Monday, May 27, 2024

Making African universities linguistically relevant to their territories

Serote (1999) has made a bold and yet disturbing claim: “Africa is the only continent where knowledge is imparted through languages, which are not indigenous.” Coupled with his assertion is the worrying observation by Batibo (2005) that most of Africa’s over 2000 indigenous languages are under threat of extinction because of the post-colonial language policies of many African states which prefer English or French as mediums of instruction. According to Batibo (2005:155), at least 74.8 of the African languages are either moderately or severely endangered and 9.4% are extinct or nearly extinct. These observations must concern linguists, language researchers and sociologists based in African university on the place of African language in higher education.

The teaching of African languages in an African university, in particular, in Botswana, hasn’t attracted much academic debate. The literature on the nature and structure of a complete program aimed at developing an African language hasn’t been thought through and debated extensively. Since a people’s language lies at the heart of their identity and self actualization, minimum debate on the teaching of local languages at university has impoverished engagement on the subject of national identities and identities of African universities. In this column we contribute to this debate by principally arguing that one way of addressing this deficiency is by teaching African languages at universities, not only to understand their structure, but to empower them to function in the various domains of language use in the society. For African universities to claim to be truly African, they need not only be in an African country; they must also devote sufficient intellectual capital to the development of African cultures, in particular, African languages. They must determine how such languages could be studied and developed to be functional languages in their territories. For the country of Botswana, the first study on the structure and direction of Botswana’s education system was submitted in 1977. The Report of the National Commission on Education (henceforth, RNCE) of 1977, chaired by Prof. Torsten Husen, Director of the International Education, University of Stockholm, Sweden, had at the core of its recommendations an aim to redress the historical imbalances brought about by Botswana’s position as a British protectorate.

The commission therefore recognised in its preliminary pages that: “For 81 years until 1966 Botswana was the Bechuanaland Protectorate under British rule. Not surprisingly, the institutions and culture of the colonial power were imposed on the country. To some extent the indigenous culture became submerged and many Batswana were encouraged to believe that their own cultural inheritance was inferior to that imported by the British. With independence has come the opportunity to reassess this situation, to reassert the national identity, and to build a society which gives expression to the noblest values from the past” (Republic of Botswana 1977:11). The report recognized a need to “reassert the national identity and to build a society which gives expression to the noblest values from the past”. To create a unified nation and reinforce national cultural identity, the commission identified language in the educational system as a critical component. It argued that: “Language is one means by which cultural identity is strengthened, but education provides other ways to inculcate in every Motswana a sense of pride in and identification with his or her cultural heritage. … The education system should orient young people toward the social, cultural, artistic, political and economic life of their unique society and prepare them to participate proudly in it” (Republic of Botswana 1977:12).

Setswana was therefore identified as a language to be used to foster national unity and national cultural pride. Every Botswana national was urged to rally behind the national language. “The pursuit of unity calls for every Motswana to appreciate his or her rights and responsibilities as a citizen of Botswana, to become fluent in the national language, and to take pride in the national cultural heritage” (Republic of Botswana 1977:30). The report further states: “Secondly, the curriculum of the school must stress national unity and national identity. A fundamental requirement is the national language, Setswana, must be mastered by all, for it is an essential means of communication between Batswana, and is the medium through which a great deal of the national culture is expressed” (Republic of Botswana 1977:31).

The essential recommendation of the commission was not to replace Botswana’s multilingualism with a single local language, Setswana. Just as English was an official language with educational and economic value, Setswana was seen as a national language functioning as a symbol of national culture, unity and pride. The limitations of the recommendations RNCE were, however, in denying Botswana’s minority languages space in the education system and social domains and therefore contributing to their sustained marginalization and underdevelopment.

That being said, one of the commendable recommendations of the RNCE was the recognition of a university as a significant player in producing materials for the development of the national language, Setswana. It recommended that “the University should establish a Centre for Setswana Studies which could assist the development of Setswana reading materials” (Republic of Botswana 1977:77). Such a centre would focus on “the development of and research into Setswana” (Republic of Botswana 1977:178) ensuring that the university becomes relevant to the territory in which it exists. Over 35 years have passed since such a recommendation was made and still such a centre is yet to be established. Why have we delayed to establish a Setswana Centre which will protect, develop and promote the Setswana language? Doesn’t this point to our own alienation from ourselves?

It is perhaps no wonder that those who look to Botswana for Setswana excellence, look at us in wonderment. Earlier this year when I met the Motsweding FM presenter, Gofamodimo Seleka, he asked that haunting question: “Ke eng kwa Botswana lo leka go nna maBoritani?” I mumbled some explanation. The university must lead the country in this regard to protect and develop the national language.


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