(South) African languages in Ekow Duker’s novel ‘White wahala’

The title of Ekow Duker‘s novel grabbed my attention : the plot is set in South Africa, but could there be a link to Nigeria somehow ? On Zukiswa Wanner’s recommendation, I read the book and found several other points of interest related to African langages in White wahala.

Wahala : the word that travelled

My curiosity wasn’t really satisfied as to the origin of the title. Or rather, I was left to my own imaginary devices to find out how the term got to Constance’s lips. Wahala is a word meaning ‘trouble’ or ‘problem’ in Yoruba – and I was told by my lecturer that it’s a loan word from Hausa. I’ve heard it used in Pidgin Nigerian English as well so one could safely say it’s a nigerian word.

The first occurrence of the word in ‘White wahala’ – other than in the title – is found in chapter 26 :

‘I am going now, madam,’ said Constance nervously. She edged towards the door. This was white-man wahala and had nothing to do with her. The Zambian gardener, Elisha, had taught her that word. She rolled it on her tongue, relishing the way it stumbled about in her mouth like a half-sucked sweet. She even said it out loud, ‘White wahala‘.

‘What did you say?’ Agatha gave Constance a sharp look. ‘I told you never to mutter in Zulu when you’re in this house’

‘I’m sorry,’ Constance said, with not quite enough deference. (emphasis mine)

And how did the Zambian gardener Elisha come across this word then? The answer isn’t provided in the novel but I’ll offer some hypotheses : Elisha watches a staple of Nollywood movies and ended up adopting the word. Or maybe he used to have Nigerian neighbours, whether in Johannesburg or in his hometown in Zambia. Who knows, what if Elisha were very well-travelled and multilingual ? He might have been to Nigeria before moving to South Africa.
Well, I probably need to ask Ekow Duker himself…

Edit: I did ask and here is what the author had to say:

Zulu and Sesotho, familiarity and struggle

Ekow Duker’s writing is nothing like the weaved bilingual prose of Junot Diaz, but langage issues are ever lurking in the background, as you can tell from the quoted passage above.

In the few instances where it is mentioned, Zulu is charged with emotional undertones: it is the langage people use to get close to someone, to express familiarity. When the plumber (chap 32) comes to beg Cash Tshabalala to lend him money, it is Zulu he uses to appeal to the loan shark to respect his privacy and to not have him expose his money woes in front of Cash’s white girlfriend. It’s interesting to note that in two instances where a character does not understand an utterance and feels left out, they wrongly assume the langage to be Zulu (Agatha in chapter 26 and a prison guard in chapter 27 who mistakes Sesotho for Zulu).

Yet, despite the language being mentioned in several places, there is only one sentence in Zulu in the dialogues (Uya ngidinisa :she annoys me, she makes me tired). It is pronounced by Solly, Agatha Nicholson’s lawyer, to complain about his rich client’s attitude and create an atmosphere of familiarity with the hospital receptionist. But Agatha knows enough Zulu to get offended by this !

Hawu ! A ubiquitous interjections

I was bit quick in saying there was only one Zulu sentence in the whole novel. As a matter of fact, the Zulu interjection Hawu ! Is used so frequently that I had to look it up.

Isizulu.net translates it as ‘oh my, eish, wow, good heavens’. According to White Zulu, depending on the tone pattern (falling or rising, to put it simply), hawu! can express pained surprise/strong disapproval or joyful surprise.

I found examples of both types in the novel, which you have to understand from context :

Joyful surprise :

‘Comrades !’ roared Elvis. ‘Your oppressor is on his knees!’

‘Hawu! Hawu! Hawu!’ chorused the crowd. (chap 22)

Strong disapproval :

Elisha snorted in disgust. ‘Hawu! That one? She is like a snake that suns itself on top of a wall at midday’ (chap 35)

Anyone familliar with the linguistic landscape of South Africa? Drop your insights below!

P.S. I read the novel in Kindle format so I can’t provide page numbers but each chapter is not very long. You should be able to find the relevant passages easily on your own copy.

On African “dialects” as opposed to languages

If you want to know what someone thinks about Africa, ask them about African languages. You’ll find that the word “dialect” comes up a lot more than you would have imagined. Why the stubbornness to refuse to use the term language ?

After looking up the definition of dialect, you’ll find the following alternatives to solve your conundrum:

  1. The person you’re talking to believes that across Africa, people speak varieties of the same language (presumably African?).
  2. They don’t know what a dialect is but you certainly can’t compare their superior language to those ‘dialects’, can you? They use dialect in a derogatory way, if you will.

Let’s be honest. When you live in south-east Asia, French people don’t come and ask you whether you’ve condescended to learn any of the local ‘dialects’. They admire you for putting in the effort to grind through hours of repeating tones and learning the Thai alphabet.

I don’t think the various people I’ve talked to on this topic consciously look down on African cultures but they certainly have internalized a degree of contempt. I don’t blame them for it. Which languages people speak in Africa is probably something they have never given serious thought to.

