-year-old leader’s forward-looking stance, questions remain about how Magufuli’s legacy will shape her time in office.

The authoritarian turn

Magufuli oversaw the marginalisation of opposition parties and a decline in civil liberties. His first term was defined by heightened intimidation and violence against opposition leaders, including disappearances and physical attacks.

Thanks to five years of repression, the October 2020 general elections saw the opposition all but wiped out of elected office. The ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi now controls all local government councils. It also holds 97% of directly elected legislative seats, up from 73% in 2015.

In addition, media freedom and civil liberties were also restricted. A law passed in 2018 imposed jail terms for questioning the accuracy of official statistics.

But Magufuli’s authoritarian tendencies were not unprecedented in Tanzania. For instance, the rule of his predecessor Jakaya Kikwete was also marred by human rights abuses as well civil society and media repression. Kikwete also cancelled Zanzibar’s 2015 election due to a likely opposition victory.

It remains to be seen whether Hassan will adopt a more liberal approach, loosening restrictions on opposition parties, the media and civil society. Even if she does, the damage will take time to repair. Opposition parties, for instance, may well struggle to regain their strength. Among other setbacks, they have lost almost all local elected representatives – a core element of their organisational infrastructure built up painstakingly over decades.

Centralising power in the party

Another key pillar to Magufuli’s legacy is the centralisation of power within the Chama Cha Mapinduzi.

In the early years under founding president Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s ruling party was dominated by the president and a hierarchy of appointed state and party officials. But, following economic liberalisation in the 1980s and Nyerere’s retirement from politics, the party became steeped in factional rivalries. These were spurred by new political alliances and an emerging private sector business elite.

This factionalism reached its height under Kikwete amid accusations of widespread corruption. Magufuli’s nomination as party presidential candidate only occurred because the rivalry among these factions left him as the unexpected compromise candidate.

Once in office, though, Magufuli quickly signalled he would be nobody’s puppet. He used his position as ruling party chairman to create a “new” Chama Cha Mapinduzi. This involved breaking with party heavyweights, including Kikwete, suppressing factional organising, and consolidating his own support base.

Magufuli’s new base was a cohort of freshly appointed party officials as well as civil servants and cabinet ministers. His loyalists likened these changes to a revival of Nyerere’s Chama Cha Mapinduzi. But, in our view, the comparison is misleading.

Like Magufuli before her, Hassan will be taking office – and party leadership – without her own political base. She will also have to contend with revived factional manoeuvring as sidelined groups try to regain an upper hand.

Hassan could align with a loyal Magufuli faction, which includes influential figures within the party. But, early indications suggest she intends to follow the advice of “party elders”, notably Kikwete. The former president reportedly attended the party’s most recent central committee meeting on Hassan’s invitation.

Aligning herself with Kikwete will likely lead to the reemergence of the internal factional rivalries that characterised the former president’s tenure.

Implications for economic policy

If president Hassan does continue to take a political steer from Kikwete, one likely outcome is that there will be a change in economic policy. In particular, a return to growth that’s led by a more business-friendly approach to the private sector.

Calls are already being made for such a course of action..

The danger for Hassan, however, is that under Kikwete this model was associated with high levels of corruption and unproductive rent-seeking.

A careful reassessment of the Magufuli era is needed to guide future policymaking.

Magufuli used his control over the ruling party to pursue an ambitious policy agenda. This was also linked to his political project of centralising power.

Although this trend actually began under Kikwete, Magufuli accelelrated a move towards more state-led investment. Under his leadership, both state-owned and, increasingly, military-owned enterprises were offered strategic contracts.

This ambitious programme initially won him praise. But over time, his authoritarian decision-making, mismanagement, and lack of transparency prompted a more critical response.

Many state enterprises remained cash-starved, relied on government financial support, and registered losses.

When the government’s controller and auditor general called for more scrutiny of public finances, his budget was slashed. And he was ultimately forced to retire and replaced by a Magufuli loyalist.

Alongside state investment, the president also sought to discipline private sector actors. Some observers suggest that this led to more productive investment, notably by domestic investors. But others point to renewed crony capitalist ties.

Magufuli’s most high profile corporate battle was against Canadian-owned Barrick Gold and its former subsidiary, Acacia Mining. From the two, he demanded USD$190 billion in tax arrears and a renegotiation of operating terms.

Many saw this resource-nationalist approach as an inspiration and a model for African countries seeking to take greater control of their mineral wealth. But in the end – partly due to externally imposed legal and economic constraints – Magufuli walked back on some of his demands. Instead he opted for cooperation rather than confrontation.

He negotiated a joint venture in which Barrick took a majority stake of 84% and Tanzania the remaining 16%. Key elements of the nationalistic mining legislation passed in 2017 were also reversed.

On the plus side gold overtook tourism as Tanzania’s biggest foreign-exchange earner. In addition, some small-scale miners saw their livelihoods improve. Results were more mixed elsewhere, especially for Tanzanite miners in the country’s north.

Ultimately, Magufuli leaves behind a mixed economic legacy. It combines misdirected authoritarian decision-making with positive efforts to pursue an active industrial policy. Reining in unproductive domestic investors and renegotiating adverse contracts with foreign investors were part of this agenda.

There is a risk, given this complex mix, that Tanzania’s policymakers may learn the wrong lessons from his presidency, leading back to the flawed model existing before.

Significantly, neither Magufuli nor his predecessors managed to achieve more inclusive growth. For this reason poverty levels have remained stubbornly high.

The pandemic and beyond

One immediate concern is what steps Hassan will take on the pandemic, and whether she will change direction.

Whatever she does, the health emergency and associated economic crisis will likely define her presidency. It could indeed define the economic trajectory of the African region in years to come.

Both Kikwete and Magufuli ruled through an economic boom period. Commodity prices were high and access to international finance was fairly easy. This gave them latitude to choose between various development approaches.

If Tanzania reverts to the status quo of the Kikwete years, the risk is a reemergence of rent-seeking but without the same highly favourable economic growth conditions. Indeed, as external conditions worsen, Hassan may find her options far more limited.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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