12-15 August 2020
This year the Abuja Literary and Arts Festival threw its doors open online. As I wrote in The Art of Empathy #1, the programme was jam-packed with events throughout the day and evening over the course of four days, many more than I could possibly take in fully. The translator within me was of course delighted to see that it included sessions on writing in African languages and the role of mother tongues as a tool for empathy. I also quickly added the Little Lit Children session to my diary too, eager to hear from Africans writing for children.*
On the Friday afternoon, poet Eriata Oribhabor, writer Sada Malumfashi, poet and broadcaster Amarachi Attamah, and writer Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún talked about African languages as a tool for empathy in the Nigerian context. The session began with a brief discussion of the fact that many languages in Nigeria were recorded by colonisers with the result that the written language often does not reflect the way the languages are really spoken. Attamah explored the concept of a ‘mother tongue’ noting that languages work not only on an intellectual level, but also on an emotional level. The term mother tongue echoes the relationship that children form with a language, a relationship that also includes non-verbal communication. Malumfashi shared how his own relationships with English and Hausa differed before talking about one aspect of publishing in Hausa: the emergence of women – or feminist champions - who are now self-publishing in Hausa. This has happened partly out of necessity, but also because there are issues that can only be talked about in one’s own language. These works are key in developing empathy towards the situation of women in Northern Nigeria, he said, and as a result the government (i.e. men) feel threatened as these books start to disrupt and become a kind of threat to the established system.Túbọ̀sún then moved the conversation onto Yourba and the difficulties faced when trying to access collections of works published in Yoruba, scattered across Nigeria, often left in dusty corners, or held in the British Library in London. He described translation as an expression of empathy, mentioning challenges that arose when translating one of Chimamanda’s short stories, for example. The need to express gender-related concepts differently in Yoruba affects the way in which many ideas are conveyed.
The next day I tuned in for a lively conversation entitled Writing in African Languages – Overcoming the Barriers of Diversity. With a panel including two translators, Edwige-Renée Dro from Cote D’Ivoire and Arabic translator Sawad Hussain, I knew I’d be in for a treat. They were joined by moderator and writer Bisi Adjapon and South African writer Sabata-mpho Mokae as they explored how greater diversity in languages published can break down barriers. Hussain asked how languages can be made accessible, mentioning the challenges she had faced when trying to teach Arabic. Few materials were available, and she often had to break down stereotypes that students had about people who spoke Arabic as well as persuade them that learning Arabic could be useful. Dro agreed that even in Cote D’Ivoire, where over 60 languages are spoken, politics often played a role when it came to languages, meaning that people felt the need to speak French from France to show they were educated. Mokae explained how the hierarchy of languages went back to colonialism and a ‘tutor & pupil’ dynamic that said the language – and therefore culture and religion - of the pupils was unimportant. A dynamic that still persists today. He stressed the power that acknowledging a language has, it says ‘I acknowledge you as a human, your culture, and you.’ For Mokae,
'language is not just a tool to communicate but a body of knowledge, a way of seeing.’
He talked about the challenges for publishing in African languages and how writers face the ‘monster’ of English. He said how lucky he had been to meet a publisher ready to take the risk of publishing his work in Setswana. Dro mentioned the low numbers of books published in Ivorian languages and translated into French, but said that there is a rich oral culture, something that could perhaps be developed in partnership with radio stations or other kinds of audio books. She also explained how her own translation work had been enriched by bilingual workshops with writers from across Africa (French and English) as part of the Afro YA project which culminated in the publication of the anthology Waterbirds on the Lakeshore. ‘I had to think about which French I was translating into English – so it didn’t lose its flavour.’ The animated session ended with Mokae stressing the importance of continuing to write in a wide range of languages, firewood as he called it.
‘It’s only by writing that we can develop these languages.’
Both panels highlighted the diversity and richness of African languages, languages about which the writers are passionate and believe are a way to connect with others, expressing empathy, and offering different ways of seeing the world. A message that can surely be echoed across the world.
Bisi Adjapon is the author of Of Women and Frogs. She has written for McSweneys, the Washington Times, Brittle Paper, and other journals. You can follow her on Twitter @bisiadjapon.
Amarachi Attamah is a Nigerian performance poet, broadcaster, author and promoter of African and Igbo culture. You can follow her on Twitter @amarachiattamah
Sawad Hussain is the winner of the 2019 Arablit Short Story Prize and two English PEN Translates awards. She co-teaches a workshop on translating Arabic comics at UK secondary schools via the collective Shadow Heroes. You can follow her on Twitter @sawadhussain.
Sada Malumfashi is a writer and freelance journalist from Kaduna, Nigeria, and a fellow of RSF Germany’s Berlin Scholarship Programme. He is the founder of the literary arts collective Open Arts. In his journalistic work, Malumfashi focuses mainly on sexual abuse, gender-based violence, and feminism in Nigeria’s conservative northern region. You can follow him on Twitter @sadaoverall.
Sabata-mpho Mokae is a South African academic and novelist who writes in English and Setswana. He has won several awards including the M-NET Literary Award for Best Setswana Novel (2013), the M-NET Film Award (2013), and the South African Literary Award (2011 & 2019). Follow him on Twitter at @mokaewriter.
Eriata Oribhabor is a Nigerian poet and literary activist. You can follow him on Twitter @EriataOribhabor.
Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian writer, linguist, and teacher, with over a decade and a half of experience in language research, linguistics, creative and travel writing, digital rights activism, cultural advocacy, documentation, and the arts in general. Read more about him here and follow him on Twitter @kolatobusun.
*Stayed tuned – Little Lit Children coming soon.