To be fair, there’s also the widespread perception that all African languages have very few speakers and are therefore negligible. A man I spoke with was shocked to hear that there are several languages he had never heard of, that were spoken by millions of people on the African continent.

In any case, a small European language (in terms of number of speakers) is still regarded as a full-blown language, so why make it a dialect when it happens to be spoken in Africa?


Maneno Matamu’s official FB page!

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Join us to receive post updates, comment, share thoughts, suggest topics and simply get to know the world of African languages…

So long a letter

Hello dear readers,

I have been away from this blog for over two months, caught up as I was in a whirlwind of traveling and figuring out my plans for 2013. Now I feel ready for an overhaul of Maneno Matamu! Read on for miscellaneous news and updates…

New publishing schedule

Here is the publishing schedule I intend to test in the weeks to come:

  • On Tuesdays, I will report on arts and media in African indigenous languages. This could involve a song, a blog, a book translation, a newspaper article, etc.
  • On Saturdays, we’ll introduce the theme of the week, which will be focused on a region or a particular language.
  • There will also be the occasional announcement or reblog of interesting content found elsewhere on the web.

What would you like to read on Maneno Matamu? I’m open to your suggestions in the comments section below or on Twitter.

Blogging, one year on

Birthday Cake

1 year anniversary ! Photo by Flickr user dixieroadrash

At Uhuru Park last year, I met a young academic who made my heart swell with pride. He told me his girlfriend had used the series on colours published here to prepare for an art class she was teaching in Kibera. I cannot say how much this simple ‘real life’ comment touched me.

I’ve let the anniversary date pass and it’s been over a year since I started Maneno Matamu. At the time, I mostly relied on my own enthusiasm for African languages and a fiery disposition for all forms of art. I really didn’t know what to expect: I just needed to share some things I felt deeply about. It would also avoid my recurrent trapping of friends in long-winded conversations on African languages, I reasoned.

Over time, a bit like travelling, this blog has brought me closer to people I would never otherwise have had a chance to interact with. They are people who write, translate, research, learn, and share a common passion for language, a special kind of delight found in the company of words.

I want to extend a warm thank you to all the readers, contributors and commentators who, over the past year, have made Maneno Matamu a place worth visiting. You have enriched my life in many meaningful ways and I hope I can return even a fraction of the favour to others.

See you all tomorrow for the Tuesday column 🙂

The Kancil.

Education Apps for All…in ALL languages

iLearn4free is an organisation whose  mission is to ‘support language diversity in education by encouraging and enabling the creation of digital applications for literacy‘. Taking advantage of the World Literacy Day (8th of September 2012), it launched the Education Apps for All challenge to bring about collaborations between apps developers and educators around the theme of elementary education.

The apps selected will be judged according to their relevance to elementary schools’ education, adaptability to different languages, usability, user interaction design as well as user engagement. Each team must include at least one educator and present an app in two different languages, with a possibility to eventually extend its use to other languages. Submissions shall start on 15th October 2012 and the winners will be announced on International Mother Tongue Day, i.e. 23rd February 2013.

The stated objective is to expand the range of digital educational tools available in languages other than English.

Part of iLearn4Free’s mission is to develop the free resource library Art4Apps :

We hope to help developers and educators create applications for educational use at a low cost through the use of our resources. The primary objective in sharing this database is to promote apps development in the field of literacy in an effort to support and sustain the diversity among world languages.

Following numerous user requests, Art4Apps is looking for linguists specialising in the Tooro / Rutooro language, spoken in western Uganda. If you are competent and interested, do get in touch with iLearn4Free to participate in this innovative project.

You can connect with iLearn4Free on Twitter (@iLearn4Free) or on their blog to read the latest updates and offer your contribution!

Informations pour les francophones sur le blog SecouezLeCours.

(off topic) Kickstarter: endangered alphabets in Bangladesh

Tim Brookes  is the man behind the endangered alphabets project which gathers information about different scripts, creates carvings in those scripts and makes them known around the world through exhibitions.

Along with Harvard graduate Maung Nyeu, M. Brookes is embarking on a remarkable path at the crossroads between arts and linguistics, designing children’s learning materials in Mro, Marma, Tripura, Chakma and other alphabets of southern Bangladesh.

[Maung Nyeu] says, “I’m trying to create children books in our alphabets – Mro, Marma, Tripura, Chakma and others. This will help not only save our alphabets, but also preserve the knowledge and wisdom passed down through generations. For us, language is not only a tool for communications, it is a voice through which our ancestors speak with us.”

I think scripts are a fascinating part of language and a very valuable part of human heritage.  10,000 USD are needed cover material expenses towards the completion of this educational project. If you have it in your heart (and in your pocket) to help out, you can head to the Kickstarter page and find out more.

What place for African languages in schools?

