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Language is Never Neutral

Language can be an explosive device or a tool of liberation and that's why we must stay vigilant about how it's used.

"Are you a believer," a person who has read some my work asks.


I want to answer but then I pause and dwell for a second on the word. It grates on me. I realise that once that word has been released into the space between us, it has taken hold of the conversation that there is no way of describing myself which does not anchor itself on not just belief, but belief in a certain kind of deity.

I could flip it around, I think. I could ask: believer in what? Or I could just say, yes, I am a believer in my beliefs. But then that would only make other non-believers relative to me. And thus I become that which I rail against.

Language and expression assumes great significance in a world that is at once shrinking due to technology and increasingly fractious. At the root of a lot of conflict is an inability to find a common language, to use the right language or to understand the expression of others in its proper context.

Many consider the demands of increased vigilance around language, tedious. Some say even dictatorial. Perhaps not everyone who contemptuously rails against "politically correctness" is a raving right-wing lunatic. Nor do they need to be. One might argue, especially when one is not at the receiving end of words, that it is simply more "convenient" not to do so much thinking before one speaks.

If history teaches us anything, it is that words often coalesce into ideas and then actions.

However, language and the tools of expression are deeply political and can never be taken for granted. Language is not this beautiful, neutral thing with which gives us the freedom to express ourselves. It is not merely a bolt cutter freeing us of our chains and giving us wings to fly. It is fraught with baggage—cultural, ideological and historical—and can itself be a spoke in the wheel of communication and expression. It can trap its [less alert] user in the quicksand of bias and can drown out the sounds of intention with embedded prejudices.

In all societies, but even more so in societies that have suffered historical violence like colonialism (and especially where one of the results of colonial violence was the loss of indigenous languages) it is important to be keenly aware of the dangers that lurk within language as a carrier of culture, and a purveyor of ideas, stereotypes and prejudices.

Recently on the British TV talk show The Pledge, presenter Carole Malone, in response to the assertion from fellow presenter Afua Hirsch that racism and "othering" is alive and well in Britain even from well meaning people, blurted confidently: "If it's well intentioned it's not racism."

Anyone who bothers to honestly interrogate language knows that it is a chief vehicle for the expression, conception and perpetuation of oppressive ideas. It is through language that one culture is given primacy over others, that one culture places others within the context of its own history and values. It is through language that monotheism for example is given primacy in English and the "unbeliever" or "non-believer" is almost automatically assumed to be the person who does not believe in the deities of the Abrahamic religions.

In writing about his relationship with language, Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marachera wrote about making the English language fit for purpose. He said: "For a black writer the language is very racist; you have to have harrowing fights and hair-raising panga duels with the language before you can make it do all that you want it to do. It is so for the feminists. English is very male. Hence feminist writers also adopt the same tactics. This may mean discarding grammar, throwing syntax out, subverting images from within, beating the drum and cymbals of rhythm…"

Language is important in negotiating and renegotiating power in a world where too many are disadvantaged marginalised and attacked often first through words and expressions, then through actions.

Ngugi wa Thiongo in speaking of the political nature of language asserted that the adoption of colonial language by the African educated elite plunged them into what he described as the European bourgeois memory, and that this actively contributed to Africa's backwardness. For wa Thiongo: "Every educated African who remains doggedly locked within the linguistic walls of European languages, irrespective of his avowed social vision (of the right or left), is part of the problem."

Achebe's solution to this colonial trap of language was eloquently put in his essay "Colonialist Criticism," where he wrote: 'And let no one be fooled by the fact that we may write in English for we intend to do unheard of things with it'.

Whether one chooses to discard the colonial languages altogether as in the case of Ngugi or beat English into submission as with Marachera and Achebe, one thing is clear: anyone who understands the power of language must devote time and energy to interrogating the means of expression for history, for context, for every sort of baggage.

In my writing, when I choose to use words of Hausa origin in context, without the apology of italicisation, it is not merely making a point or even about the accuracy of narratives—it is also, at least in part, about justice. It is about the idea that it is important for people to own their narrative, for people to be able to say who they are and not be measured against standards and world views they may not share. It also inevitably leads to an enrichment of expression and language. When some readers express discomfort with the fact that, perhaps I am forcing the "Anglicisation" of Hausa words like santi, I remind them of words in the English dictionary like joie de vivre and schadenfreude.

Writers, journalists, and all those who have the privilege of an audience (however small) for their words, must treat language like an explosive device. Powerful—useful for controlled demolitions in construction, a weapon, to attack and terrorise—and dangerous, as wrong handling can hurt both the person wielding it and those around it. Language is important in negotiating and renegotiating power in a world where too many are disadvantaged marginalised and attacked often first through words and expressions, then through actions. If history teaches us anything, it is that words often coalesce into ideas and then actions. Good intentions are no longer enough. We must all take responsibility for the language we use.

