Achebe, Thiong’o and the Politics of TatavaSabeto

I have occasionally referred to the national dialect Bauan as a colonial language, because it was imposed on people here without their consent by a central authority (the British and the Bauans) with the desire to unify under a more central Fijian identity. And I talk about the need for folks to speak, know, and use TatavaSabeto as a means of having an independent, indigenous identity, rather than one imposed from Suva.

But yesterday I revisited an intellectual debate I’ve always found compelling – Chinua Achebe vs. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, on the politics of language. In Decolonising the Mind, an excellent read, Thiong’o argued that African writers must write in their indigenous languages, that to write in European languages is to continue and reinforce the legacy of colonialism and the shackling of African minds.

He writes about how when he was a child in the early 1950s, when the Mau Mau rebellion resulted in British concentration camps and martial law, the colonial government forced schools in his area to start teaching in English, rather than his native Gikuyu. Thiong’o himself went on to spend years in prison in his native Kenya, before going into exile in the West. And ever since, he has written his books in Gikuyu, and then had them translated to English. He makes the excellent point that something expressed in an indigenous language will be more, for lack of a better word, authentic, than that written in a tongue that is foreign to the content of it’s speech.

Chinua Achebe, on the other hand, defends his usage of English in The Education of a British-Protected Child. He notes that English is the unifying language in his native Nigeria, that were the government to endorse one of the three main language groups (Igbo, Hausa-Fulani or Yoruba) it would inflame ethnic tensions and marginalize most of the country. Achebe also points out that in Thiong’os Kenya, the missionaries most often argued for teaching in native languages, while many Kenyan-led missions wanted to teach English, as a modernizing force. The picture became much murkier by the time the post-WWII era rolled around though, when ethnic/indigenous identity began to be seen as a threat to colonial governments.

Language is thus an incredibly potent flashpoint in discussions on identity and nationalism, and for no reason more so than that nationality is a made-up concept, especially to all of the colonized nations, whose borders were drawn by some white asshats in a boardroom in Berlin. Even Fiji, whose indigenous population is slightly more ethnically homogenous than Nigeria or Kenya, has an incredible diversity of tongues (commonly estimated at 300 dialects, doubtless less by now, and probably divisible into two main branches or languages – Western and Central).

But as made up as nation-states may be, they are the most common, powerful and important form of governance on Earth. They are not going away, and they will do anything they can – namely, state violence – to remain as they are, resisting/oppressing any indigenous breakaway movements (see: the UK resisting Scottish independence, the Biafran conflict in Nigeria of the 60s, and the coup-plotting chiefs in Fiji of last year). The Fijian government can arrest chiefs, and has done so quite a few times, but chiefs cannot arrest or command government officials. Local, indigenous authority has taken a major hit, and associated identities have thus struggled.

On top of all this, it is quite impractical to expect the government to teach everyone their own dialect, at least here in Fiji. It would require a massive effort, the training of hundreds of teachers who would ostensibly only know to teach their own dialect (training strangers to teach a dialect simply would not do). And Bauan unites iTaukei people, allows koiSabeto to talk to kaiCicia people in a language that feels much more Fijian than English does.

A good friend of mine at home, a linguistic type (speaks Swedish, Portuguese, Japanese, Spanish) that will be visiting in October, asked if this was not perhaps a slightly conservative or backward initiative to undertake, to try to revive a local dialect when it’s 2016 and nation-states are the order of the day (not quite how he framed it, but how I see it). So, in the face of modernity, these are the reasons this dictionary is still important:

  1. Identity exists at multiple levels: local, national, regional. Strengthening local identity does not necessarily detract from the other two. There is no contradiction in being proudly koiSabeto, Fijian and a Pacific Islander.
  2. Sabeto is in a very rapidly urbanizing region, next to the airport, between Nadi and Lautoka, meaning that Bauan and English are making very strong inroads into households here. Nonetheless, many parents would like their children to also know the language of their tuqwaqwa (ancestors), and they have no tool to teach them as such.
  3. Students here do very poorly in Bauan as taught in schools. Providing this three-way dictionary will help teachers explain local concepts they may not know (not being from Sabeto).
  4. This language has not been recorded, and if it is not now it is extremely likely to ever be (about 4 out of 300 dialects have been recorded). Without this, this dialect, this language will simply be lost to time.

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