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Recovering Traditions: Languages of Meritah

Yaya Jammeh

Gambia’s president, Yahya Jammeh (left) greeting a supporter.  Jammeh is helping reignite the struggle for Meritahn (African) languages to replace colonial languages being used in his country.

No language can fit you like your mother tongue, especially if you still speak it or used to speak it well. Your mother tongue holds your earliest memories, the first human sounds you heard after birth, your earliest conversations with your mother, the first months and years of your life and much more. Your mother tongue connects you to your past as completely as no language you learn after it ever does. Your mother tongue lets you voice everything that you became since you were born; it reveals the world into which you are becoming like no other language, and it connects you to the worldview of the community in which you were born more completely than any languages you master after it.

When you speak your mother tongue well, those for whom it is also a mother tongue can understand every concept you express, every shade of concepts you express, subtleties of entities you observe more accurately than others for whom it is not a mother tongue. If you know your mother tongue, its users will understand you better than those with whom you need a foreign language – because what you really share, which holds you together, is culture! After centuries of attack, colonisers have confused Meritahns (Africans) about why Meritahn (African) languages exist, which is to express and advance Meritahn cultures.

These benefits of using mother tongues of Meritah are also reasons why some Meritahwi (African people) want to use them as national languages. The concept of a national language is foreign to Meritah where everyone belongs to a tribe that speaks a different language, often in the same country. So a national language has to be a super language, the kind you must use if you wish to reach people who don’t speak your mother tongue. Submitting to this paradigm creates difficulties for the entire continent of Meritah which we can see in every multilingual region sometimes called country. The countries I am considering here are just examples of my continent-wide focus. It should be noted also that none of these territories is traditional or historical: only Ethiopia can be argued to be pre-colonisation country.


Rwanda, like the other examples that follow, is a colonially defined country. It accepts the concept of a national language and so is satisfied with replacing one colonial language (French) with another (English). This leaves unsolved the problem of the erasing of culture which happens when a language disappears. The reasons given for this replacement are to (I) punish France for supporting a genocide which in 1994 killed 800,000 Tutsi people and to (II) benefit from the East African economic environment which does business in English.


Senegal uses French as its national language, but is now adding English to Wolof as “a second international language.” Today’s business language is English by default, and it promises Senegal benefits from trading in a world wide market which conducts business in English. In this case, a foreign language is being forced on the people in order for Senegal to reach global markets.


In October 2015, Ghana’s minister of Education, Prof. Jane Naana Opoku Agyemang announced her determination to change the language of instruction at all levels of education to the mother tongue of the students. As one website reported the event,

“The call to change the use of English language as a medium of instruction in school at all levels has been raging for years but there has always been a lack of political will to walk the talk.

“The minister’s stance drew thunderous cheers from the gathering which included students and lecturers and members from the general public.”

Senegal’s reason for adding a second colonial language was to integrate itself into a limited “international” group of countries that also use both Wolof and English. The goal here is economic: trade or money, for short. Now here comes Ghana poised to make colonial education easier to for its children. Again, the purpose is to increase Ghana’s international trade revenue – like Korea, Ghana’s explicit model. So far, you can see that across Meritah (Africa), there is no agreement about the value/purpose of Meritah’s languages.

GAMBIA – Let’s look more closely at Gambia, a region of Meritah on the western coast of the Atlantic ocean that faces the islands of the West Indies. It is entirely surrounded by Senegal except where it touches the ocean. Its history is a replay of the histories of its neighbours, a history of “contacts” with Europe that has left deep scars on it. Its land area is just the banks of its portion of the River Gambia which rises in the Fouta Djallon plateau in north Guinea and enters the Atlantic ocean 1130 kilometres later at Banjul, the capital. Like its other neighbours, Gambia offers visitors from abroad a wide range of delights in landscape, longstanding traditions, and cuisine. Banjul is actually better known than Gambia because it was the legislative seat of the OAU (now African Union).

