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Stopping intellectual genocide in African universities (1)

Prince Kum´a Ndumbe III, 02 November 2009

You have not mastered the white people’s foreign tongue? Then you do not have the right to education in your own country, not even at primary school. You have no right to any worthwhile education, however brilliant you are.' Prince Kum’a Ndumbe III calls on Africans to re-appropriate their own languages or face intellectual genocide.

Prince Kum´a Ndumbe III introduced a multilingual book, written in Douala, Ewondo, French and German. He is professor at the University Yaoundé, Cameroon. He is the founding president of the AfricAvenir foundation, a cultural development organisation in Cameroon and Berlin.
photo: Su-Kyung Han

Lo si kodise bato matoi na bwambo bwa bakala mo na mo ! O si bi te nja we no, sele o ko mbuke ! O ma be o mboa ngo nya wamene, o si bie ndand’a ngo nya mbia, o si bie neni o ma kema no ná o bele ba mbambe bongo e? O pimbedi te, baise, mota ndedi a ma leye oa ngea mboa!

Translation: Do not deafen yourself with the white people’s language all the time! If you do not know who you are, then first be silent! You are truly at home, yet you do not even know how to recite your genealogy. You do not know the words in which to invoke your ancestors! If you are lost, then you may ask. Forgiveness will show you the way home.

So why do I speak Douala in this era of globalisation? But of course I do. It is what keeps me going, walking with my head held high whilst I converse with the West in its languages.

Universities in African countries are still not African universities. Mostly, they are universities in thrall to the foreign, the West, Europe and North America. Their conception, philosophy, orientation and research, even their academic rituals and ceremonies, are more often than not a bad, if not grotesque, copy of the ancient and modern metropoles.

It is imperative that universities in Africa become African universities; that universities in Cameroon become Cameroonian universities. Intellectual genocide has already massacred enough in Africa. It is time to stop.

My argument is neither anti-white nor xenophobic. The issue at stake is how to uncover the mechanisms behind this lethal mindlessness, which is depriving the whole of humanity of precious scientific knowledge acquired by the black peoples over millennia. My discourse also challenges white people to ask themselves: what has it meant to be white for the last five centuries? What are the repercussions for white people themselves, and for others?

1. The white people’s language is the only language

I address you in French, the white people’s language, here in Yaoundé, capital of Cameroon, in a university environment designed for a small minority, which has no choice but to bend to the omnipresent and manifold power of the Western colonial or postcolonial metropoles. The great majority of Cameroonians will have no access to this debate, articulated in a language that is not their own, and which excludes them from decisions about their own future.

In Africa, the foreigner’s language has become the key to accessing the institutions that govern us, and the decisions that determine our daily lives. Competition to learn this language has become an obsession. For it is essential to be well armed in order to escape the exclusion in which the vast majority of the population finds itself.

The university represents a higher level of this competition to escape. And the language used by the university is one of the first conditions of access. You have not mastered the white people’s foreign tongue? Then you do not have the right to education in your own country, not even at primary school. You have no right to any worthwhile education, however brilliant you are. And that is your bad luck.

You do not want to speak the white people’s language? Then you will remain in your state of barbarism, speaking in your incomprehensible patois, in your dialect that is incapable of embodying thought, in your vernacular language which is barely appropriate for creativity or progress.

The point is that only the white people’s language exists. Their language embodies all thought and outlook on the world. It articulates creation and progress in a universal way – for them, as well as for you, you little niggers thirsty for a place in the sun governed by white people.

There is an urgent need to dismantle the logic that domination is achieved through the command of a foreign language that entails us completely losing the memory of ourselves and becoming incapable of articulating our own thoughts in our own languages.

Cheikh Anta Diop took the trouble to translate Einstein’s theory of relativity into Wolof in order to demonstrate that it is not only in the language of ancient Egypt that blacks are able to master the natural and medical sciences; contemporary African languages are also capable of articulating thought across the academic disciplines.

This does not mean that all school and university textbooks will be available tomorrow in African languages. However, it does signify and reveal the scandal of colonial and postcolonial domination through the imposition of the white people’s language. The way out of this domination and the underdevelopment it engenders is clear.

The direction must be this: Africans must re-appropriate their own languages and use them as basic vehicles for their thinking, production, education, dreams and outlook on the world. It is not only language that is at stake here, but also the survival of the nation, the collective control of the destiny of a people. It is a question of development thought out and directed by a nation, so that it may flourish.

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