Image: Ethiopian Orthodox Priests. source darkroom.baltimoresun.com
Mother-tongue. Why do we call it that? Everything else we get from our fathers; from our last names to the places we consider our ancestral homes. Mothers are generally the primary caregivers of a child and so have the responsibility of passing down the customs, traditions and language of a people. Some even go further to say that mothers are the only ones who know the paternity of a child and so to keep peace in the community, mother rather than father-tongue is preferred.
You probably speak your mother-tongue very well, but can you write it? Not in the ABC’s we were taught in school. Can you write it like Chinese, Japanese or Arabic?
The irony is, European languages today are written in scripts derived from Africa. Latin is derived from Greek, which is adopted from Egyptian hieroglyphics. But most African languages today are written using Latin script. But why should we care?
If you try to translate a phrase or word from your mother-tongue into English, it’s often the case that the English version will pale in comparison to the original. In translation it loses it’s flavour, texture and context and feels almost robotic at times. Kefa Ombewa, a Kenyan working to de-Latinise the Luo language (his words), says it best: African languages needed indigenous symbols to express their nuances that the Roman alphabet simply cannot capture.
More than that, the written language affords a people a cultural identity and a clear place in history. A way to disseminate their thinking which is not wholly contingent upon social structures. Social structures that can be dismantled by occurrences such as colonisation. A long-standing repository of ancient wisdom to draw from. In a way ensuring that, through such records of the past, your existence cannot be contested and your collective thought cannot be easily supplanted by that of others. As has been the case for much of sub-Saharan Africa.
Although Africa is famous for her oral traditions, it is argued that there were several writing systems that pre-date even the Egyptian glyphs. Some are still in use today such as Vai in Sierra Leone and Liberia and Ge’ez which is still taught in schools in Ethiopia.
In this regard, Kefa’s cause is truly a noble one. He, along with Will Were and Dr. Paul Sidandi, based in Botswana, have created the Kefa-Sidandi font, the digital version of the Luo script, which you can download off his website. Thanks to their efforts, not only can you write using the script but you can type it as well. Kefa, however, considers the script to be African and not just belonging to the Luo community. (video below)
Adebunmi Adeniran, a Nigerian linguist based in the UK is also thinking along the same lines and has created a multilingual keyboard, Nailangs, which enables the writing of at least 12 Nigerian languages.
Miriam Makeba said, “Africa has her mysteries, and even a wise man cannot understand them. But a wise man respects them.” Perhaps those mysteries can be unlocked through a thorough exploration of our languages. By learning them and endeavouring to write them down, our place in history will never be in jeopardy again.
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