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At a loss for words in vernacular

A public lecture in Lusaka by renowned writer and thinker Ngugi wa Thiong’o on the Language of Justice was an intellectual pleasure. I was most surprised, pleasantly, by the mix of the audience — writers, academics, musicians, politicians, lawyers, entrepreneurs and poets, among many others.

Ngugi is one of my all-time favourite writers and his book Matigari remains one of my most loved. But on that evening I realised that I was not the only Ngugi fan. Not far from me was a senior citizen who had brought with him two plastic bags full of Ngugi’s works, collected as far back as the 1970s, old copies with failing spines but treasured and well looked after. He wanted them to be autographed but, much more, to silence those around him.

I will not discuss Ngugi’s lecture except to say it was provoking and memorable, touching on hard themes of language, identity and justice. He came out swinging at Africa’s middle class with their love and obsession for things Western, particularly the use of English to the exclusion of their mother tongue.

He argued that English and other foreign languages in which laws are written and according to which people are governed are languages of exclusion and injustice because, in the case of Zambia, not more than 2% of the population speak or understand English.

Shortly after the lecture, I travelled to a Portuguese colony and spent the most silent three days of my life, unable to communicate. I neither speak, read nor understand Portuguese. I guess, for the 98% of Zambians who don’t speak English, parts of their lives are lived in silence.

This was the central message of Ngugi’s message — of alienation and injustice because of the use of language.

Over dinner on the day before the lecture, a professor of chemistry at the University of Zambia and also a fan of Ngugi, sat listening pensively, with the aura unique to learned men. When he finally spoke, he threw a question to the diners, who included Ngugi: “I am sitting here wondering to myself, how do you say ‘magnetic flux’ in Bemba, or how do I explain plasma to my students in Nyanja?”

Bemba and Nyanja are among the major Zambian languages.

The professor argued that the vocabulary of African languages is not sufficient to explain complex scientific phenomena.

I agreed with the professor, temporarily. His argument is valid; our languages are too limited even to describe simple things such as the stock exchange or Facebook.

Although the professor was right, his thinking was limited. Perhaps let me rephrase that and say the professor was limiting his thinking. We don’t have magnetic flux in Bemba, not because chemistry is inexplicable in Bemba but because no one has assigned a name to magnetic flux in it, or even in isiZulu. Languages are organic and dynamic; they are a work in progress and should move in real time.

In fact, nothing more than magnetic flux brings home the point that Ngugi was making. We need speakers of our languages who can expand our vocabulary to capture and reflect technological advances.

The English dictionary is expanded every year to reflect new words that are being coined. The words Google and Skype never existed until somebody decided to name their inventions that. Therefore, the African must expand his and her own vocabulary.

Oxford University will never expand them for us. Even if they wanted to, they can’t because they don’t know our languages. I bet that the Germans have a word for magnetic flux, and so do the French, the Chinese and the Japanese.

Magnetic flux is nothing more than deciding what to call something. It’s like giving a name to a child. But a child, or thing, cannot name itself — someone must ascribe a name to it. Until we find a name for plasma in isiZulu, there will be no way of saying it in isiZulu.

What has the current generation of Yoruba and Shona speakers contributed in expanding these languages so that a scholar can choose to give a scientific paper in, say, Shona?

The languages we inherited from our forefathers captured everything from colours, animals and plants to places. We inherited complete languages, but they must continue to grow.

So, the question remains: What is magnetic flux in isiZulu?

Sampa Kabwela is a Zambian artist, writer and media law specialist.

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