The Word from Asmara by Charles Cantalupo
Mutauro. Ulwimi. Ede. Okasa. Asusu. Lolemu. Ulimi. Lakk. Ruthiomi. Lugha. Harshe. Luqha. Qwanqwa is the word from Asmara: these are the words for language in African languages.
The vernacular takeover of Western literature took place so long ago that few but medieval and classical scholars want or even can read the thousands of years of writing in Latin and Greek that preceded it. But would there have even been a European Renaissance without vernacular languages feeding the creative fires? Further, try to imagine Europe without the Renaissance, still tied to using Latin or Greek the way that Africa is still tied to English or French. What would you have been missing if you were only reading the authors writing in Latin when Dante, Rabelais, Cervantes and Shakespeare were writing in their own vernaculars?
The word from Asmara is Shawa Kan Matsalodi: Harsunan Afrika da Adabin Afrika har Karni na Ashirin da Daya (Hausa Fulani); Dhhidi ya Vikwazo Vyote: Lugha na Fashih za Kiafrika katika Karne ya Ishirini na Moja (Kiswahili); Noma Kunzina: Izilimi nokulotshiew kwase Afrika ekhulwini elisha leminyaka (Zulu); Antsar Kulu Mesenakhlat: Afriqawi Qwanqwatatn Sine:tsuhufatn Nab Mebel 21 Zemen (Tigrinya in Latin script); Against All Odds: African Languages and Literatures into the 21st Century.
At a crossroads of centuries and a crossroads of cultures in January 2000, writers, scholars, cultural activists, educators, civic groups, students, publishers, artists, children and thousands of concerned Eritrean citizens converged for seven days in Asmara, Eritrea, to devote themselves to the art of the African word. Conducted in African and other languages – including Arabic, Akan, English, Ewe, French, Gikuyu, Italian, Kiswhahili, Mandinka, Saho, Shona, Tigrinya, Tigre, Yoruba, Urhobo, Yoruba, Zulu – and embracing people everywhere who use languages and literatures to embody their dreams for a better world, Against All Odds was a conference, emphasizing scholarship and the highest critical standards, yet also a celebration, creating an environment in which African languages, performances – music, film, drama, readings, and dance – and visual arts were a constant presence.
The best book on Eritrea’s epic 30-year struggle for independence and social justice is by Dan Connell and called Against All Odds. It gives the blow by blow of how a relatively small and unpopulated country like Eritrea overcame the Ethiopian military, Africa’s largest, which was supplied first by the United States and then, after the Ethiopian Marxist revolution, by the Soviet Union. The title, “Against All Odds,” was neither hype nor cliché. Outlasting two superpowers behind a country ten times as large required unprecedented sacrifice, cunning and self determination, since Eritrea fought, for the most part, alone. Yet Eritrea won the war on its own terms, providing the final push for a new government in Ethiopia and in 1993, declaring itself independent not merely because it won the war but through a national plebiscite in which the Eritrean people declared themselves a new nation.
“Against All Odds” is also the perfect phrase to characterize the course of African literature in the twentieth century: the struggle of African writers like Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ama Ata Aidoo, Okot p’Bitek, Ayi Kwei Armah, Nawal El Saadawi, Wole Soyinka and more against the all-too-often deadly political and social conditions of contemporary Africa. Yet the enlightened political and social vision embodied in Eritrea – with many women fighters serving in the government, school children learning in their mother tongues, a grass roots constitutional process coming to fruition and a remarkably unified though never uniform people of nine different ethnic groups and languages refusing foreign aid and developing their own country with confidence, joy and incredibly hard work – is like a déjà vu, evoking the ever-so-promising early days of Africa’s “Age of Independence” and many of the social and political ideals envisioned in the greatest texts of Africa’s greatest writers. Why not bring the writers, their advocates and the latest national incarnation of their dreams together amidst the palm-lined, no-crime, Italian deco streets of Asmara – indeed, in a country with an over five-thousand year history of writing in its own language and script?
Answering once and for all and moving beyond the question of viability for literatures in African languages, Against All Odds comprehensively demonstrated the synergy between the African language movement and democratization itself. The meeting in Asmara simply and directly addressed the demand side of the question, reaching out to a natural constituency of writers, teach ers, and readers in local languages – the vast majority of Africans – to encourage and enable all kinds of information dissemination in African languages.