I have thought a lot about the place indigenous languages should occupy in the education systems in Africa. The answer is of course not going to be straightforward nor uniform across the continent but it is worth giving it some thought.
I had the privilege to study in my own native language, French, and from a very young age, I was made aware that this was indeed a chance not everybody was given. Here is what Abdulaye Bah from Guinea (Konakry) went through:

In primary school during the colonial era, it was forbidden to speak one’s mother tongue. In Pita, Guinea, where I attended primary school, as soon as we had grasped a certain level of French, if the teacher heard one of the children speaking his language in the morning, he would hand him what was known as the token. The first child then had to hand it to someone he had caught doing the same. At the end of the school day, the teacher would ask the first kid he had given the token to, who was the second student to get it and this person would in turn name the next, this until the last student who was supposed to have the token. The teacher would thus identify all those who had spoken their mother tongue. He would then split us into two groups and order us to slap each other. If one of us was a bit reluctant, the teacher would take over by slapping the child who was considered too soft.

[original post in French by Abdulaye Bah, translation by Marie-Laure Le Guen]

My grand-parents told me the very same story (among other humiliations) about their school days in a remote village of north-western France in the 1930s where Breton was the then dominant language but classes were carried out entirely in French.

This type of ‘educational’ methods unfortunately didn’t disappear after African countries gained independence, as testified by Mohamed’s school experiences in Kenya in the 1990s:

I was in this boarding school where you got caned and/or wore a dunce sign for speaking anything other than English 6days>>
>>>or Swahili the remaining day. And a primary school at that.
They fancied themselves to be a posh ‘English’ sch of sorts. Too bad it was in the Dickens mold.


[On Facebook]
Like I mentioned on Twitter, my boarding school (primary) barred us from speaking anything other than English 6 days/week and Swahili the other day (the latter aimed at ‘preserving our national language’) and students who deviated from the above wore a dunce sign and/or were spanked at the end of the day.

Other schools had an emphasis on English too, though they were not as strict. Speaking vernacular languages was heavily frowned upon, viewed as ‘backwards’ and divisive.

In Nigeria, the situation does not seem to differ much according to @baroka:

Yes, there were penalties. This was in primary school. Most private schools have negative attitude to native language use.
Corporal punishment. Sometimes, little fines.

As I was talking to a number of people in my circles, some surprising and rather encouraging testimonies came up, which again pointed to the fact that the reality is far from uniform from one school to the next:

Edna from Kenya[sent to me on Facebook]
-) my school mates had an open minded approach we loved Gujarati being in a predominantly Indian school we were exposed to that we had to say a prayer every friday in Gujarati


@fowora there were no rules abt langs at recess and many spoke their native lang. Attitude determined at home tho

Many governments have encouraged the teaching of indigenous languages to some level, some going as far as offering an African language as the medium of instruction in the first years of primary school.

The case for teaching indigenous languages in school, especially using them as the medium of instruction, does however raise some concerns. For instance, which language is appropriate in a linguistically diverse area? And what of students who come from a different background and have to catch up with the local programme?

Rosemary from Nigeria tells us how her cousins were disadvantaged in school when they returned from the UK without a sufficient knowledge of Yoruba:

My Yoruba cousins left UK for Bauchi, where all pry sch learning was done in Hausa till year 3/4 so my cousin skipped 3yrs

A lot of these very complex questions are left voluntarily open. I would love to hear from you, the readers, and know what your ideal language policy would be like and how you think we can improve attitudes towards African languages in school.

News: a panel discusses endangered languages at the Global Voices Online Summit in Nairobi

For language enthusiasts, this is a very exciting time to be in Nairobi (Kenya): bloggers from 120 countries are gathering to discuss issues related to citizen media:

Global Voices convenes a biennial Summit which brings together contributing members with a wider community of global bloggers, technologists, scholars, journalists and others interested in sharing ideas on developments in online citizen media spearheaded by people around the world.

This event is more than just an occasion to practice your Bulgarian or Malagasy skills. As a matter of fact, endangered and underrepresented languages were the topic of discussion of a panel composed of Eddie Avila of Rising Voices, Boukary Konate, Abdoulaye Bah and Oliver Stegen.

The main issue at hand was how less-represented languages could harness online tools.

Abdoulaye sees blogging as one of the only ways to keep the language alive. There are many blogs in Fulani. Online videos are another way the language is represented online, bypassing the challenge that more people speak than write with the language.

At the internal summit last weekend, a group of Global Voices contributors shared ideas on how to support language communities facing challenges to have their voices heard on the Internet.

On this occasion, Boukary Konate noted that when he approached the Institut des Langues Nationales in Bamako (Mali) about promoting the use of Bambara online, they retorted that it was impossible to type this language on a computer! They were referring to the 4 characters used in the Bambara orthography which do not exist on regular qwerty or azerty keyboards. These technicalities have now found a number of solutions:

Someone developed a Facebook / Twitter application that supports Bambara, allowing people to post statuses in their native tongue

In the case of Aymara, the translators access the web from a cybercafé, which limits their capacity to contribute and poses financial constraints as well.

Global Voices Online is committed to language diversity and works closely with a team of volunteer translators to amplify stories from around the world in more than 30 languages.

More about the Global Voices Online Summit on the summit blog.