Hlogotshwewu (white or grey head) is a term that Bapedi(Nothern Sotho speakers) use to refer to an old or an elderly person. The story of this term does not end here, it gets more interesting when “hlogotshwewu” is associated with the younger ones, this is through the roles that he(it has predominantly used to refer to grandfathers), due to his elderly stature is looked up to, or as a privilege of the elderly to have the younger ones serving them. This title and it’s association to the community can be heard in Dr Sello Galane’s song with the same title; “Hlogotshweu” when he asks “hlogotshweu o tla roma mang, ka gore baditi ba koma ba ile molete mohlaela thupa” (who will the elderly man send on errands, as the instructors of initiates are dying) this is in response to the various social ills that are facing our communities, from diseases(HIV) to the general feeling that our communities are going through an unfortunate moral decay.
There are a number of other expressions in various languages, not only in South Africa, and this to language fanatics is very interesting to hear when a non native speaker of the language has a grasp of these expressions. I often use these expressions on social media and in general with friends and the elderly whom I know I score a few points with when I do this. One thing I notice is that even with this general appreciation of these expressions and languages, both from the young and old, nationally and internationally, the grasp and the frequency at which we hear them is waning and this inevitably has a bearing on our sense of worth and pride in what is authentically ours.
Sense of worth and pride
There is something very beautiful about a people who know their language. Shakespeare will most probably ring a bell for a lot of people interested in English literature and so will those interested in isiXhosa appreciate the beauty of Zolani Mkhiva’s praise poetry, this when he praises the president or other public or esteemed figures. And this leaves us with a general feeling of pride and nostalgia, when we think back to how great were and are. These praises remind us of a time when we had great kings and leaders whom we looked up to and whom we believed to be worthy of our praises, which we gave through poetry, art and in monetary terms which gave many kings luxurious lives as it still happens with the Swazi and British monarch in Swaziland and Britain, respectively. These praises were performed by Griots in Africa, who also served as praise poets and court composers in the case of European countries.
Imperialism, colonisation and idolatry
In his book, which many will appreciate for how it captures the African belief system and the impact of foreign ideals, “Things Fall Apart”, the great African writer Chinua Achebe looks at the values that serve as a centre that holds the community together as a bundle. There are a number of things which this centres consist of, and amongst these are language, music, beliefs and culture. These together find their way into our traditions. This is not limited to traditions in the traditional sense, but history shows that depending on the strength of these beliefs, they may end assuming the title of religions.
I briefly look at another great African author and his take on language. noticing this importance, the much celebrated Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o reflects on the role of language in “decolonising the mind” and after some years of using the English language in his literature, wa Thiong’o has decided to write all his works in his native language; Kikuyu. I have found his thoughts on the colonial condition of Africa to be very thought provoking and loved looking at how the protagonist in the novel; “Matigari” is willing to fight for what is rightfully his and convinced that he will win the battle, he is not relenting. A very relevant aspect here is that I probably would have found it difficult to get this story, had it been in another language without translation, and he would not be able to understand my poetry if I am to take the route of exclusively writing in isiNdebele. Although I will not shy away from appreciating the beauty of Sepedi poetry and how the message is fully conveyed in the original language. We may then ask if the objective is to convey ideas or languages, and which at the expense of which? This is an issue for another day.
An element of religion that would be of interest here is idolatry which briefly looks at here. Many of the idols that people worshiped and still do are so worshiped because of the convenience and privileges they bring or are believed to bring to those who believe in them. Defined as objects of worship, these idols are worshiped due to the prosperity they are likely to bring. They take a number of forms, from mountains, to carved images and other deities. I am lead to believe that there was, though it may be to a small extent an element of idolising the English (and other imperial) language during those years when the natives of colonised countries who could speak them were few and these few were privileged, the language thus became a medium to privilege and it is this functional role of language that has been exploited to bring foreign ideals. When we in addition to the communication aspect of language, also add the expressive nature of languages which I refered to when I began the essay we realise that language in addition to its beauty and expressive nature, it is linked to convenience and privilege which in this age mostly take the form of money.
The dominant in the economy.
There are a number of things that make people get up from a place to go to another and amongst these is refuge from political strife, cultural or religious intolerant settings, but there are a very large number of people who are referred to economic migrants. Being; people who migrate for better economic benefits in the prospective regions or countries. And when they get to these places, because the natives of the places they go to are the ones in control of the economy, they are then forced to learn the local languages to have access to these economic benefits. In the case of former colonies, the part of learning new languages if one moves from Francophone to Anglophone countries serves as a bit of a barrier to be overcome, though this is not much of a barrier in countries that have been colonised by a country with the same language as can be seen with Zimbabwe and South Africa where English is the language of commerce in the democratic South Africa and Zimbabwe. What happens then in the case of an imperial state, that finds its way to controlling the economic leavers of another country? As it happened when the French controlled the economy of Senegal, when until the independence of Nigeria the British controlled the economy and at home when the Dutch, then English and finally the Afrikaaner were in control of the economy. More than anything emphasis on language, almost always favours the dominant party. And it makes sense that regardless of the beauty of my language, the question remains as to who will speak who’s language in a business setting. And the answer is unfortunate that the one at the receiving end will have to bend a little to the givers demands, which are not likely to be that lenient when it comes to more than anything else, language. This I am saying as a net effect in the use of language in business. I am aware that there are countries that hold on, with pride to their languages. This however has to be accompanied with strong independence measures, economic being one of them.
We often see translators being brought in to translate from French to English, Mandarin to English, Portuguese and Spanish, and only rarely will you find the translation in international meetings going on to the languages of the so called third world languages or developing economies. I am lead to believe that this reflects the economic upper hand that they enjoy in these settings.
Implication for South African and African languages
I will sum up my argument by noting that the globalised world we are living in will is not likely to, even on a regional scale allow for the maintenance of 11 official South African languages, around 80 Ethiopian and more than 500 Nigerian languages. This could have been possible when our communities were relatively small and we could sustainably live as close knit communities which could share the same language, belief and culture. It may take us some time to notice that the world will increasingly be defined by a hybrid of thoughts which will dominantly but not exclusively reflect the culture of the dominant groups. I do not mean to say efforts to keep our languages and cultures alive are futile, but I do wish that we would do this with a practical consideration of the world we live in. Technological advances have exposed us to so much of the world that we have to redefine those things that make us a nation. Many Arab states have due to their interaction with the international community had to revisit and revise their stance on how women are treated and their participation in the economy as with many other countries around the world. The traditional role of the provider big man of Africa is increasingly giving way to a more emotionally involved father and husband, which used to be looked down upon. This is culture that embraces time and we will wait to see what form this takes in the traditions our children will embrace.
I conclude with a thought one may ponder on, whether language also has a part to play when the commander of the Cuban revolutionary force Che Guevara says;
“There are two ways to conquer a nation, one is by the sword and the other is by debt”.