Joining the meeting on its first morning and evening, the president of Eritrea, Isaias Afwerki, gave the keynote:
…[E]mbracing globalization – however rapid and all encompassing it may turn out – and the imperative of overcoming [Africa’s] marginalisation to compete on a level playing field will not warrant abandonment of one’s heritage and identity. Our rich traditions, literature, and arts will have an indelible mark on our developmental progress. As such, their abandonment would only create an irreplaceable cultural vacuum. Our first priority must therefore remain to ensure that our African languages flourish through continued scholarship and the allocation of adequate resources. Our approach must thus be two-pronged: introduction and wide usage of the most practical languages to advance our development agendas while simultaneously cultivating our languages to preserve and reinforce our cultural heritage.
Against All Odds’ presiding chair (and perhaps Africa’s greatest living writer) Ngugi wa Thiong’o entitled his own keynote address, “Finding Our Way: Dialogue Among Our Languages as the Way to Unity Among African People.” Notwithstanding Africa’s major deliberative body, the OAU (Organization for African Unity) does not use African languages at its meetings, Ngugi likened much of Africa today to someone who is lost on the way to your house. He or she calls you for directions. Your first response is to ask “Where are you?” If that person cannot say, how can you give directions? The lost person was like Africa deprived of using its own languages.
In the process of completing a novel comparable to Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past – only in Gikuyu – Ngugi is at the head of a growing movement of African authors who are writing in their own African languages. Accordingly, there should be more and more translation of African-language writers into other languages – African and all languages – precisely so that the mutual exposure can enrich our cultures, our languages and us all. Thus far, there has been very little of such translation and we are the poorer for it. The world needs to hear and know the Shakespeares and the Bibles of African languages, but their real names are known only by African languages writers; while they also know those European texts and others precisely because many of them have been translated into African languages.
Egypt’s great writer, Nawal El Saadawi, came to Asmara from Cairo. Physician, novelist, essayist, political activist, and Against All Odds organizing chair, she had been imprisoned by Anwar Sadat in the 80’s and driven from Egypt in the 90’s by fundamentalists who put her name on their “hit list.” On the gathering’s third day, devoted to “African Women’s Writing,” her fiery vision burned especially bright and clear in Asmara’s two-kilometer high air. Maintaining a position that she called “historical, socialist, and feminist,” she argued that globalization had to be from the bottom up and not from the top down. For her, inspiration came from the ground, the mud. She also called for a stop, as did countless other illustrious speakers, to using the term “Sub-Saharan Africa,” a mere verbal sleight-of-hand to divide Africa along racist lines. After all, if Egypt wasn’t in Africa, where was it? Saadawi’s powerful autobiography, A Daughter of Isis, translated from Arabic into English by her husband, Sherif Hetata, himself one of Egypt’s leading novelists and labor leaders who was imprisoned by Sadat for 16 years, had just been published.
Each of Against All Odds’ seven days offered a climax, but here are two of them. First, on the sixth day the entire gathering moved out of Asmara, 65 kilometers southeast to a place near the town of Seghenyetti. Busloads and cars of Against All Odds participants, citizens, and students from Asmara traveled to an event called “Orature in the Valley of the Sycamores: the Big Conversation,” held under a huge sycamore with a recently built amphitheater. Upon arrival near the site, participants were greeted by thousands of palm branch waving Eritrean children and students and ululating women. Many carried placards saying “We love African languages.” In procession, the entire gathering approached the amphitheater under the tree, led by musicians and sword waving and dancing Eritrean elders. Villages throughout the region had emptied to attend performances in cluding many of Eritrea’s male and female traditional poets, musicians, dancers, local children and many of Africa’s greatest traditional and modern authors. If anything could be called an African Renaissance event and a most powerful demonstration for peace throughout all Africa and the world, this was it; yet a mere 30 kilometers from the war front with Ethiopia.
A second climax occurred on the last day of the conference. After morning and afternoon plenary sessions attended by over 1000 people, hundreds of whom had their turn at the microphone, Against All Odds presiding and organizing chairs gathered in a locked room in front of a single computer to compose “The Asmara Declaration on African Languages and Literatures.” It was an historic moment, reminiscent, perhaps, of the history paintings one sees of members of the Continental Congress gathered to write “The Declaration of Independence.” “The Asmara Declaration,” however, was a statement of African language independence for the entire continent. “The Asmara Declaration” was ratified by a rousing voice vote by Against All Odds delegates and hundreds of citizens of Asmara later that same evening. Translations of the declaration into other languages, including African languages (of which there are thousands) have followed. Human rights must also include language rights. The intolerance of linguistic cleansing must end.
