Opinion | Time to Decolonise the African mind: How Colonialism and Linguistic Imperialism endangered Africa’s Cultural Identity

Opinion | Time to Decolonise the African mind: How Colonialism and Linguistic Imperialism endangered Africa’s Cultural Identity

English is not any of Africa’s first language. Africans should resolve their identity crisis. Time to think, act, and decolonize the mind. Africans had work to do but failed to do it. When American lexicographer Noah Webster Jnr. woke up one morning and said that God came to him in a dream and ordered him to write an American English dictionary. 

This was happening when America considered whether to adopt Spanish or German as their national and first language. He convinced them that the revelation to produce an American English language was divine and that America should adopt the English language. 

However, one in which “colour” becomes “color,” “colonise” becomes “colonize,” and so on, an inflection necessary just for a sustained assertion of their freedom from the British English crown even in their continued use of English language. That led to the eventual birth of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary.

How have Africans asserted their difference and total conceptual freedom from the Queen’s English language, even while using the United States English? 

Furthermore, suppose we must endure and manage Africa given to Africa and run its press, government, education, media, and marketplaces in the English language. 

What effort have Africans made to fortify our unity by learning the mother tongue languages of other ethnic groups? Fulani, Jola, Creole, Sarahule, Mandingo, Manjagoe, Serere, and Wolof do not have economic value, and we made to believe. 

However, if I was taught Jola, Sarahule, Mandingo, Manjajoe, and Serere in primary school and speak it today, won’t such language affiliation strengthen my relationship and understanding of my belongingness, a common union with every Jola, Sarahule, or Serere man out there? Vice versa for the Jola or Serere who speaks Fula or Creole.

Moreover, if that happens, won’t the Jola and Serere be relevant, at least to Africa and all Gambians, in the next 60 years? 

How does a language become economically viable if its owners and neighbors do not speak it at marketplaces, schools, and government offices? The most incredible tool of colonization was language and religion. Through religion, Africans were made docile and compliant.

However, the fact that the British colonised Africans does not mean that the English language effectively binds all Africans. Every African first either belonged to an ethnolinguistic grouping and so on. The official language is not the same as the first mother tongue language. 

The English language is not any of Africa’s first language. Africans do not have a first language in the same way the Spanish or Portuguese have a first language. Africa should all go home and resolve our identity crisis. In most African households, all the men and women here bear Arab and Western names.

Virtually all our founding fathers for African independence had foreign baptism names and dropped their African names. For example, Kwame Nkrumah was born Francis, Senghor was Leopold, Houphouet was Felix, Dawda Jawara became David, Mandela was Nelson, Mugabe was Robert, Nyerere was Julius, and so many of them

Did the foreign western names of these great men make them tremendous or less African in preaching Pan Africanism?  Curiously, I know of Serere’s tend to retain their names, culture, and traditional naming systems, for example, Berrima, Ngorr, Nchorr, Sarata, Nata, and Jogoi . 

Our Christian and Islamic names are testimonies to our servitude towards the East and the West. Our most significant annoyance is that answering these names avail us nothing since the owners of these names never accept us as African as part of them.

Who Bewitched us? You will not find a European with an African name. You will not find an Arab with African names. 

However, here, we have long, tortuous names, whose etymology we do not know. We pride ourselves in looking into the internet for the longest, lyrical names, whose meaning perhaps is a demon, deity, or some devil. Decolonizing the mind; indeed, this is where it should start.

In his book, ‘Petals of Blood’ a novel written by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, the African elites who had come from a missionary school in a bid to show how “they had seen the light” would even give themselves two baptisms “Christian names” examples galore had dropped all his African names and became James Beautah. 

So maybe, at the heart of the shenanigans of the political class is the adoration of white supremacy. As a country, we have never collectively come to terms with our Africanness. Even when some of us refer to our beautiful cultures, it is to reply to whiteness, not because our cultures are legitimate in their own right. 

Serere’s do not have this African-cultural inferiority of the African naming system like some Gambian ethnic groups do. They live their Africanness without feeling who they are.

The Arab missionaries, British and French colonial settlers, and the Portuguese and Spanish occupiers gave the African continent foreign languages like Arabic, English, French and Portuguese languages to the benefits of which persist to this day. They eroded the African cultural heritage and colonised our minds and continues to colonised our way of life? 

The English Language was not a deliberate gift to colonised Anglophone Africa. However, again the English language was an instrument of colonialism, imparted to Africans only to facilitate the English tasks.

In his notorious 1835 Minute on Education, Lord Macaulay articulated the classic reason for teaching the English Language, but only to a small minority of  Africans: “We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Africans in blood and colour, but English in taste, in culture, mentality,  opinions, in morals and intellect.”

