There have been heated debates in Africa regarding what language one should write in. This is particularly so because post colonial African countries use English, French, and Portuguese as both school and official languages. Kenya has English and Kiswahili. In the Kenyan context, the biggest load of literature is borne by the English language, which is the official language. Kiswahili takes the place of national language. Majority of African countries have, each, a multiple of mother-tongue languages sometimes described as tribal or ethnic languages. It would be fair to refer to them as national languages. It is a fact that, literally speaking, Kenya, like many other African countries, is linguistically, a federal state.
It is unfortunate that we have to learn foreign a language in order to communicate and express our national issues physically and spiritually. Ngugi wa Thiong’o has made a philosophy by stressing that we should write in our local languages in order to avoid the foreign and colonial cultural baggage carried by English. However, the late Chinua Achebe saw it differently. He said that English is just as much of our language as it is the language of English people. At whatever cost, English people cannot take away that language from the world. Achebe saw English as a world language. For that reason, he was comfortable in writing in English and, consequently, encouraged people to write in English.
I have attended some world writers conferences that brought together particularly the “Anglo” and the “Franco” speakers. The first jealousy that the African French speaking countries have is that we are better off in writing in English because English has many publishers and a wider market. They feel imprisoned in a language with many economic limitations in the world.
This is the socio-economic ground on which our local languages fall. They have grave economic limitations in the published world. So? Have we done already? The answer is that we are not done yet by any means. Local languages are the foundation of our culture and for our creativity. Writing is an art. You don’t have to think in English or French or Kikuyu whatsoever in order to make a beautiful painting or music. Arts expressions and creativities cross country borders, languages and racial divisions. Tolstoy, the greatest Russian writer and his compatriots, all wrote in their mother-tongue. So were the German, French, Spanish, Japanese or Chinese writers. Eventually their works were translated into foreign languages and hit world appreciation and market.
There has never been any debate regarding the language in which any couple should engage in its courtship and marital consummation relations. The natural force within which the courtship and marital consummation take place decides the complete language of that life-time interaction and companionship. The chosen language It is the one in which they write whatever emotional poetry. In fact, just as there was never a loving couple which was ever prevented from marriage by language, no artist has ever been stopped from making master-pieces by any language. Kenyans are lovers of listening to Congolese music. They don’t care about the wording. Their business is in the melody. “Oh Africa” has hit the world market irrespective of the Congolese wording.
Back to writing. Writing is about communication, whether that communication be in essay form, poetry form of whatever. You have something to say and you must employ pen and paper to say it. Just as in marital relations, you express that love of creativity in your most comfortable language, be that language Kimaasai, Kikamba, Kikuyu, Kiluo, Kiswahili, English or whatever.
There are people who think that you would write better only if you mastered English. Nonsense. If you are engaged in learning English or Kiswahili in order to write good works one day, you may meet the surprise of your life after you have mastered the languages. That surprise would be that you can’t write. For, if masterly of English was the instrument of writing, all natives of English speaking language would be writers. That is not the case.
I have been writing in English, Kiswahili and Kikamba. Up to now I don’t know which is the best language I should write in. There are times I feel so inspired to write poetry only in Kikamba and, I admit, I have written volumes of Kikamba poetry, just I have written volumes in English language. I find each language unique in its own way.
Many years ago Dr Henry Chakava of the East African Educational Publishers wanted to promote publishing in mother tongues. He approached Ngugi and me and asked us to write children story books in our languages. We did so and he published them. Mine was called Kaana Ngya. Unfortunately, those pioneer books did not do well on the market, particularly due to poor book distribution. One day I went to Chakava and suggested, “Would you mind if translated Kaana Ngya into English for a wider market? He happily received the idea. I translated it and called it Poor Child which they gladly published. Today Poor Child is the publisher’s astonishingly best seller in their series of children books. If Kikamba language was so primitive, why should it produce a best seller translation? In other words, both Kikamba and English are equal in presenting a work of creativity. English succeeds over Kikamba only from the marketing stand.
Although having a good command of language helps you shape your works better, it is not crucial that you must write grammatically correct. What is important is in what you want to say. Publishers, editors, translators and others in the book production process take care of the grammar part. One Amos Tutuola who wrote and got published long before Chinua Achebe, wrote a novel called Palm Wine Drinkard in broken English. It was published in that broken English. Today it has been one of the most successful creative works from Africa.
If you have a good story to tell, please sit down and tell it in your best language. When the story is finished you can always find a translator into English or Kiswahili or in whatever other language. Just as it is that you don’t have to have studied music in order to be music composer, you don’t have to have studied literature and got a degree in literature in order to write a successful story. If you are gifted, you can surprise literature people. It is a fact that there are professors of literature who can’t write a novel or even a children’s story.