Culture

The Best African Memes of 2018

Laugh with us into 2019 with OkayAfrica's best African memes of 2018.

Meme culture has become a mainstay on these internet streets. It's essentially an alternate form of communicating, of commentary and of simple laughter. 2018 had its fair share of highs and lows, and young Africans continue to utilize memes to celebrate or to cope with the nonsense.

To reflect on the African memes that broke the internet this year, we tapped contributors and African meme tastemakers to list the best African memes of 2018.

Laugh away below.

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popular

The Black Women Who Made Big Strides in France in 2018

Yes, this was a bad year for many reasons, but we can still celebrate the black women who rose to prominence

Back in 2015, a group of Black women activists appeared in the French media: les afrofems. They were and still are, fighting against police brutality, for better inclusion in the media and to destroy harmful sexual stereotypes surrounding black women among other worthy goals. Since then, more influential Black women have gained a bigger representation in the media. And, even better, some of the afrofems activists, like Laura Nsafou and Amandine Gay, have made films and written books to bring more diversity to the entertainment industry.

2018 has, in many ways, been a year where black women made strides in France, at least in terms of culture. From winning Nobel prizes, to having best selling books and being on top of the charts, Black French women have showed that, no matter how much France wants to keep them under the radar, they're making moves. And, no matter the tragedies and terrible events that have shaped the year, it is something worth celebrating.

France's New Queen of Pop Music

We begin with Aya Nakamura, France's new queen of pop music. Her song Djadja was a summer hit. Everyone from Rihanna, to the French football team who successfully won their second world cup, sang it. Her sophomore album "Nakamura" has been certified gold in France and is still on top of the charts. She is the first French singer to have a number one album in the Netherlands since Edith Piaf in 1961. The last time a black woman was as visible in pop music was in 2004, with Lynsha's single "Hommes...Femmes".

Nakamura has received a huge backlash, mostly due to misogynoir—misogyny directed towards black women where race and gender both play roles. From a French presenter butchering her African first name despite the fact that he can easily pronounce words like "Aliagas", to online trolls calling her ugly and manly when a picture of her wearing no makeup surfaced, to people complaining that she is bringing down the quality of the entire French pop music industry, Nakamura responds to her critics gracefully. Her music is not groundbreaking but her album is full of catchy songs with lyrics using French slang she masters so well that she came up with her own words like "en catchana" (aka doggy style sex). And most importantly, many black girls and women can finally see someone like them in the media getting the success she deserves.

The Nobel Prize Winner

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Another Black French woman has broken records this year: the Guadeloupean writer Maryse Condé who won the Alternative Nobel Prize, a prize meant to replace the Nobel Prize in Literature, after the scandal that the Swedish Academy of Literature faced last year. Condé wrote her first novel at only 11 years old and has been prolific ever since. A former professor of French literature at Columbia University, she has published more than 20 books since the 1970s, exploring the complex relationships within the African diaspora. "Segu", her most famous novel, is about the impact of the slave trade and Abrahamic religion on the Bambara empire in Mali in the 19th century. Condé's work is radical and she remains committed to writing feminist texts exploring the link between gender, race and class, as well as exploring the impact of colonialism. Condé is a pillar of Caribbean literature and it's taken long enough for her work has been acknowledged by the Nobel prize committee.

The Children's Books Writers

From Comme un Million de Papillon Noir

And finally, 2018 has been the year where France's children's literature industry has finally understood how important, for the public, writers and publishers, being inclusive and diverse was. From Laura Nsafou's Comme un Million de Papillon Noir, a best selling book about a young black girl learning to love her natural hair which sold more than 6000 copies, to Neiba Je-sais-tout: Un Portable dans le Cartable, the second book of Madina Guissé published this year after a successful crowdfunding campaign, there are more and more children's and young adult books with non white protagonists. In France, there are still no stats about how diversity is doing, but in America, in 2017, only 7 percent of writers of children's literature were either Black, Latino or Native American.

There's still much to accomplish in France for the Black community to have better representation in the media, politics and all walks of life, but important strides have been accomplished this year, and it make me hopeful for what 2019 and the following years have in store.

News

J Hus Has Been Sentenced to Eight Months in Jail for Knife Possession

The rapper has been convicted following an arrest in June.

Gambian-Biritish grime rapper J Hus has been sentenced to eight months in prison for knife possesion, reports BBC News.

The artist, neé Momodou Jallow, was arrested in Stratford London in June when police pulled him over near a shopping center, claming that they smelled cannabis. Police officers asked Hus if he was carrying anything illegal, to which the rapper admitted that he had a 10cm folding knife in his possession. When asked why, he responded: "You know, it's Westfield."

Hus pleaded guilty at a hearing in October after initially pleading not guilty.

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