The English language was taught to a few to serve as intermediaries between the rulers and the ruled. The British had no desire to educate the African masses, nor were they willing to budget for such an expense.

Today Africans cannot live without the English Language, the English culture, English morals, and the English intellect. The African authorities have reverted to English policies even after independence. They used the English language principally to colonise Africans, with language and culture precisely the opposite of the African cultural practice

As Africans, we must admit that it is time to reexamine and revisit the relationships between our cultural heritage, language, African identity, and the impact of colonisation and neocolonialism; and take a new approach to assess our mental orientation so competently and convincingly how mental colonisation impacts our African identity, Africanism and transformation effectively through the generation, particularly looking at historical trauma and storytelling in a psychological construct internalises the consequences of colonisation.

The rise of the new generation of Pan-Africanists should engage in the continuous processes of reexamining Africans’ wellbeing, the impacts of the moral foundation of colonisation, and neocolonialism that have permeated our social fabric more than our penchant for a system of foreign names on the population and neo-colonise street names in our capital cities. 

The data reveals that 6.1 percent of the street in African capitals are named after colonialists—the aftermath, legacies, and colonialism memories.

The colonialists colonised and neo-colonised Africa – but now subtly, covertly, but more cruelly and strongly. They did it by colonising the mind. They had the media and the resources to brainwash the young African person to desire and crave the western culture, style, and manners. 

The western style, culture, and manners become the touchstone of style, culture, and manners. The foreigner’s fashion is our idol. Their socio-cultural graces are our goals and values. Their skin and hair texture is our desire and pleasures. Language and music become our cultural products shared across Africa. 

In time, the African man’s mind is completely colonised. He is African only in problems, but western in ambition. What I mean is that the African starts desiring everything Western. However, he cannot attain it. He can only imitate it – just as a dog imitates his master. 

However, the African man’s place is subordinated to that below a dog’s place in the white man’s beloved pets’ hierarchy. However, the white man is again the master! We have a name for that form of relationship – NEOCOLONIALISM.

Whether our brains are easily impressionable or deem our culture inferior, I think we should not abandon our vocations most intimate, the rich symbolism of naming. 

Despite having been colonised by the British colonialists, Indians and the Japanese still do not use English names. This has exposed many Gambians to near-obsession with anything Arabic, English, French, and Western names and surnames. 

It is challenging to retain our culture, mother tongue languages, and identity under the current circumstances. However, we should not allow ourselves to lose the most basic about ourselves — our names!

As someone who reads and minor in history, I am amazed that the Britons ruled India for almost 500 years, yet hardly  Indians carry British names. The Arabs and British colonialists and decades sojourn in the Gambia and in sub-Saharan Africa mainly rubbed off our cultural identity so hard. 

We have Arabic and  English names in The Gambia and other former colonies, and the naming system is changing in epochs. In the 1960s, 70s, we had names such as James, John, Paul, Peter; Christian Bible names for Christians and Muslims. Today, we have Arabic names like Momodou Lamin, Mustapha, Alieu, Sulayman, Ebrima, Yusupha, Aisha, Bintou, Fatoumatatta, Saffiatou. 

In the 1980’s they mutated into the likes of  Sheikh, Tamsir, Hafis, Khalifa, and Hajj. The Christian they mutated to Johnson, Kevin, Levin, George, and the 1990s saw  Melville, Dennis, Robertson, Juliet, Dave, etc. 

The 2000s saw the emergence of Arabic and  Christian names, Blessing, Hope, Blessed, Prince, Eliza, and other Muslims, Amir, Elhadj, Sheikh, Hajja, Muminatou, Saffiya, and  Saida, etc.

Also In Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s classic ‘Decolonizing The Mind’: the politics of Language in African Literature and a collection of essays about language and its constructive role in national culture, history, and identity captures so vividly the intricate nature in which the European colonial package was delivered to Africans which he eloquently argues that for effective colonisation the Europeans mainly the British started by showing the people how their culture was inferior. 

This bait was swallowed hook and sinker by many Africans. So Ngugi says a man loses his soul when he internalises hatred of what he is or what he has been. In short, our penchant for European foreign names shows we are in the midst of a severe identity crisis

So many African parents always like to boast of naming their children with names like Sheikh in Muslims and Paul as in Christian for example like religious figures of the greatest men in history, Paul of Tarsus, and Sheikh Tijan of Fez in Morroco, but we recently realised that neither our parents nor African parents know the meaning of the name. I planned to drop my First name Alhagie in most of my official documents and retain only Yorro.

I know why I am called Yorro (Yero); my namesake was a gifted hand – from cattle rearing to cattle keeping to all craft forms. I appreciate the typical Fulani names from our family. I know why people are called Doro, Malaal, Pateh, Yero, and  Sorrie. They come from traditional spiritual healers. 

