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Cameroon: Indigenous Languages Marginalised

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Marginalised Baka Pygmy dancers in the East Province of Cameroon By Peter Wuteh Vakunta*
IDN-InDepth NewsViewpoint

MONTEREY-CALIFORNIA (IDN) - The language question in Cameroon has become the elephant in the room – a problem that no one wants to talk about. Of all the burning issues that continue to plague Cameroon, the language question is the thorniest.

This problem has snowballed into what is now being touted as the identity crisis in Cameroon. More than 50 years after gaining symbolic independence from imperial powers (France and Great Britain) Cameroonians still do not have a language policy that protects indigenous languages. There is no language policy put in place, to the best of my knowledge, to forestall the marginalization of linguistic minorities.

The question that begs to be asked at this juncture is why Cameroon, where over 200 native tongues co-exist, does not have an official indigenous language policy. What explains the fact that Cameroonians are still dressed in borrowed robes five decades after gaining token independence from their colonial lords? How can Cameroonian leaders reasonably pontificate on the need to nurture a national identity without putting in place an indigenous language policy to foster indigenization and cultural symbiosis?

These questions need to be addressed with the urgency they deserve. Cameroonian policy-makers seem to be oblivious of the fact that languages convey the cultural identity, worldview and imagination of the people that speak them. In short, language constitutes the memory-bank of a people; it is an embodiment of both continuity and change in the historical consciousness of the community of speakers of the language.

In other words, Cameroonian native languages carry with them the habits, mannerisms, and identity of native speakers. What prevails in Cameroon today is tantamount to 'linguicide', a term I have used to describe the linguistic genocide that is prevalent in the republic of Cameroon. Our leaders need to put an end to servile linguistic assimilation nationwide.

Linguistic genocide is observable in all walks of life in Cameroon. In the judicial branch of government, the interpretation of the letter and spirit of the law is left to the whims and caprices of French-speaking judges who are ignorant of how the Anglo-Saxon legal system operates. This has resulted in several instances of miscarriage of justice.

For example, miscarriage of justice was evident during the infamous Yondo Black trial way back in the 1990s when an Anglophone witness was deprived of his right to testify on the grounds that the presiding judge could not understand the English language.

One wonders what has become of the pool of trained translators and interpreters at the Presidency of the Republic and Ministries in Yaoundé who waste valuable time translating trivialities such as inscriptions on ballot papers for elections that have been rigged beforehand.

The Cameroon Radio and Television (CRTV) is another venue where language abuse is a sore point. This government-owned news network has been so 'french-fried' that 95 per cent of the programs broadcast are solely in French, to the detriment of English-speaking Cameroonians who have the constitutional right to be informed as well. News items obtained from English-speaking countries overseas are rapidly translated into French to serve the needs of the Francophone majority at the expense of the Anglophone minority.

During electoral campaigns, little or no time is allotted to Anglophone opposition leaders desirous of addressing the nation in a bid to sell their political platforms. The language of instruction and daily routine in the armed forces, police and gendarmerie is French. Anglophones recruited into these forces have to learn French 'overnight' or perish.

The foregoing is only a tip of the iceberg of the logjam that has earned the sobriquet the 'Cameroonian Crisis'. There is no turning a blind eye to it. It will fester and become an incurable wound. Worse still, it will haunt not just the present generation of Cameroonians but also those yet to be born. It may even affect Africa as a whole because Cameroon is, indeed, Africa in miniature, a microcosm of the continent.

Besides, the phenomenon of globalization is tearing down the invisible walls that nations have hitherto erected around themselves. Cameroonians have to face this linguistic challenge squarely. We do not need another Bosnian or Rwandan genocide in order to acknowledge the fact that we cannot ignore a festering wound for too long.

Downplaying the importance of indigenous languages amounts to self-hatred – a harbinger to identity crisis. Cameroonians need to cultivate plurilingual proficiency. Language experts are unanimous on the fact that multilingualism is indispensable in today’s global village. In fact, monolingualism, they argue, is fast becoming an anachronism. To put this differently, ability to communicate in several languages is an asset; not a liability. Multilingualism is an added advantage to the multilingual individual and to the nation as a whole given that what is acquired in one language is transferable to the other language.

