By Nick Twinamatsiko:
My favorite memory from my Primary One is of the time I took the reading examination. The examiners were seated under some tree in the school compound. When my turn to take the exam came, I went before them, took up the text (which was in my vernacular, Runyankole-Rukiga), and read so fluently that I left them gasping in amazement. If memory serves, I got full marks. At the start of P3, I joined a town school where speaking in vernacular was forbidden, but I still didn't lose my firm grip on the language. In later primary school years, I was the family reader: I would take up a volume of Abagyenda Bareeba, a vernacular novel series, and fluently read to my mother and siblings. My ancestors must have looked down with pride.
Many years later, when I had turned 21, I stood before family friends and relatives who had gathered for my sister's give-away, and tried to give a speech in Runyankole-Rukiga. It was a complete disaster. I abandoned the effort and switched to English. A few people were offended, of course, but I saw that this was the lesser of the two evils. It was better for me to say what I needed to say in the language in which I could say it than to fail to get anything across just because I was trying to use a language that I had lost a grip on. My ancestors must have looked down in horror!
The loss of the grip had been gradual. It must have commenced in my mid-teens when I fell helplessly in love with such authors as Shakespeare, Soyinka, Nikolai Gogol, Dickens, Wilde, Euripides and Emily Bronte. I discovered and got addicted to the beauty of English words, in isolation or association. I began to think in English. I began to find the talk of my peers mundane, and became an introvert, seeking out quiet corners and losing myself in novels. We practice a language by speaking it, listening to it, writing it, reading it, and thinking in it. Because I became an introvert, I didn't get to hear or speak much Runyankole Rukiga, which many of my school peers used. Even at home, I was an introvert, finding my bliss in hearing the beautiful lines of Dickens playing in my head. And, of course, the material I was reading was in English and I never wrote except in English. It soon became the case that when I spoke instinctively, the words that came out were English words. Within just a period of six or seven years, I had written a novel manuscript and many poems, but I couldn't make a speech in the language that I had excelled in as a child.
Amongst African writers, my weak grip on my vernacular puts me in the majority.
Doreen Baingana, the only Ugandan that has won the commonwealth Prize for the Africa Region, was raised by Middle-class parents, and lost her grip on vernacular at an earlier age than I did. She has written: ‘It seems to me that my parents' generation was better at adopting what worked for them without losing their own culture. My mother speaks to us in Runyankore, our father's language, which is very similar to Rukiga, her mother tongue. We answer back in English. My parents' generation, which went to school in the colonial days of the 1940s-50s, were taught by whites. My mother's English is better than many of my generation's, partly because our government schools have gotten worse over the years. I suspect my parents were proud we spoke English so young, because they had to learn it when they were older. They didn't think they had to teach us Runyankore or Rukiga. They came to it naturally and so would we. We did not. We went to a primary school in Entebbe that prohibited anything other than English. We carried the policy home…My wholehearted embrace of books and English gave me a fine appreciation for its nuance and poetry. It is no accident that I am a writer. English has worked for me. But what have I given up in the bargain?’
The bottom line is that to write good English prose, you have to be deeply grounded in the language. You have to have ‘a fine appreciation for its nuance and poetry.’ The trouble is that in the process of acquiring this firm acquaintance, you may lose a grip on your vernacular. More alarmingly, you may become detached from your people, finding it increasingly difficult to communicate with them. Your own society may become something of a spectacle, rather than a thing you are part of. In other words, you may become an alien!
I scan through lists of contemporary African writers, and I realize that most have either been raised in the Diaspora, or have become cultural aliens even without traveling. I doubt there is any successful African writer of our generation who thinks in the tongue of his ancestors – for whom African vernacular is truly the first language. We have had to sacrifice our indigenous languages to become writers. Is the purchase worth the price?
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