June 14, 2024

Open letter to President Bassirou Diomaye Diakhar Faye on use of mother tongues

  • May 18, 2024
  • 6 min read
Open letter to President Bassirou Diomaye Diakhar Faye on use of mother tongues

By Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Boubacar Boris Diop

Your Excellency President Bassirou Diomaye Diakhar Faye!

ALLOW us to introduce ourselves to you before getting to the heart of what we have to say. We are Ngugi Wa Thiong’o from Kenya and Boubacar Boris Diop from Senegal. Both novelists and essayists, our best-known books are respectively Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature (1986) and Murambi, le livre des ossements (2000), about the genocide perpetrated in 1994 against the Tutsis in Rwanda. But the most important thing to emphasize with regard to the motivations behind this open letter is that we have not exclusively published works in English and French – the languages of the former colonizers – but also novels – including Matigari (1986) and Bàmmeelu Kocc Barma (2017) – in our mother tongues, Kikuyu and Wolof.

Congratulations on your assumption of power as the new President of the Republic of Senegal. Our congratulations also go to your Prime Minister and brother-in-arms, Mr. Ousmane Sonko. With this brilliant election, which not one of your rivals contested, the Senegalese people have not chosen you as its master but as its servant. We have no doubt whatsoever that you will live up to this expectation. We have never met in person but all Africa, indeed the world, has met you and we know that your youth gives Africa hope. That’s why we are writing to you as both your African elders and admirers.

Up to now, except for a few leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, the African leadership has betrayed African people. They have simply normalized the abnormalities of Colonialism and neo-colonialism which is simply the Africanization of the colonial system. Our resources have continued to develop Europe and the West. As we only look up to the West, one wonders where our inventors are? Our engineers? Our space explorers? Africa longs for a leadership that can fire the imagination of the continent’s youth. But we cannot do that when our leadership simply mimics, always imitating the West, with no belief in ourselves, in our people. You are in a position to steer Senegal onto a new and different path towards a collective self-confidence, relating to the world on the basis of equal give and take. But if you choose that path, you will create enemies in the West. The West wants an Africa that always gives to Europe and the West. Don’t accept an inequity which will be at the expense of your people. And if they demonize you for that, just don’t care, don’t accept any other judge than the Senegalese people.

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President Bassirou Diomaye Diakhar Faye of Senegal

Let us now share a few thoughts. We ‘ve chosen to focus on the language problem, because as writers we’re familiar with it, but also because, in our humble opinion, the resolution of the language problem is a prerequisite for any economic, political, social, and cultural revolution, and therefore for the well-being of your compatriots.

These are some points we want to stress:

Your Power is the Senegalese people. You defend them, they defend you. You speak to them, they speak to you. But you cannot do that using a language they can’t understand. It is as simple and self-evident as that;

Senegalese languages must be the bedrock of the new Senegal. Every Senegalese has a right to their mother tongue. Avoid hierarchy of languages. So, mother tongue first, be it Pulaar, Seereer, Soninke, Wolof Mandinka or Joolaa or any other language spoken in Senegal. But if one Senegalese language, say Wolof, becomes the language that enables conversation among all the other Senegalese languages, that is good. The language policy: Mother tongue first. Then say, Wolof. Then say Swahili, French etc. If you know all the languages of the world, and you don’t know your mother tongue, that is mental enslavement. But if you know your mother tongue, and add all the languages of the world to it, that is Empowerment;

Encourage translations among Senegalese languages. This is a particularly important point for us. To that end, set up a national interpreting and translation centre that would enable a symbiosis and a cross-fertilization between the languages of your country, and between them and the languages of Africa and the world. Your Excellency, many Africans appreciated the fact that during your first official visit to The Gambia, you and President Barrow spoke directly to each other in Wolof. We also know that, unlike your predecessors, you make most of your speeches in both French and Wolof, and we think that’s exactly the right thing to do. Make your speech in a Senegalese language and then make it available in all the other Senegalese languages. And then in French etc. At the United Nations, speak in a Senegalese language. You can have it translated and or interpreted into French or English, as necessary. In other words, do what all other presidents in the world do; they make their speeches in their languages. In France, with a French President, speak to him in a Senegalese language. You have an interpreter with you, etc;

In short, please invest in the Senegalese languages. And this must start with the repeal at the earliest opportunity of the strange Article 28 of the Senegalese Constitution, which requires all presidential candidates to be able not only to speak but also to read and write French;

Organize the Senegalese farmers and workers. Fire their imagination. They are your defenders. Don’t worry about all the self-proclaimed elites who have so much to lose in the development of your country’s languages, and who are multiplying maneuvers and specious arguments to derail the train of History;

The works of Sembène Ousmane, especially God’s Bits of Wood, and those of other literary giants like Cheikh Hamidou Kane should be available in all Senegalese languages. As for Cheikh Anta Diop, his books should be taught in all Senegalese schools;

Progressive literatures from Africa and the rest of the world should be made available in Senegalese languages and also taught in Senegalese schools and universities;

Senegal first. Then Africa. Then Asia and Latin America. Then Europe etc. This should be reflected in the country’s educational system;

Senegal must become a nation of thinkers, inventors, manufacturers, explorers, a nation of makers of things, relating to the world on the basis of equal give and take.

These are, Your Excellency, just a few thoughts from two African compatriots and well-wishers from Kenya and your beloved Senegal.

Respectfully yours.

* wa Thiong’o and Diop are some of Africa’s foremost cultural workers as novelists and essayists

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