Studies have shown that multilingual individuals exhibit a higher level of cognitive ability than their monolingual counterparts. Surprisingly, Cameroon's so-called bilingual education policy has proven to be a nonstarter on account of ill-will, ethnocentrism and bigotry. Worse still, the language policy in Cameroon has been transformed into a political game of chess where ignorant players chip in with the sole intent of scoring political points. I want to reiterate the fact that the latent linguistic warfare that we are waging in Cameroon is not restricted to vernacular languages. English and French are at daggers drawn as well.

The second fiddle status that has been assigned to English-speaking Cameroonians by francophone members of government has made the implementation of the nation’s bilingual education policy a stillborn. There seems to be a deliberate attempt on the part of government officials to asphyxiate the Anglo-Saxon culture and language in Cameroon. This probably explains why in English-speaking towns and cities such as Buea, Tiko, Kumba, Bamenda, Bali, Nso, Ndop, and Nkambe to name but a few, there are billboards and toll-gates with inscriptions written in French.

In my opinion, public officials, namely mayors, governors, senior divisional officers, sub-divisional officers, police officers and gendarmes ought to maintain zero tolerance in upholding Cameroon’s bilingual policy. Yet all they do is take bribes, drink beer and sleep around with free women. Breaches of official language policies ought to be punished severely.

There are lots of translators at the Presidency of the Republic and Ministries downtown in Yaoundé spending valuable time on trifles. These technocrats were educated at the expense of the Cameroonian taxpayer and should be made to serve the nation by translating official documents aimed at public consumption. Cameroonian administrators should avail themselves of the services of these civil servants. Let myopia, inanity, and blind allegiance to selfhood not deter them from giving credit where credit is due.

Personally, I couldn’t care less how much cosmetic surgery is performed on the language of Voltaire. What I do care about, though, is where my mother tongue, Bamunka, fits into the linguistic picture in Cameroon. I believe it is the call of every Cameroonian to use all means necessary to prevent the demise of their own indigenous languages.

The importance of native tongues has been stressed by scholars in the field. It is important to ponder the views expressed by President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana on the importance of having an implementable indigenous language policy. In a speech titled 'Ghana is born', this African visionary perceived the use of European languages in Africa as one of the problems compromising the freedom, equality and independence of African countries. He suggested the following blueprint for correcting the anomaly:

"It is essential that we do consider seriously the problem of language in Africa. Far more students in our universities are studying Latin and Greek than studying the languages of Africa. An essential of independence is that emphasis must be laid on studying the living languages of Africa for, out of such a study will come simpler methods by which those in one part of Africa may learn the languages in all other parts." (Quoted in Kwame Botwe-Asamoah, 2001:747).

In the aforementioned discourse, Nkrumah did not only warn against the dangers inherent in the neglect of one’s mother tongue, but he also underscored the importance of linguistic competency in the struggle toward the psychological liberation of Africans. Nkrumah believed that Africans should steer clear of embracing political independence with linguistic servitude, to echo another Ghanaian Africanist, Samuel Gyasi Obeng (2002).

Cognizant of the long term ramifications of linguistic apartheid in Cameroon, Anglophone parents and teachers took to the streets in the 1990s and asked for the creation of an independent board to manage the affairs of Anglophone students. That initiative gave birth to the Cameroon GCE Board as we all know it today.

In the final analysis, Cameroonians without exception need to muster the courage to ask the hard questions: is our national language policy serving the purpose for which it was designed? Is this policy mere window-dressing or an implementable paradigm for attaining linguistic autonomy? Cameroonian policy-makers need to stop dancing attendance and cuddling moribund policies that tear us apart rather than unite us.

Cameroon’s national language policy was intended to serve as an integrative instrument. Interestingly, for decades facts on the ground tell a different story. Cameroonian politicians have hijacked the bilingual language policy and converted it into an instrumental tool for achieving self-gratification.

* Professor Peter Wuteh Vakunta works at the United States Department of Defense Language Institute in Monterey-California. This article is an abridged version of an excerpt from his upcoming book 'Nation at Risk: A Personal Narrative of the Cameroonian Crisis'. The full excerpt is available in Pambazuka News. [IDN-InDepthNews – March 13, 2012]

2012 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

Picture: Marginalised Baka Pygmy dancers in the East Province of Cameroon

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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