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What a self-made handicap

By Kola Omotoso   |   05 February 2017   |   3:59 am  

Peter Abrahams, South African novelist, Jamaican journalist and African politically left nationalist who died a week or so ago, aged 97, in his Kingston home, wrote: “We do not learn from the past. We wipe it out. So, we are forever beginning anew. What a self-made handicap!”

Trouble struggles to identify something or some things to learn from our past. It is not a fellow African-Caribbean writer only who has made this point. Like Peter Abrahams, we all were seduced by English Literature or rather Literature in English. We were so seduced that we took Tarzan of the Apes as our hero and took against our kith and kin and called them natives with the British colonial writers. One of them is Joyce Cary who wrote the novel “Mr. Johnson” (1939) and insists that young Johnson had no sense of yesterday. Or even tomorrow. He lives for now. Again, Trouble asks: what is in Johnson’s past that could have taught him how to cope with the era of the whites that was overwhelming him and his people?

A few years ago there was an assignment from the oldest liberation movement on the continent. The liberation movement turned political party, wanted to know what space the 54 or so African governments making up the African Union, what space they created for African political ideas in their constitutions. After a thorough reading of these constitutions followed by interviews with constitutional lawyers and political analysts, it was not difficult to say that little or no space is created in African constitutions for African ideas.

In the first place, none of these constitutions is written in any African languages. Alright, let’s concede that those countries of North Africa, where only Berber survives of all African languages of North Africa, constitutions are written in Classical Arabic. So, there is no African constitution written in an African language. And constitutions written in European languages such as English, French, Spanish and Portuguese are likely to spew ideas close to England, France, Spain and Portugal.

The matter of language will re-occur here again and again. In the meantime let us go to the past and see what it consists of and if it can teach us something or some things. According to some English historian whose name shall remain unmentionable, Africans have no history. Or the history they have is that of their encounter with Europe. We reject such calumny with the contempt it deserves. Anyone with a language, spoken and memorised, will have history. That language speaks of long ago and far away. That is history. That is fable. That is a narrative of things past. All we need to do is ask questions. The same language would give us hope for tomorrow beyond the difficulties of today.

Do the languages in which we write our constitutions explain our pasts satisfactorily to us? Or are these languages substituting their pasts for our own? Like “Our ancestors the Gauls . . . “ in African history books of French origin!!! Are the pasts anything like our own? If these pasts are not our own, how can the futures that these constitutions conjure belong to us? How do these languages speak of the period before we encountered Europe? If we limit ourselves to the period of African-European-Arab encounter alone, what do our languages say about this encounter? And how do these other languages describe the encounter?

That encounter speaks of the prophesied coming of people without colour and without toes! It was an encounter, which ended in millions of us Africans going to Europe and the Americas to do time in the plantations of whites. The period of labour was followed with the period of protest against labour. Then there followed another period of willing worker willing hirer! Still the relationship was not satisfactory. But there was nothing we could do. We were caught and we accepted our fate. We learnt the languages of Europe so that they can understand what we are saying. But we were saying speaking their words and what their words meant to them was not always what we wanted it to mean. Hence the saying that some animals were more equal than others.

Our languages did not know how to say one thing and mean another. No. I lie. Our languages can have blood in the mouth and spit out saliva. So, our languages could also deceive as theirs deceived. The matter is that our encounters with Europe and with Arabs and the Americas has been recorded only in their languages and this should not be so. We need to record these histories and these fables and these narratives in our languages as well. We need to domesticate these encounters in order to make them ours. Without making the encounters of enslavement, liberation struggle and political freedom ours, we cannot learn from them.

Everything has to do with language. We are not the only ones who have had these encounters with Europe. The Arabs had it and, because they speak of the encounters in Arabic, they are forever learning new lessons from the encounters with Europe. They have also been able to copy some things from Europe. The Japanese have had their own encounters with Europe. Because they have told their stories to themselves in their own languages, they have been able to learn from that past. They have also been able to profit from imitating Europe in the area of industrialisation. The Chinese encountered Europeans whom they called devils. They narrate their stories of these encounters to themselves in their own languages and so could learn from them.

Perhaps what the weak learn from their past, in relation to others stronger than themselves, is how not to be weak going into the future. What the weak learn from their past is to alter their future to empower themselves. And it is only in our languages that we can say “never again!” and we can claim that “yes, we can”. If we cannot say these strong words in our languages, then we will never learn anything from our past. We will always wipe our past away with the languages of others. We will always begin anew and keep ourselves back with our self-created handicap. And do not tell me we need European languages to have our present nations. These are not nations, least of all our nations. Nations are built around a language. We have no nation but abomination, someone has said.



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