Language, culture, media and development: A nexus of harmony

Professor Abiodun Salawu

Professor Abiodun Salawu

Inaugural lecture presented by Prof. Abiodun Salawu at North-West University, Mafikeng Campus, South Africa

The major plank of my research straddles Indigenous Language Media and Development Communication. I see a connection between language, culture, media and development. At the expiration of the dominant paradigm of development – when development was largely viewed as economic (Rogers, 1976a, 1976b) – the alternative paradigm that emerged was geared toward the popularisation of the development and design of campaign messages, that are supposed to be culturally sensitive, language specific (emphasis mine) and in tune with the social realities of the people of the developing world (Nwuneli, 1993).

It is no gainsaying that there is a symbiosis between communication and development. Therefore, the media through which the communication is done cannot but be important. Specifically, the media that use indigenous languages are important for the purpose of information, mobilisation and continuity i.e. survival of the language and culture (Salawu 2004a, 2004b). The language in which a development message is disseminated is a very important aspect of the message treatment. It is posited that the indigenous language of any community is the best suited for the purpose of conveying any message, whatsoever, to the said community (Nwuneli, 1985: 203). There is ample literature in support of the fact that people would understand information better in their indigenous language than in a foreign language, no matter the length of time the (foreign) language has been with them (Ngugi, 1986: 116; Chieka, 1982; Eyoh, 1986: 111). There are also myriad of studies which have confirmed the effectiveness of mother-tongue or indigenous language (L1) for instructional purposes (McNamara, 1965; Klein, 1994; Okombo and Rubgumya, 1996; Luckett, 1994; Fafunwa et al, 1989). So, it does not matter the level of corrosion or corruption a native language has suffered as a result of the influence of a foreign language, the (native) language still remains the language that speaks in the idiom of the people. Without using the language of the people, development will only be communicated at the people; not to the people, and not with the people.
My Model of Indigenous Language for Development Communication (Salawu, 2001) graphically explains this.

In the model, the Source is a change agent which could be a development agency, a non-governmental organisation, a government body or a media organisation. The Message is basically development-oriented and it is constructed in the indigenous language of the community for which the development programme is meant. The Receiver(s) are the owners of the language. They understand the development messages better in this language and they can express themselves better in it; thus, facilitating robust interaction between them and the Source.

This model actually derives its strength from the myriad of studies already carried out which, undoubtedly, confirmed the effectiveness of mother-tongue or indigenous language (L1) for instructional purposes. Similarly, in a study conducted by me (Salawu, 2001, 2004a), respondents (all of Yoruba origin) to copies of a questionnaire distributed adjudged Yoruba language newspapers more effective than the English language newspapers in the dissemination of development messages. In other words they understand development messages in Yoruba language newspapers better than in English language newspapers.

The regret
Regrettably, in most developing nations, communication in indigenous languages has been adversely affected due to the fact of their colonisation. Interestingly, the onslaught of globalisation on very many languages of the world, including many national languages in Europe, is real. Hourigan (2007: 254) notes that with the increasing dominance of global economic institutions such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the secession of political power to supra-national structures such as the European Union, it is clear that the global political context through which we evaluate language status has changed. The process of minoritisation is now being experienced by other more powerful language groups. However, Africa is the worst of it.
Essentially, there is a symbiotic relationship between language, communication and media. The mass media in Africa is predominated by foreign and colonial languages. In Anglophone Africa, the English language media are the mainstream media. In the Francophone world of Africa, French is the language. The Lusophone Africa has Portuguese as the language of dominance. Ngugi (1986: 11, 1993) attests to this fact while narrating an experience he had in school after the 1952 declaration of state of emergency in Kenya. He wrote:
English became more than a language: it was the language and all the other had to bow before it in deference. Thus one of the most humiliating experiences was to be caught speaking Gikuyu in the vicinity of the school. The culprit was given corporal punishment – three to five strokes of the cane on bare buttocks – or was made to carry a mental plate around the neck with inscriptions such as I AM STUPID or I AM A DONKEY. Sometimes, the culprits were fined money they could hardly afford (Ngugi, 1986: 11).