In the planning stages for nearly four years, Against All Odds aimed to resemble the “African Writers Conference” held at Makerere University in 1962, which gathered writers, critics and publishers from throughout English-speaking Africa and which Alamin Mazrui later deemed “the most important single event that acted as a catalyst for emergent…African authors.” But there was to be one crucial distinction. The January 2000 gathering changed the medium from English and Europhone languages to African languages. Indeed, they were the message.
An historical intervention took place that is now being likened to the first Pan African conferences at the beginning of the 20th century. A pre-Asmara and post-Asmara distinction for African development has emerged. An Africa-based organization, Against All Odds offers an alternative vision of development in Africa, establishing African languages as a primary source for traditional and future social change, economic development and individual self-realization in Africa’s 21st century. They are precisely the means to a 21st century to be called “The African Century.” The simplest, fairest, most economic, widely neglected, profoundly applicable, holistic, democratic and achievable way to improve African lives and livelihoods through the application of knowledge, education, science, and technology is the empowerment of African languages. Vitality and equality in African languages should be recognized as the basis for the future empowerment of African peoples. In the words of the third presiding chair of Against All Odds, South Africa’s Mbulelo Mzmane:
One fact is certain: the African renaissance is inconceivable outside of a framework and a language dispensation that accords with the African spirit. The implementation of “The Asmara Declaration” is an African renaissance imperative and a precondition for the attainment of African goals in promoting and consolidating democracy, education, development, decolonisation, and communication. “The Asmara Declaration” is Africa’s expression of Amandla!
The Asmara Declaration on
African Languages and Literatures
We writers and scholars from all regions of Africa gathered in Asmara, Eritrea from January 11 to 17, 2000 at the conference titled Against All Odds: African Languages and Literatures into the 21st Century. This was the first conference on African languages and literatures ever to be held on African soil, with participants from East, West, North, Southern Africa and from the diaspora and by writers and scholars from around the world. We examined the state of African languages in literature, scholarship, publishing, education, and administration in Africa and throughout the world. We celebrated the vitality of African languages and literatures and affirmed their potential. We noted with pride that despite all the odds against them, African languages as vehicles of communication and knowledge survive and have a written continuity of thousands of years. Colonialism and neocolonialism created some of the most serious obstacles against African languages and literatures. We noted with concern the fact that these obstacles still haunt Africa and continue to block the mind of the continent. We identified a profound incongruity in colonial languages speaking for the continent. At the start of a new century and millennium, Africa must firmly reject this incongruity and affirm a new beginning by returning to its languages and heritage. Therefore, the question of culture, literatures and languages cannot be separated from the economic problems of African countries created by colonial and neocolonial forces and their local allies. Decolonization of the African mind should go hand in hand with decolonization of the economy and politics.
At this historic conference, we writers and scholars from all regions of Africa gathered in Asmara, Eritrea declare that:
1. African languages must take on the duty, the responsibility, and the challenge of speaking for the continent.
2. The vitality and equality of African languages must be recognized as a basis for the future empowerment of African peoples.
3. The diversity of African languages reflects the rich cultural heritage of Africa and must be used as an instrument of African unity.
4. Dialogue among African languages is essential: African languages must use the instrument of translation to advance communication among all people, including the disabled.
5. All African children have the unalienable right to attend school and learn in their mother tongues. Every effort should be made to develop African languages at all levels of education.
6. Promoting research on African languages is vital for their development, while the advancement of African research and documentation will be best served by the use of African languages.
7. The effective and rapid development of science and technology in Africa depends on the use of African languages and modern technology must be used for the development of African languages.
8. Democracy is essential for the equal development of African languages and African languages are vital for the development of democracy based on equality and social justice.
9. African languages like all languages contain gender bias. The role of African languages in development must overcome this gender bias and achieve gender equality.
10. African languages are essential for the decolonization of African minds and for the African Renaissance.
The initiative that materialized in the Against All Odds conference must be continued through biennial conferences in different parts of Africa. In order to organize future conferences in different parts of Africa, create a forum of dialogue and cooperation, and advance the principles of this declaration, a permanent Secretariat will be established, which will be initially based in Asmara, Eritrea.
Translated into as many African languages as possible and based on these principles, the Asmara Declaration is affirmed by all participants in Against All Odds. We call upon all African states, the OAU, the UN and all international organizations that serve Africa to join this effort of recognition and support for African languages, with this declaration as a basis for new policies.
While we acknowledge with pride the retention of African languages in some parts of Africa and the diaspora and the role of African languages in the formation of new languages, we urge all people in Africa and the diaspora to join in the spirit of this declaration and become part of the efforts to realize its goals.
— Asmara, 17th of January 2000