Gambia has used English as its national language, but in 2014 Gambia’s president Yahya Jammeh announced his intention to replace English with a language of Gambia. That would make it the first country to restore its Meritahn languages and set an example for other regions, the hope of many generations that found their voice in 1960.


Ghana’s education minister, Prof. Jane Naana Opoku Agyemang.

I say “languages” because if Jammeh imposes one language over the rest, he will be opposing tradition where each language identifies an autonomous people ruled by a big king or a small king. communicated with speakers of surrounding languages by using interpreters or by being polyglot themselves. Imposing their language on others was not the norm. For example, Amharic is the national language of Ethiopia; however, this is a problem because historical rivalries tempt speakers of other languages to resent this privileged one.

Problems increase when the national language is also a coloniser’s language. Users of that language then perceive it as a colonial scar, a blemish on their culture. Yet, both in Meritah and the diaspora, most people take it as a norm that people native to regions far from Europe are speaking European languages. In the case of English, Meritahns speak various sub-dialects of it called pidgins.

If you are familiar with patois or creole English in the Caribbean region, it’s the same phenomenon. Those who speak English better perceive users of pidgins as less “European educated,” which adds insult to injury for those who already reject European anything because the colonial history behind it all. Even when Meritahns speak English well, their accents inevitably separate them from speakers in Britain. Now Meritahns become divided by class: the “educated” class versus the “uneducated,” both inferior to the natives in England. Laying the colonial language aside eliminates this division, something Jammeh’s decision would do.

However, Britain’s Daily Telegraph dismisses Jammeh as “shortsighted” and insults his speech as “hostile rhetoric in response to cancellation of Western aid to Gambia.” Neither shortsightedness nor Western aid is Jammeh’s reason. All Jammeh had said to start all this was that:

“The British did not care about education, that means they were not practising good governance. All they did was loot and loot and loot.”

“We no longer believe that for you to be a government you should speak a foreign language. We are going to speak our own language.”

Britain’s goal is to erase a culture, so replacing that culture’s language is part of their strategy. Compare, for example, the quality of the culture of Gambia in 1352 with its quality today after the arrival there of the British:

“The Negroes possess some admirable qualities. They are seldom unjust, and have a greater abhorrence of injustice than any other people. There is complete security in their country. Neither traveler nor inhabitant in it has anything to fear from robbers or men of violence.” (Ibn Battuta, 1352)

It’s been said that when any two civilisations meet, they first exchange their bad habits – their corruptions. Not quite true for Gambia and Britain: Britain did not pick up Gambia’s refinements. Invaders set out to destroy cultures (habits) they envy (especially those that expose their dishonesties. Invaders do not invade to copy/learn. But Britain took out ivory and forced onto Gambia crime, slums, widespread insecurity. It’s been a one-way dumping of corruptions, resulting in today’s Gambia – a drastically scarred version. One of these scars – English – is spoken by about 78% of Gambians. Mandingo is spoken by about 40%, Fula (21.2%), Wolof (18%), Diola (4.5%), and several others by the rest. It is these languages that passed down the advanced culture observed seven centuries ago. The culture did not suffer internal collapse. It suffered interruption, colonisation/corruption.

Concerning these colonial languages, Jammeh and others are today picking up a torch that others have carried. Let’s visit a discussion in the 1960s at which Nigerian scholar, activist, poet and later politician, Obi Wali bluntly told his peers that literature in English was a dead end for the people of Meritah.

OBI WALI: Until [Meritahn] writers and their western midwives accept the fact that any true [Meritahn] literature must be written in [Meritahn] languages, they would be merely pursuing a dead end . . . because [the literature] is severely limited to the European-oriented few college graduates in the new universities of [Meritah] steeped as they are in European literature and culture.

WOLE SOYINKA: irritated – What has Obi Wali done to translate my plays or others’ into Ibo or whatever language he professes to speak?

NGUGI WA THIONG’O: English has a larger vocabulary.

CHINUA ACHEBE: I have been given this language and I intend to use it.”