Indeed, my great grandfather was an avowed conventional spiritual healer in his day. During those days, as there were spiritual hears who were diagnosed using various forms of incantations and physical examination, those treated. Nobody did two jobs. 

Those who treated knew which herbs, insects, ointments, animal products to prescribe. That is where Samba, Pateh,  Doro, and Sorrie, my great grandfather, lies. 

However, we have seen an erosion of our African naming system in our tribes, as  Felije Sundiata, Sumanguru, Ngor, Kutufing, Samori, Galandou, Galaye Sarata, Jalika, Kutufing, Jalamanding, Kemoring, Sunkari, Jalang, and Mutty.

All of my adult life, I have not found a European with an African name. I have not found an Arab and a Chinese or a Thai with African names. Apart from (American Peace Corps who learn both African mother tongue languages, culture, and naming systems). 

However, here in the Gambia, we have long, tortuous names, whose etymology we do not know. We pride ourselves in looking into the internet or sometimes in the holy scriptures for the longest, lyrical names, whose meaning perhaps is a demon, deity, or some devil. 

The African lost almost everything that distinguishes a human being, including dignity, identity, language, and culture. We have been indoctrinated to the point of self-hate. 

Otherwise, why would Soo many of our sisters struggle to bleach their skins and wore human  Brazilian and Indian hair if they did not feel enslaved in the beautiful black skin? I 

know of parents who have deliberately denied their children the golden opportunity to learn their African languages to avoid “contamination” so that they can speak the Queen’s Language without an accent! 

We are contending with an issue that is more than skin deep. Fortunately, there is a wave of reawakening and self-awareness sweeping across the land!

Foreign religions and languages had strong influences on African. India, Japan, China, etc., were mostly not influenced by either Christianity or Islam. Not just culture but our level of development. The foreigners arrived when Africa had just left the Stone Age. 

I will not go into the merits or demerits of the Christian and Arabic influences on the African naming system. Neither will I argue that taking up foreign names amounts to cultural erosion. 

However, I hold the view that based on the Indian example. With a personal observation of the Africa Sub-Saharan region naming system in post-colonial times, there is more to the attendant communities’ pre-colonial socio-economic structures than meets the eye. 

In simple terms, communities with strong and well-established ‘civilizations’ could withstand the foreign acculturation agenda.  I also think amongst our generation, and some are going back to our cultures and the naming systems. 

The systems have put English/Arabic as superior to stigmatizing the local languages and the culture as everyone tried to show “advancement.” However, we have a lot to do for our children, and they have to learn about our culture, heritage and be proud of being African. 

A few years ago in the Gambia, I saw a baby who had been born two weeks earlier with a disease, who had not passed stool since birth. Her name was  Condoleeza Rice. 

We do not have to be on social media or television, spy on the names of western personalities, Google endlessly, or read articles to get names of our children. In no time, there will be no identity for us. 

In most households in the many Gambia, all men’s club bears only foreign names, either Arabic names or Western Christian names. 

When you get the registrar’s birth certificate at the Medical and Health service, you become dissatisfied with the number “Arabic or Christian” names in the registry.    

The Arabs and Europeans gave us Arabic and English names as a way of mental colonisation. There is nothing Arabic and  Christian in a name. Christianity and Islam are faith, belief, and being a follower of Christ and Mohammed.

We auctioned everything to colonialists after colonialism that encountered—even our way of worship. Our people had their belief systems, which they discarded in favor of imperialistic folktales. Look how we adore a character called Paul. No one knows Paul was a real person or a mythical figure (indeed, the full names in holy scriptures given to Africans. We were told, “worship this God. He is the only God. Your way of worship is useless. 

Furthermore, unless you do that, hell(note scaremongering) awaits Africans. So we threw away everything in our African cultural identity, including our naming system, for “Christian and Arabic names” long after Africa gained independence, this mentality remained. 

Even after the Gambia gained independence, we remained vital custodians of the religion they left us and the names that came with following this religion. Kenyan writer Ngugi wa ‘Thiong’o, who has written extensively about decolonising African minds and language, says, “Language, any language, has a dual character: it is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture.” 

By having the name John Mahoney or  Hafiz Abdallah, Samuel, Immanuel, Roberts, Sheriff, and Yunus, I  wondered whose culture are you carrying?

It is time for African awakening! Our generation, we need to go back to our cultures and mother tongue languages and the naming systems. 

The systems have put English/Arabic as superior to stigmatizing our national languages and the culture as everyone tried to show “advancement.” 

Nevertheless, we have a lot to do for our children and grandchildren, and we have to learn about our culture, heritage and be proud of being black Africans.

By Alagi Yorro Jallow