Professor Kwesi Kwaa Prah is the founder of the Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS), a civil society, Pan-African organisation which focuses on African development through the lens of cultural, social, historical, political and economic research. Currently, through the CASAS Harmonization and Standardization of African Languages Project, Professor Prah and CASAS are working towards improving African literacy rates. By forming standardised groupings of mutually intelligible African dialects, Prah hopes to overcome not only the local linguistic barriers created by the diversity of African dialects, but also to finally break down the far more divisive boarders that are maintained by the pervasive grip of post-colonial languages across the Continent.
Speaking to me about his work with language and education from Cape Town, Prah asserts that questions of relevance when speaking about the local languages of Africa are themselves irrelevant. “Every language is important. Icelandic is important. Italian is important. Greek is important. Could you ever ask someone from one of these countries whether the language they speak is important? In the same token, African languages should be allowed to flourish. We do not talk about the ‘indigenous languages’ of France, Slovakia or the Czech Republic, so why do we insist on speaking in these terms when it comes to Africa?”
Despite both national and international focus on literacy and education in Africa, in part driven by the soon-to-expire Millennium Development Goals, the resulting programmes and policies are all too often delivered in the languages of former colonial powers – particularly English, French and Portuguese – at the cost of excluding the majority and those most in need. “No country can make progress on the basis of a borrowed language, understood only by a minority,” says Prah, “Only ten per cent of African people can speak French, Portuguese or English fluently. These languages cannot be the only languages of African development.”
The problem is not merely one of shaking off the remnants of the past, but of convincing those within every level of African society that undermining the status of African languages serves the interests of no one. “It’s not just a question of Western arrogance,” explains Prah, “but also of African complicity. The cultural power of the African elite is based on the fact that they are proficient users of post-colonial languages. They instil a new colonial order which excludes the majority from the structures of power.” Prah has found some governments to be supportive of his work with CASAS, but overall there has been little official recognition.
However, he suggests that even those in positions of power are allowing themselves to be limited by the same colonial hierarchies of the past. “They are second-hand users of these cultures. Therefore, they are actually positioning themselves as inferiors. This can lead to a bottle-neck of tension that can explode.”
As an inspirational example for African countries to follow, Prah points to Vietnam and their Southeast Asian neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia. “Vietnam is one of the fastest growing economies in the world. They stopped using the language of their French colonisers: this is precisely why they are succeeding.”
Language, education and, with the on-going growth in ICT-supported learning, technology are co-agents of change with huge potential. However, Professor Prah notes that with the current default to post-colonial languages in the majority of education ‘solutions’ brought to the Continent, ICT and education remain inaccessible to the overwhelming majority: “Education is still a privilege of the Westernised elite. We talk about development through education and training, but in whose language?”
The knee-jerk response to arguments like these is often that the investment and technology for these ICT products comes from abroad – from the United States, from Europe or Asia – and using ‘international’ languages such as English or French are the only economically viable options, but Prah disagrees. “Some African languages are spoken by fifty or sixty million people. It makes economic sense to develop products for this market, by this market.” If we continue to pretend that African languages are unimportant in the drive to achieve ‘education for all’, says Prah, “we will forever be waiting for 90% of Africans to become English!”
Despite the enthusiastic work of organisations such as CASAS, Prah admits that the movement to champion African languages as a path towards progress is still in the “very initial, half-hearted stages; it is not happening yet”. However, he confidently points to the historical precedent that proves that the democratisation of language is a necessary precursor for the democratisation of society. “For as long as Europe used Latin as the language of authority and academia, knowledge was in the hands of monks, aristocrats and scholars. It is only the common languages – the languages of the street – that can lead to democratic progress. Similarly, for as long as ICTs in Africa are based solely around English, French and Portuguese, we will not get anywhere.” Knowledge is power, and language is the fundamental component of knowledge acquisition and dissemination.
The key message that Professor Prah is determined to share with governments, investors, development organisations and the world at large is a simple one: for as long as Africans are supposed to use languages that are not their own, no progress will ever be made. “ICT is enormously important – it is moving the world forward and of great intellectual interest – but without African languages, we cannot make a difference to Africans. You cannot lift Africa without African languages.”
Professor Kwesi Kwaa Prah founded The Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS, casas.co.za) in 1997. CASAS acts as a research network within Africa and amongst the African diaspora. The organisation focuses on “cultural issues and their relationship to development, and selected basic research on the structure of African society”. In recent years, the focus of CASAS on African languages has led to the production of various publications, including dictionaries and research papers focusing on diverse African languages.