The media of mass communication are also caught in this web as they disseminate mostly in the foreign language. By and large, the print media seem more culpable as the electronic media do better in the use of native languages. This is probably accounted for by virtue of it, being principally, an oral/aural medium and the point that its production is not too cumbersome. Being oral, the indigenous language does not cost the broadcaster, who may not be able to write it, anything to broadcast in it. Also, being aural, it does not cost the listener, who may not be able to read the language, anything to listen to it (Salawu, 1993:2). But then, one still calls to question the authenticity of what passes for African languages on our airwaves today.

Meanwhile, there are newspapers being published in indigenous languages of Africa, but are critically suffering from low awareness and patronage. Ironically, Coker (1968) says Iroyin Yoruba (Nigeria), established in 1945, was the widest read weekly in the 40s. Gradually, however, the people who are supposed to be the readers became more and more anglicised, and, therefore, jettisoned the reading of the indigenous language newspapers. Salawu (2006a, 2006b) notes that the story of indigenous language newspapers rising and dying is the same across most parts of Africa. In 1930, there were 19 registered African language newspapers in South Africa. They included the isiXhosa Imvo Zabantsundu and Inkundla ya Bantu. Today, most of those newspapers are non-existent.

As recently as 1990s, there used to be newspapers in fifteen Ghanaian languages; today, there is none (Salawu 2006b). In the colonial Democratic Republic of Congo, there were more than 150 periodicals in indigenous languages. Today, the story is quite different (Vinck 2006). In Cameroon, there is hardly a remarkable indigenous language newspaper (Tanjong and Muluh 2006). Of all the newspapers in the first to the fourth ‘waves’ of indigenous language press in Nigeria (Folarin and Mohammed 1996), only Gaskiya Tafi Kwabo (established in 1937) still exists till today. Iroyin Yoruba, established in 1945, existed till 1996 when it was finally laid to rest. Meanwhile, many other newspapers that had come after Gaskiya and Iroyin Yoruba had ceased to exist. Bloom (in Wigston 2007, 53–54) poses the question: Why are there no mainstream newspapers in … South African languages such as isiXhosa and Sesotho? Madam Rector, distinguished members of the audience, I pose the same question, why are there no mainstream newspapers in Setswana and Tshivenda?

My scholarship in African language media studies
I have engaged African language media studies from two major approaches: critical political economy and cultural studies. Critical political economy is that branch of political economy that specifically deals with issues of culture, and therefore, the media. Because of the global changes dictated by the rapid growth of capitalism in the last three decades, both the state and private sector have increased their capacity for controlling public discourse. Language is central in this matter as it is through language that meaning is mediated. In the logic of critical political economy, defining what meanings are in circulation is an important part of one group exercising power over others. The structure of the global media is now such that the priority with regard to language is not so much to enhance diversity as to increase efficiency, as the media are seen primarily not as channels for citizens to participate meaningfully in their own governance, but as a means of manipulating public opinion, largely through advertising and generating income on a large scale. Efficiency and maximization of profit, therefore, are of paramount importance. The literature of critical political economy addresses the close relationship between those who wield political (and economic) power (Chibita, 2006: 249-250). Critical political economy gives us understanding about why the status of local language media is what it is compared to that of their European (for example, English and French) language counterparts in Africa.

With respect to the issue of language, cultural studies focuses on how and why different languages are used in more specific cultural contexts, in spite of the influence of macro forces (Ricento, 2000: 18). While acknowledging the influence of macro forces, Pennycook (2000) alerts us to the element of human agency, which is said to play a major role in the choices people make with regard to the use of the languages of wider communication, like English, as well as in the use of their own languages. Thus, Pennycook and his fellow postmodernist scholars do not merely see local peoples as victims of the hegemony of English, but they rather see them as actors with the freedom to choose what to make of English and of their indigenous languages (Barker, 2002; Grossberg, 1995; Hall, 1993a, 1993b; Chibita, 2006: 252). In contrast to critical political economy, cultural studies explains to us why local language media still keep resisting total extinction despite all odds. It explains to us why peoples all over Africa still keep their languages in the public domain through the media despite the onslaught of the dominant European languages.

