In 1986 I was a ten year old boy going on eleven doing grade 6 at a highly rated government school in Bulawayo. One day our teacher, Mr. Lewis, a Welshman, says to me “You speak so well that if I was to close my eyes I would think I was listening to a white boy”. I was so pleased with myself I went home beaming and couldn’t wait to tell my parents about this amazing compliment Mr. Lewis had paid me. I cannot remember my mother’s reaction but my father said dryly, “and you think that is something to be proud of?” I was ten, what did I know? That day marked me for the rest of my life and informed my interest in history and how we Zimbabweans came to speak English to begin with.
I was reminded of that day when recently on Twitter I got into a debate with someone who believes Zimbabweans are superior to other Africans, especially Nigerians, because we speak English so well. Now it is one thing to think you are highly proficient in a particular language but it is totally another to laude this proficiency over others when the language in question is the result of colonial conquest and was forced upon your ancestors just as it was upon countless millions around the world. Can one really say they are superior because they have more fully adapted the ways and graces of those who formerly oppressed them?
Now don’t get me wrong, I fully understand the functionality of English as a medium in the world that we live in but I am also acutely aware of the way it has been used in the past and even today to obliterate indigenous culture, religion and thought. It is for these reasons that I see no reason for someone who is descendent from these obliterated cultures to celebrate their proficiency in English AND laude it over others who share the same scars of having their history robbed from them. I just don’t get it.
The discussions went on all day with many Zimbabweans telling the author of the claim that he was wrong in his assertions but he stubbornly held on. The low-point for me was when he responded to those who didn’t agree with him by tweeting “this isn’t going to expand anything. A lot of you are being primitive on here.” I was left wondering, if this was just his arrogance, ignorance or something worse. Had the black self-hate I read about online manifested itself in this young person? Did he really believe that his affinity to whiteness made him better than other black people? Was he really telling me of all the traits and talents he had developed, speaking English well was the one he prized most? If so, was he the only one? Soon enough others came out in support of this position but none with such fervour and commitment as he who started it all. He was unapologetic, as a Zimbabwean, he was proud to speak English so well and other Africans should just deal with the fact that we are just better at it.
Interestingly enough, at least two Nigerians contested this saying their English accent was better than that of Zimbabweans whilst a number of southern Africans, particularly South Africans, were insulted and none too polite in their responses. What this did show me though, was that the majority of interactions were united in their rejection of using English proficiency as a yardstick for superiority, in fact, they rejected the entire notion of one African being superior to another. This something that I take to heart because I have never understood the zeal with which our governments attempt to outdo each other in whatever ranking comes out of whatever organisation that claims to have authority of whatever sort. One that particularly bothers me is the manufactured fight between South Africa and Nigeria to be Africa’s biggest economy. As a collective we would be so much better off if we looked to the least developed countries on the continent and together worked to uplifting them out of that dire situation, but I digress.
The British were very good, no, uniquely excellent in spreading their language and culture across the world as part and parcel of their brand of global conquest for over six hundred years. It is wishful thinking to imagine we can erase that legacy in Zimbabwean minds in two generations but one hopes that with each generation this influence is tempered by our rediscovery of ourselves as a people with a past, present and future that is not dependent on affinity to the so-called global standard of doing things. As Zimbabweans, we need not speak so well to get ahead.
N.B. This post first appeared in Her Zimbabwe.