By Peter W. Vakunta, Department of French and Italian, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Cameroonian Pidgin English, like most creoles the world over, is a language on its own. It is not an appendage of so-called Standard English. I taught Standard English on Cameroon radio for years before moving to the USA, so I know how to draw a line between English and Pidgin. In the Caribbean, there is CREOLE, in Canada there is JOUAL, etc. These pidgins carry not only social identities but also world views and have to be allowed to thrive.
In this stance, I have the support of Jacob Grimm who argues: "Each individuality, even in the world of languages, should be respected as sacred; it is desirable that even the smallest and most despised dialect should be left to itself and to its own nature. It is not wise to subject it to violence, because it is sure to have some advantages over the greatest and most highly valued languages” (57).
In my opinion, the language conundrum in Cameroon goes beyond the question of acceptability or rejection of pidgin. Of all the burning issues that remain unresolved in Cameroon in the wake of independence, the language question is perhaps the thorniest. Forty-five years after gaining independence from France and Britain, it is hard to believe that there is no reliable national language policy in Cameroon.
Unlike most African countries, Cameroon still uses French and English, languages of ex-colonial masters, as official languages. By this very token, our country stands out as a sore finger in the African linguistic landscape. The question that begs the asking is why Cameroon which boasts two hundred and thirty-six native tongues does not have an indigenous official language policy. Why are we still dressed in borrowed robes forty-five years after our token independence? How can we talk of a Cameroonian national identity without an indigenous language policy? We have a right to articulate our own cultural identity. Bjornson has described assimilation as “the adoption of European tastes, languages, customs, and colonial government policies by Africans” (1991: 19). Bob Marley called it mental slavery. Language is the soul of a people. Language transports culture. Kill a man’s language and you have killed the man! Language, one of the main aspects of culture does not function in isolation (Vinay 1977:452). Sadly enough, in Cameroon we continue to speak in borrowed tongues!
The acculturation that has taken root in Cameroon has had as a consequence the renunciation of our traditional values. This is what Raphael Constant perceives as an anomaly and points out that the tragedy of the colonized is the servile manner in which he tries to “portray himself in the color of Elsewhere” (1990:80) Franz Fanon refers to this socio-linguistic anomaly as “Black skin white masks” (1967:15).A man who wields his language adeptly possesses the world expressed and implied by that language (Fanon1967:18).
Language pundits maintain that multilingualism is an effective communicative tool. It is an added advantage to the multilingual and to the nation as a whole given that what is acquired in one language is easily transferable to the second or third language. Multilingualism is an enriching socio-linguistic phenomenon. It broadens the mindset of individuals in the linguistic community. It lubricates social intercourse. Statistics have shown that multilingual individuals exhibit a higher degree of cognitive ability than monolinguals.
Strangely enough, Cameroon’s multilingualism is serving no purpose at all on account of tribal hostility. The linguistic question is an offshoot of the animosity that divides Anglophones and Francophones in Cameroon. Revolting disdain for the English language from members of government has led Francophones to downplay the use of English an official language although the constitution of Cameroon states explicitly: “the official languages of the Republic of Cameroon shall be English and French.”
This notwithstanding, English has been totally relegated to the back burner by the Francophone majority in Cameroon. The second fiddle role that has been assigned to English-speaking Cameroonians by French-speaking members of government has made the implementation of a Cameroonian language policy a non-starter. There seems to be a deliberate attempt to undermine and eventually destroy the Anglo-Saxon culture in Cameroon. Otherwise, how does one explain the fact that in typical Anglophone towns and cities in Cameroon one finds billboards with inscriptions in French only? Tiko, a town in the South-West province is a case in point. As you enter this town, you are greeted by a signboard that reads: “Halte Péage!” For goodness sake, what does this mean to the Anglophone South-Westerner? How do the powers-that-be expect the average man who has never been exposed to French to understand what this injunction means? This is only one out of a myriad of such sign boards dotted here and there in the country.
Similar linguistic ‘garbage’ litters airports in Cameroon. The Nsimalen airport in Yaounde is an example. At Nsimalen you would read gibberish such as: “To gather dirtiness is good.” This is a direct translation of the French: “ramasser la saleté c’est bien.” The French in this sentence leaves much to be desired. It is also annoying to realize that there is no English translation of the notices on these sign boards. The originators of this communicative trash know only too well that in bilingual countries all over the world, notices, billboards, memos, letterheads road-signs, application forms, court forms, policing documents, health forms, driver’s licenses and hospital discharge forms are written in the official languages of the country in question. Failure to do so is a violation of the constitution, an illegal act punishable by law in every civilized country.
