Ama Ata Aidoo: the language question

Megan Behrent '97

The question of the language of African literature has been the site of controversy in debates surrounding African literature. As in the debates surrounding oral literature in which orality is often mobilized as a means of wresting African literature away from a colonial appropriation of it; some writers and theorists have argued that African literature must be written in indigenous African languages so as to resist a kind of linguistic colonization of African literature. The majority of written African literature in colonial and post-independence Africa has been written in European languages, predominantly in English and French. This is a direct result of the colonial imposition of European languages on government, education and culture in African societies, and cannot be discussed outside of the context of colonialism.

For this reason, the Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o argues that to rid African literature of the legacy of colonialism, African writers must begin writing in their native languages and that literature written by Africans in a colonial language is not African literature, but "Afro-European literature" . He argues that using European languages inherently makes African literature, the literature of an elite class of Africans ( "Right from its conception it was a literature of the petty-bourgeoisie born of the colonial schools and universities. It could not be otherwise, given the linguistic medium of its message." ) which cannot relate to the majority of African peoples who do not necessarily speak or read European languages, but rather speak a variety of indigenous African languages. Ngugi himself chose to quit writing in English and write instead in Gikuyu, one of the languages of Kenya. This is both, in his opinion a means of relating to and reaching an audience of the African "proletariat and peasantry" and also a way of combating the imperialist "spiritual subjugation" of the African peoples by the means of language. His argument is problematic in that the rates of literacy, whether in African or European languages, are often low in these sectors of the population and that frequently the time and resources necessary for reading are unavailable.

Also, on this latter point, which can be identified as the struggle against cultural imperialism, it is important to note, as Cabral has argued, that the majority of people under colonial power, did in fact resist the imposition of the culture of the colonial power, and preserved their own culture. The cultural imperialism or "spiritual subjugation" that Ngugi discusses particularly affected the upper classes and intellectuals; it was largely the "spiritual subjugation" of the elite. While it is certainly true that the choice of language for African writers has an impact on the audience for whom they write, and that those who choose to write in a European language, limit their audience to a more elite African audience and a Western one, this does not necessarily mean that other non-elite forms of cultural production in African languages have not survived - -- obvious examples are oral literature and concert parties. It should also be kept in mind that the wide diversity of languages in Africa make it impossible to choose one language in which all African peoples or even the majority of people in one country can be reached. In Kenya, Gikuyu is only one of the native languages and actually, Kiswahili is a more generally available one to Kenyans. In Ghana, for example there are three major language groups many of which are broken up into numerous dialects.

Ngugi has certainly made an important contribution to this debate. However, it seems that some of his arguments need to be critiqued and problematized in order to point out the complexity of the debate and the difficulty it creates for many African writers. Numerous African writers continue to write in English or French, despite the consequences that this has on the audience of their work as well as on their relationship to writing and culture. Writers, such as Achebe, defend this position from the perspective of a certain pragmatic reality which views the dominance of English (or French) in written literature as a fact of present day Africa and also as a way of potentially unifying Africans of different linguistic backgrounds. Clearly there are faults in this argument as well, for, as mentioned before, this maintains written literature in the hands of an elite educated class of Africans. Still others have attempted to experiment with a mixture of language, incorporating native languages and European ones. Atukwei Okei of Ghana is a prime example of this type of linguistic experimentation and has through the performance of his poetry been somewhat able to reach an audience of native Ghanaian language speakers as well as gaining recognition among intellectuals.

For the purpose of this study, let it suffice to say that there is a diversity of literatures in Africa, in different languages, different forms and with different audiences. As far as language is concerned, my primary focus will be on the way in which Ama Ata Aidoo experiments with and manipulates the English language in her work, often incorporating the Fanti, and appropriates English in such a way as to represent and express diverse linguistic registers.

[These materials have been adapted from an honors thesis written by Megan Behrent, Brown University, 1997]

Postcolonial Web Africa OV Ghana OV Aidoo OV discourseov