My ‘crusading’ research into indigenous language media in Africa started with my MSc dissertation (Salawu, 1993), followed by my PhD thesis (Salawu, 2001). In 2006, a book that I edited, entitled, Indigenous Language Media in Africa, was published. It is a seminal publication, being the first of its kind and having contributions from various regions of Africa including West Africa, East Africa, Southern Africa and Central Africa. In the preface to the book, I said:

This work stands as a pioneering effort in drawing academic attention to the indigenous language media in Africa. As it was noted at the start of the project, not much attention has been paid to the study of this section of our media. The few that have been done have been largely sporadic and uncoordinated. This work, therefore, stands as an attempt to coordinate scholarly efforts in this direction, document them and give focus to the disparate activities (Salawu, 2006c: xi).

A second edited volume will be out in November of this year. The book, entitled Indigenous Language Media, Language Politics and Democracy in Africa, is being published by Palgrave Macmillan and I have Dr. Monica Chibita of the Uganda Christian University as my co-editor in this latest effort. This second effort was probably inspired by one of the modules in the UNESCO’s Reporting Africa project. Indigenous Language Media and Democracy in Africa is one of the modules in the four-syllabus Reporting Africa Project. The essence of this module is predicated on the idea that indigenous language media would foster the participation of the masses of the people – for whom the indigenous language is the everyday language – in the democratic process. The specific objective of the particular module is to experiment with culturally and linguistically innovative media forms which lend themselves to a more democratically engaged journalistic practice. The indigenous language media have played (Folarin and Mohammed, 1996; Olunlade, 2006; Kishindo, 2006; Ugangu, 2006; and CCSU, 1996) and continued to play a key role in Africa‘s democratisation. I had the privilege of serving as the Project Manager by convening, on behalf of UNESCO, a consultative meeting with the South African potential centres of excellence in Journalism Education on the Implementation of the module. The meeting held in October 2010 at the East London campus of the University of Fort Hare. Unfortunately, both the UNESCO and the four (South African) universities designated as the potential centres of excellence could not take the programme forward.

Salawu (2013a) also reinforces the importance of indigenous language communication to democracy. The paper was a report of a special phone-in programme of the Broadcasting Corporation of Oyo State (BCOS) during the general elections held in Nigeria in April 2007. The paper specifically considers the edition of this programme aired on April 14 in its coverage and monitoring of the conduct of the Oyo State gubernatorial (governorship) election held on that day. Realising that it cannot be everywhere and that people need be involved in the process of democracy, the Radio/Television station gave out some phone lines to which people could call to report their experiences of the conduct of the election in their localities. Participation of the people in this programme was possible because of the ubiquity, affordability and portability of radio sets and cell phones; and the proficiency of expression which the local language programme afforded them.

Meanwhile, I have reconstructed the history of indigenous African Language Media (Salawu, 2015a). Iwe Irohin Yoruba Fun Awon Ara Egba ati Yoruba, founded in 1859, is generally known in Nigerian media studies as not just the first newspaper (in any language) in Nigeria but also the first African language newspaper (Coker, 1968; Omu, 1978; Akinfeleye, 1985; Duyile, 1987). I however discovered and argued that an isiXhosa newspaper, Umshumayeli Wendaba, which started in 1837, was the first indigenous African language newspaper. Two other Xhosa language newspapers predated Iwe Irohin. They were Ikwezi (1844) and Isitunywa sennyanga (1850).I concluded with a call for the need to reconstruct African media/press history so that facts are straightened out and disseminated for the knowledge of all. The South African media history scholarship may be responsible for this lack of awareness about the early local language newspapers in the country. This however cannot be divorced from the impact of apartheid on the native history. A tendency towards reductionism can be suspected in the way the apartheid ideology relates to the black African history in South Africa. More robust scholarship is expected around the history of media in South Africa. It is also worrisome that South African media history is not systematically taught in the nation’s media schools (Salawu, 2013b). Rather than the media history to be treated handsomely in the nation’s journalism curricula, it is at best taught as a topic in amorphous media studies modules.
I have also looked into the management of the local language press in Africa (Salawu, 2015b, 2013b). I identify two basic models of managing the press. They are what I call the Mainstream model and the Subsidiary model.