There is no iota of doubt that diplomats accredited to Cameroon are having a kick out of the unintelligible stuff that litters our airports and other public arenas. They must be taking us for a bunch of language freaks when they read this kind of hotchpotch. Public authorities: mayors, governors, divisional officers, police officers and gendarmes are expected to maintain a zero tolerance policy linguistically speaking. Breaches of official language policy ought to be punished. There is a pool of translators and interpreters at the Presidency of the Republic whiling away time. These professionals were educated at the expense of the taxpayer. They should be made to serve the nation by translating official documents aimed at public consumption. Administrators should avail themselves of the services of these well trained professionals. Let our myopia, linguistic bigotry and blind allegiance not deter us from valuing the priceless work that translators and interpreters are capable of doing.
One also finds on billboards inanities such as: “Not to make dirty is better”. This hoodle poodle is meant to be a translation for: “Ne pas salir c’est bien” This is not funny! If the situation were not so grave one would be laughing but the language imbroglio in Cameroon brooks no laughter.
Personally, I couldn’t care less how much surgery the Francophones carry out on the French of Rousseau. As a matter of fact, psycho-sociological factors have made me totally callous to the mastery of Voltaire’s mother tongue beyond the ability to ask for water to drink when I am on a visit to the Francophone world. If I have acquired a smattering of French it is because it enables me to put bread on the dinning table. What I do care very much about, though, is the place my mother tongue occupies in the linguistic scheme of affairs in Cameroon. It is the duty of each and every Cameroonian to prevent the demise of his or her own language in this country.
Many years ago, I read some stomach-churning stuff that was being paraded around as the C.A.P examination in Cameroon. The following is an excerpt:
“Each candidat should pick by bilot a sujet. Each sujet is mark over 40 marks. For each port, candidat shall establish the working mothed card. Fill in the analysis car in annexe B.”
Honestly, if you who are reading this article are an Anglophone parent in your right mind, tears should be flooding the sheet of paper right in front of you! This rape of the English language speaks volumes about the disrespect Francophone educators have for English speaking learners. How are Anglophone learners expected to succeed in examinations where the phraseology has been doctored out of intelligibility? The unintelligible stuff above was meant to serve as an examination that would determine the fate of thousands of Anglophone students who have spent four years chaffing in technical secondary schools nationwide. Little wonder they fail in drones.
When the senile Minister of National Education, Robert Mbella Mbappe, was confronted by Anglophone parents and teachers over the issue of the Cameroon GCE Board he raved and ranted in the face of representatives of TAC and the SONDENGAM Committee: “You can do whatever you like with your so-called GCE board, none of my children studies in Cameroon!” (Nyamnjoh, 1996:114).This is the minister of national education, who is paid with Taxpayers’ money, raving and ranting in the face of taxpayers! In the civilized world, he would have been asked to resign without further ado.
When all is said and done, we must ask ourselves the inevitable question: Is there light at the end of the tunnel in Cameroon? The response is in the affirmative. What needs to be done is take giant steps toward extricating ourselves from the prevailing conundrum. In order to salvage Cameroon from the canker of corruption, unfair discrimination and false pretenses, Cameroonians at home and in the Diaspora have to take a number of draconian measures:
- We have to take our destiny into our own hands. No amount of external goodwill will solve our developmental problems. We must be prepared to look one another in the face and say: look, this is where we went wrong; it is time to correct ourselves. We must work in tandem toward seeking long-lasting solutions to prevalent linguistic and political problems in our country;
• We must combat corruption in all its forms through education and the inculcation of moral values (truth, integrity, loyalty, respect, honesty, trustworthiness, dedication) into our citizens;
- We have to fight poverty by any means necessary, including redirecting educational pursuits toward the acquisition of skills needed in the workplace;
- We must back our hard-won political independence with genuine economic autonomy. Ngwane wonders: “Of what use is political freedom without economic emancipation?” (2004:14) Forty- five years after independence, Cameroon should now be in a position to set itself on a path that would lead the nation to peace and prosperity. Under an enlightened leadership endowed with goodwill we should be able to harness our natural and human capital to serve all and sundry regardless of ethnic origin, creed, language, sexual orientation or gender. Cameroon has the potential to serve as a sterling example of a success story on the African continent. To achieve this goal, we need the good will of the men and women at the helm.
- Most importantly, Cameroonians must learn to rise above their tribal enclaves. Cameroon is affected by a plague called linguistic tribalism. We’ve got to kill the tribalistic monster and forge ahead!
Peter W. Vakunta is a Ph.D. candidate in French and Francophone literatures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He holds many literary wards, including the Fay Goldie Literary Award for Excellence in creative writing and the International Poet-of-the-Year award. Among his published works are Brainwaves, Pandora’s Box, and African Time and Pidgin Verses and The Lion Man and Other Stories.