The 1960s were a period of resistance and “revolutions” across the globe. Across Meritah, colonisers did not want to become independent of their hosts throughout Meritah. So they either killed Meritahwi who wanted them gone (ex Patrice Lumumba, Dedan Kimathi…) or coaxed, tricked, bribed, forced them become surrogate rulers of arbitrary territories which enclosed ancestral kingships. The responses of these writers show us that, even as late as the 1960s, the Meritahn writers had not yet recognised that

— Every society writes its literature in its own languages and conducts its daily affairs in its own language(s).

— “The ideophonic forms that illustrate special meanings related to sound, colour, texture of materials were particularly hard to translate. A word-for-word translation from Zulu to English was made impossible” (Mazisi Kunene discussing difficulties he faced while translating his epic Anthem of the Decades)

— Explaining (paraphrasing/glossing) non-English Igbo values and “expanding the frontiers” of Igbo are what these writers should have been doing, not expanding the frontiers of English. Achebe’s procedure is just an example. Christopher Okigbo and Soyinka and most others also busied themselves with improving/advancing English. Kunene is the only consistent exception.

The reactions of these writers were not exposing the real problem they faced. They had been working under severe limitation, the worst being their own naivety and lack of knowledge of the agenda of their publishers, as well as a lack of knowledge of Meritah before colonisation. This is critical because recovery for Meritah must always mean recovery to its state before colonisation. Their entire generation did not value the task of keeping their cultures alive. When Achebe’s publisher advised him to write “so that the people can understand,” he had in mind “people who read English” the very people Obi Wali rejected as too “steeped in European culture” right inside Nigeria and the rest of Meritah. He, like the others, didn’t realize that they were simply alienating those who had not been educated by the colonial institutions, those who maintain the strongest connection to their own traditions. While their writing has provided a window into Meritahn culture to those outside of Meritah, which has been inspiring to many children of the enslaved around the world, it’s questionable whether the writing has brought any real benefit to the mother tongues and mother cultures of these writers.

Gambia Village chief-runde-bara_mg_2494

Gambia, like the whole continent of Meritah (Africa) has a rich history and cultural values which produced a civilization of peace and harmony.

When Gambia’s president said his country would use a language of Gambia as its official language, Britain’s Daily Telegraph and other newspapers, immediately ridiculed the idea. They had to because the stakes are very high in the present world order.

First, colonial languages are industries with several revenue streams, and Meritahn languages threaten all these revenue streams. Ask any parents in Meritah about the costs of textbooks and other media for teaching these colonial languages.

Second, English in particular is the hardest working colonial language, with a reach into more countries in the world than any other language. Consider the savings for a colonial headquarters like Britain which uses the same language at home and in many of its over 50 embassies in Meritah. If these countries abandon English, British intelligence gatherers must contend with at least 50 new languages.

Setbacks for Jammeh and others on his path include the continuing perception outside Britain that English is a need. This perception alone gives English the kind of value which disappears once people refuse to share it. The reality supporting this perception is that the desire for money is powerful enough to corrupt anything, especially things that are as fragile and pure as individuals’ quests for refinement within cultures concerned wholly about quality – like the culture of Gambia in 1352.

Another setback is the predictable pressure from parasite cultures, those which have always blocked any solutions that take away the hosts they feed on. One such parasite pressured one Meritahn country to boycott an annual session of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) whose agenda included taking a firm resolution to solve continent-wide problems. That country caved in to the pressure. That single absence forced the OAU session to be cancelled because it did not have a quorum.

Despite these setbacks, other countries may yet follow Gambia’s example without waiting to see if it fails or succeeds. As you’ve just read, Ghana is about to begin instructing its students at all levels in their own languages. Ghana cites the success of South Korea after it replaced English with Korean. Yes, a language other than your mother tongue increases your difficulties when learning any subject, but destruction of cultures that focus on cultivation of quality (like Gambia in 1352) is the historical agenda driving the expansion of every colonisers’ languages into Meritah.

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