In the Mainstream model, we have local language newspapers that exist as sole or main products of a media organisation. Such newspaper organisations that exclusively deal in local language publications include World Information Agents, Ajoro, Marianhill Monastery, Mandla-Matla Publishing etc. World Information Agents publishes titles such as Alaroye, Akede Agbaye, Alaroye Magasini, and Iriri Aye. Ajoro organisation publishes Ajoro, Marianhill Monastery used to publish UmAfrika, while Mandla-Matla Publishing publishes Ilanga.

The Subsidiary Model consists of local language newspapers that exist as subsidiary products of a foreign (but dominant) language media organisation. For instance, in Nigeria, the defunct Daily Sketch Press Ltd., publishers of English titles such as Daily Sketch, Sunday Sketch and Evening Sketch also published Gboungboun, a Yoruba newspaper. Concord Press of Nigeria, publishers of titles like National Concord, Sunday Concord, Weekend Concord, and African Concord used to publish local language titles such as Isokan (Yoruba), Amana (Hausa), and Udoka (Igbo). African Newspapers of Nigeria Plc, publishers of Nigerian Tribune, Saturday Tribune, Sunday Tribune, and Sporting Tribune also used to publish Iroyin Yoruba. Northern Literature Agency, publishers of New Nigerian, also publishes Gaskiya. The defunct Perskoporasie of South Africa (Perskor), publishers of titles in English and Afrikaans, also used to publish the now defunct Imvo Zabantsundu, an isiXhosa newspaper. This model seems to be the trend in South Africa now. In 2002, Independent Newspapers Limited, publishers of The Star, Daily News, Pretoria News, and Sunday Tribune etc. established Isolezwe, the isiZulu daily newspaper. In November 2010, Avusa Media Group, publishers of Sunday Times, Sowetan, Business Day, Daily Dispatch and the Herald also introduced the isiZulu version of Sunday Times. Um Afrika is also now in the hands of Zico Investment-Witness Group partnership. Interestingly, Media24, another major media conglomerate in South Africa, owns 50 per cent of the Witness Group.

I also noted that the two model types can be differentiated along the following typology: Focus/Attention/Priority and Resources (Sharing) – Men, Materials, Machine, and Marketing. I submitted that the success of a local language newspaper is not dependent on a particular management model under which it falls. The fact of the matter is that the success of local language press in sub-Saharan Africa can only be explained by political economy which hinges on the largeness of a language, the power equation and resource allocation as well as the ability of a newspaper to pamper to the taste of the market composed largely of the urban youths and the middle-class.

Meanwhile, convinced of the importance of indigenous language media to information access and participation of the masses of people in the democratic and larger development process, I have advocated for the formal and systematic integration of the study of this sector of the media into African Journalism/Media curriculum (Salawu, 2008a, 2007, forthcoming). Emphasising the point that every educational programme should be socially relevant and culturally sensitive, I argue that while it is not out of place for a journalist to be global in orientation and application, thereby equipping himself with proficiency in a very international language like English, it will, however, be out of place for him not to be able to communicate effectively with his very own people. The fact of the matter is that in most journalism curricula on the continent, premium attention has not be given to indigenous languages and the media using them. I proposed a module or course for the teaching of indigenous language media, the contents of which span language, history, contents, graphics and designs, styles, management and problems, use for development, and production. This is in line with the growing calls for the dewesternisation of media studies.

Not all gloomy
The Bloom’s question (cited in Wigston 2007, 53–54) which I referred to earlier in this lecture was actually framed thus: Why are there no mainstream newspapers in THE OTHER South African languages such as isiXhosa and Sesotho (emphasis mine)? This question was not asked in vacuum.

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