Since the coming of the colonialists, local languages have been disadvantaged. Local languages were made insignificant and inferior as it was prestigious to learn the colonialist’s language. This was the case in almost all countries that were colonised.

Those that did not go to school looked inferior to those that did. This kind of situation began in the pre-colonial era and was upheld in the post-colonial era. This debate was at the centre stage of the earlier elite English writing as a lot of their works especially after independence were based on the same argument.

Chinua Achebe’s NO LONGER AT EASE and Wole Soyinka’s THE LION AN THE JEWEL easily drive this point home.

In  NOLONGER AT EASE, Obi Okonkwo, the grandson of Okonkwo of THINGS FALL APART  is sent to England by the good will of Umofia state, where he is expected to study law and come back to help with the land issues of the people of Umofia state. Instead, Obi, studies English. Upon his return he can barely speak the hard English language. His is the English of “is and was”. The local secretary who did not attain as much education speaks better English than him- at least according to the locals. Never mind that they do not understand the meaning of his words. To them, he is more representative of learning and higher education because he speaks the language like the British unlike Obi.

In THE LION AND THE JEWEL, the struggle to be Sidi’s lion leaves Baroka and Lakunle proving their worth using their best weaponry so she can choose on them. Baroka, rich and older does not struggle as much, for attention, as does his competitor, Lakunle. Lakunle, a semi-literate young man, teaching at the local school with his thread bare wooden winter suit and tennis shoes is convinced he should be the best candidate to deserve Sidi the village belle.  His argument is based on the fact that he has gone to school and so he is better placed as a candidate. To him the qualities possessed by his competitor of wealth and influence do not strike him as a disqualification.

The two scenarios present us with a case study of the influence of colonialism in two fold. First, the people that attained the white man’s education and secondly, to the community on which the education affected.

Whereas Obi realises that being educated does not make him a superior to his people, his community finds him a disgrace, for living below the standards a man his stature should be living. Yet on the contrary, Lankunle strives to attain the little attention that Obi enjoys or in this case Baroka, an illiterate man.

According to Prof. Mahmood Mamdani, colonialism left a double impact on all its subjects. It introduced a new language which they were forced to learn. The colonial master made it look prestigious to speak his language and live a lifestyle like his. The master used the element of separation to rule. He made his subjects to strive to be like him. They competed to be closer to him and in the process, the subjects fought among themselves to be the closest to the master. The worst disaster of this was the loss of culture and with time language.

This fight manifested in form of religious wars then into education. The Second World War made matters even worse. It eliminated the direct threat of colonialism and brought up something new, the development agencies like World Bank and IMF.

The target was shifted on the new elite group of Africans that were imposing a threat of fast growth in their countries. With the new world development, these elite were given options to work abroad. And soon it was very prestigious to work abroad in these institutions.

This has been a continuing struggle where the master has imposed a lot of things for the subject to be like him. In the process, literacy has suffered. Most of the literacy programs that are meant to make life easier are found abroad. In this case, easier is when one is away from home.

Today, all PhD candidates at MISR, an institution headed by Prof. Mamdani himself has made it mandatory that before any student graduates, they have to translate a major text from western language to Luganda, Luo or Kiswahili.

The intention is to remind the scholar that the language into which they translate is as important as the other languages. It is not an inferior language. There is need for research to be done in the field of literacy to remind both the teachers and scholars that the local languages are as important as the western ones.

Our literacy is still colonised. There is need to decolonise it. As Ngugi Wa’thiong advises, the decolonisation process has to begin with memory, history and language and not geo-politics as is usually the case.

Prof. Mahmood Mamdani shared these thoughts at #PALFA2019Kampala


  1. Indeed ! We really need to decolonise our minds and those of our children ! Our local languages such as Kiswahili are not only our pride but our identity and easy to learn !

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