Africa’s local languages just won its very first Oscars award, the rejection of Nigeria’s blockbuster movie, Lionheart. The movie, which was Nigeria’s contender for the famed Oscars Awards in the Best International Feature Film Category, was disqualified for not meeting certain requirements. For a movie in the category for which Lionheart was submitted to be duly considered, it must be produced outside of the United States with majority of its dialogue conducted in a language other than English. Lionheart, which is Nigeria’s first ever Netflix original film was conducted mostly in English with a little less than 12 minutes of dialogue framed in Igbo, the language of Southeastern Nigeria.
There is uproar against the Oscars’ decision, mostly from Nigerians who understandably feel unfairly treated. In her response, the movie director and star, Genevieve Nnaji, tweeted that “the movie represents the way we speak as Nigerians. This includes English which acts as a bridge for the 500+ languages spoken in our country thereby making us #oneNigeria.” She would go on to say that “we did not choose who colonized us. As ever, this film and many like it, is proudly Nigerian.” Many non-Nigerians, including the movie director Ava DuVernay, equally considered the Oscars decision outrageous, being that Nigeria was colonized by Britain and it has a right to retain English as its official language.
Valid as the grievances expressed over Lionheart’s disqualification may appear, the fact is that the Oscars’ indigenous language criterion is one that gives nothing but dignity to Africans and African languages. While colonialism denied Africans of the dignity of owning and building their indigenous languages, many Africans deny themselves and their children this dignity by venerating English, in a bid to gain acceptance in the eyes of the former colonial masters.
Colonialism caused Africa’s local languages to become identified with shame and backwardness. Ngugi Wa’ Thiongo reports that in his days as a pupil in colonial Kenya, “one of the most humiliating experiences was to be caught speaking Gikuyu in the vicinity of the school. The culprit was given corporal punishment – three to five strokes of the cane on bare buttocks – or was made to carry a metal plate around the neck with inscriptions such as I AM STUPID or I AM A DONKEY…” On the contrary, Wa’ Thiongo writes that “any achievement in spoken or written English was highly rewarded; prizes, prestige, applause; the ticket to higher realm. English became the measure of intelligence and ability in the arts, the sciences and all other branches of learning. In short Wa’ Thiongo notes in a more recent interview that, “the condition for acquiring the glory of English was the humiliation of African languages.”
This experience of Kenyan children was replicated all through colonial Africa. At the end of colonialism, few African countries such as Tanzania and Kenya did attempt to reclaim some form of dignity for what is authentically African, by promoting Swahili as the official language. Governments of many other African countries could be less bothered. On the part of many Africans, indigenous African languages continue to be identified with shame and retrogression while the languages of the former colonialists are synonymous with poise, sophistication and brilliance. Although not perfect country examples by any stretch of one’s imagination, it is still worth mentioning that India and Malaysia were equally colonized by Britain, but these countries still officially promote their indigenous languages and submit Oscars entries in non-English languages. South Africa, perhaps, has set an example in Africa by constitutionally approving 11 official languages.
Africa’s local languages are fast disappearing and with it the indigenous medical, pharmaceutical, philosophical, sociological, scientific and technological knowledge it houses. A people’s culture is located in their language; “to control a people’s culture,” writes Ngũgĩ, “is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others.”
There are fears that promoting indigenous languages will further divide the continent of Africa. The author has made a case against this assumption elsewhere , but it might be important to note here that promoting indigenous African languages does not imply rejection of non-African languages. The either/or mindset towards African languages was introduced by the colonialists who had only their own vested economic interest at heart. English colonialists who discouraged Africans from exploring their own local languages committed that atrocity with full awareness of the fact one of the ways of identifying a well educated and exposed person in their own culture is by how many languages a person spoke. Indeed, in the 18th and 19th centuries, wealthy Britons paid huge sums of money to import multilingual private teachers for their wards.
It is interesting to note that the same western powers that robbed Africans of the dignity of their own languages through colonialism have, through this one Oscars rejection, placed an expectation on Africans to restore this dignity for the benefit of the entire human race. The Oscars rejection, it is hoped, will revive a dignified interest in Africa’s indigenous languages on the part of Africans. The African will now come to a realization that her dreams, aspirations and destiny can be made or marred by the knowledge and use of at least an indigenous African language
Dr. Chika Ezeanya Esiobu is the founder of African Child Press www.africanchildpress.org
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