Friday, September 2, 2011

Of English and Education

It is those usually non-blacks who think that they are giving you a complement when they tell you that you speak English well. I am going to use the word they. Yes, they annoy me. They, because it is a broad spectrum of South Africans. They think that they are complementing you when what they are doing is insulting your people and revealing their own sick values about what kind of black they esteem and what kind they think is less. Should I really feel complemented by being placed on a pedestal while the ones whose shoulders I stand are seen as less because they received a certain education? I will of course not forget a conversation with my former housemate. I had told her about an article I read by a missionary in Nigeria who spoke of a child he spoke to mentioning that he could tell that she had a good education because she spoke English. Annoyed my friend said: “So English is a sign of a ‘good education’”. It has been our joke since one who speaks English is one who has received a good education. My friend is not bitter she, according to this description also received a very superior education. She speaks all of our eleven languages fluently plus a few international languages and probably still counting.

Having said all of that about perceptions of English as a language, this kind of thinking also translates to how we view the English culture as well. It exposes what we admire and therefore aspire to. It is what we think is lofty and what we would look like if we reached that goal. It is the mirror we hold up to ourselves and the rest of our community of what it is not and should be. It is very telling of the very core of our beliefs.

I have to say that I do admire the English. They value their education, they are always studying further it is a noble thing however who said that English is the measuring stick of all education? A Chinese in China, a German or a Russian or even our very own beloved Afrikaans community whom I have begun to fall in love with madly would probably disagree with those who view the language as a sign of good Education.

That handful of British people who took over the world and established education centers nearly the world over left a permanent mark of their influence in every culture they ever encountered. They transformed cultures and even I and you who is reading this article is a product of the mighty English. Such a tiny Island such profound influence. They make the Roman Empire seem like Childs play. I do not hate the English language it assists me to make friends with people all over the world. Evil as it was, colonialisation has played an extra-ordinary role in laying foundations for globalization without it globalization would not have occurred so smoothly. It was a harsh cultural transition of which we succumbed even our minds and lifestyles to. These cultural transitions are the ones that assisted bridge gaps between other unlike cultures who had received like harsh treatment as our own in their own way. Now we have a meeting point from those forced painful changes we have failed to recover from.

It is not English nor the English I am critical of here. It is that when I see a black child who cannot speak her mother tongue or has no knowledge of her culture I realize how poor and underprivileged she is. If you have an inheritance of gold, of rich land and culture, and someone else came and offered you their tongue and culture in exchange of it which will you choose? We have chosen poorly. I saw a child who speaks Xhosa fluently and I envied her. I wondered if she knew how rich she was and how easily it can be taken away from her if she will not treasure her wealth.

Last year, singer Simphiwe Dana wrote about how we need an indigenous first language in South Africa that is not English. She infact nominated that English could be a third language while she nominated Zulu as a unifying first language. There is no black person I spoke to who was opposed to this idea. I naturally believed that my most trusted all time activists who are white and have always been pro all things African would be delighted by this brilliant idea. They caught me unaware as each one I spoke to was immediately anti this idea. I was completely unprepared for this reaction. I had imagined that they would naturally think this would be the most fantastic idea as did all the black people I spoke to. I had banked on them to think great thoughts about Miss Dana’s solution to recovering our lost identities through the erosion of who we were before colonialisation or apartheid and forging new university centres with African languages that will not only look back but pave a way for progressive African thinking. The fact that the white pro-Africans I spoke to could not embrace this thinking or even be willing to consider it as a possibility taught me that fundamentally this idea was a threat to their identity. It would take away all that they really are even though they now called themselves African. If you took away their English, it showed me that to them you would be taking away their identity and that was non-negotiable.

African Education none-the-less must reform and develop and progress to a new level. There is a kind of education that is not recognized or acknowledged as education. This is the kind I saw in the child who spoke Xhosa fluently. She embodied Xhosa etiquette that was absent to the children of the same colour-skin who only spoke English. It showed me that indeed if you adopt a language, you also adopt the culture. If that be one’s choice let it be a choice but it cannot be seen as a good education. I have sat beside red faced Xhosas and I have learnt what no school has taught me. In watching what they did and how they spoke, the manner in which they spoke I felt better educated. I sat besides Xhosa men waiting for a train and they spoke of matters of identity as perceived by the Xhosa culture and I found a new philosophy. I was educated and enriched. I have been exposed to many moments especially in the villages, in gatherings where every moment has been a moment of intentional cultural education. I saw people with an education as superior as any, as rich as any, they simply lacked technology and ways to combine the two. That is all that made them less effective and disadvantaged. They also believed that they were uneducated which further disadvantaged them because they too did not see their wealth, that they are the teachers we lack most. I can only speak as a Xhosa. I have passion to learn the Khoekhoe ways for it is they who named the Xhosas and where we found our cliques. There are many forms of education, Zulu, Basotho the list is endless there is no reason that we should be limited to seeing one lanuage and culture as superior beyond all others. Perhaps it is because it has gained lasting world dominion and increasing still. It is unchallenged and so remains crowned above all until others find a voice that says we are all equal and this is why.

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