Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Lingua Franca

I spent an evening last week listening to a talk by one of my favorite African writers, Henri Lopes. A Congolese from both sides of the river, he's written extensively on the African identity in a post-colonial setting, a setting I might add in which he feels rather comfortable. He's done well for himself, former PM, and ambassador to the UN, England and France. His French is impeccable and his English, more than passable.

His talk centered on his role as a writer and what that means in Africa today and was full of anecdotes and quotes from other authors. While the talk itself was interesting, it was the follow-up discussion that I want to write about. He was asked, rather pointedly, about why he writes in French instead of, say, his native Lingala. His response, because the market won't support a book in Lingala. There are not enough readers to buy his book in Lingala and make it profitable for any publishers. He also noted that given the linguistic landscape of Africa, it is not in his interest to publish in Lingala to appeal to only those who speak Lingala. His audience, in his eyes, is larger than any one language group. French offers him the lingua franca necessary to appeal to a broader market, not only to neighboring villages but to distant countries.

When one Camerounian accused him of perpetuating a colonial attitude, he responded with humility and candor. "I don't agree with you that my language is colonized. It is a language that I choose to use for many reasons. It is a language that many of us choose. Even in my own country I approach a stranger in French for fear of offending him should he come from a different language group. In international affairs, we need a lingua franca to get beyond linguistic borders. French gives us that. We are also learning English, as is Ghana; the two allow all of us to communicate with ease at UNESCO, for example." Say what you will, this is a very reasoned response to this sort of harsh liberal critique of post-colonialism that often prevents people from acting. There are many valid points to criticize in French colonial policy (including its present paternal relationship to its former colonies), but ripping up the roads and tearing down the schools is not one of them.

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