Language and National Unity

Avoid disappointment

So I have been in Uganda for over a month now, which means my time is nearing the halfway point.  Once I arrived I began learning to speak one of 40 languages.  I began with Lugandan, learning Oliotiya “hello, how are you?” Jendi “I’m fine.” And Wabale “thank you.”  Once I arrived in Bwindi, the southwest region, there was a whole new language to speak.  Rukiga.  Along with the translations of the above, I learned such fun phrases as, “are you strong?”

Now I am in Gulu, where they speak Acholi, as part of the Luo language family.  In the south people speak Bantu, which has a number of smaller sub-languages. It’s like I learned Italian, moved to France a week later, and am now in Germany. So I have a few more pages filling with phrases and responses.  Though because Gulu was once considered the NGO capitol of the world, and it is the regional city, a lot of people speak English.

Here is what I find interesting about the languages in Uganda.  Of the 40 indigenous languages, none are the official languages. Instead, the 2 official languages are English and Swahili.  All of school, from Primary 3 onward is conducted in English, and the tests to approve your advancement are also in English.  To be taken seriously in business you must be able to speak fluent English.

A primary way to create a national identity is through language, and education is the primary vehicle for that transmission. This is why some people in the US are worried about losing the US (read White) identity if we start conducting education in anything but English. With English skills being so pivotal to academic success and then to business success, the fact that the public schools are incredibly deficient. The government frequently takes 6 months or more to pay the teachers and staff.  Parents are spending money for private schools, which also has trouble paying the teachers, to give their children a chance at higher education.  The division that has the potential to be created is astounding.

I heard a phrase that is common in Africa.  “If you want to hide something from an African, just write it down.” The phrase, in this incidence, was used to remind teachers to give examples and explain processes to the students.  However it struck me as pointing to the deficiency of the education system and the culture of illiteracy.  Ugandan’s, even the educated rarely read for pleasure.  So let’s add to this shortfall, the demand to learn a foreign language.

When you study European history the ruling class were the only ones that could read and write, not only because of access, but also because it was all in Latin.  Then came writers like Dante Alighieri, who was one of the first authors to write in the vernacular in the Middle Ages. He wrote in Italian versus the Latin. In addition to the fact that his work The Divine Comedy lambasted religious and political leaders, it was the mode of delivery that scandalized the elite. There are still issues in Spain and Italy with some groups speaking a different language and the government trying to “control” the population. In some of these regions it was/is illegal to speak the indigenous language. See Sardinia and the Basque just to name two.

The conflict in northern Uganda began from years of under and misrepresentation of the northern districts, by the government in the south. This was heightened, if not created, by the British playing the two regions off each other.  The question I have today is, have these grievances truly been addressed.  Kony was chased out (currently in the Central African Republic), and his brutal tactics undermined any political motivations he had.  However, his predecessors in the conflict were motivated by distrust and anger towards the government in the south.  I can’t help but wonder if language divisions are playing into this conflict.


* A note about the picture. At every school I have visited there are instructional signs posted throughout the grounds.  Most refer to AIDS, Pregnancy, but some like this one are broader in their appeal. Given the above quote about hiding knowledge, the schools and health organizations try to combat this, through huge bilboards in the villages that visually show good hygiene and getting tested with your partner.