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Communication

I hear Africans use a lot of proverbs when they talk. Is that true?

Very true! Within a typical traditional milieu, Africans use a lot of proverbs and other rich sayings to communicate, especially when arguing with peers, during important deliberations, or when trying to instruct the young on the ways of the land. These proverbs display not only mastery of the language, but also the speaker's authority over the topic of discourse, as proverbs confirm and neatly present or defend situations that arise within the African's world. Chinua Achebe, one of Africa's leading novelists, has indicated the strategic nature of the use of proverbs succinctly when he points out that proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten. His novels display the authenticity of this claim. In No luonger at Ease, an elder, in an effort to establish Obi Okonkwo's strategic position as a product of the village of Mafia, declares during an emergency meeting held by the Umofia Progressive Union: "An only palm fruit does not get lost in the fire" (14). Such a proverb is loaded with meaning that one can only explain one dimension of it at a time. On this occasion, it might mean "one's eyes are always on something that one cherishes"; and this, as earlier explained, is only a faint picture of the meanings communicated by that single proverb. Besides proverbs, there are many other figures of speech that enrich the daily linguistic patterns of African speech. My late grandfather, on the morning of the day of his death, said to my now late father, "That tree will come down today." The richness of this expression is seen when it is understood that he was the head of the family and like the giant baobab tree, which provides shelter and protection to those sitting under it, he protected and provided for the members of his family—siblings, children, and grandchildren—and without that tree, his family would be exposed like a yard without the sheltering and nourishing baobab. The use of proverbs and such rich language displays the very philosophical nature of African societies.

How come some Africans speak English perfectly but others do not?

This has to do with the country that colonized that particular African nation. If the people were colonized by the Belgians, for example, then it is only natural that instead of English the colonized would speak French, since the language of the colonizer became the administrative language of the colonized territory. This is the same for Portuguese and Italian. It must be remembered that the natives were coerced and sometimes forced into abandoning their ways for those of the colonialists for ridiculous rewards such as citizenship of the colonizing nation or seats in their parliaments where, of course, these African parliamentarians were of little or no consequence, as in the case of France and her assimiles.

Again, besides the language of the colonizers, Africans speak their native languages. Of the multi-linguistic nature of most Africans Edward Bever observes:

Approximately 2,000 ... ethnic units are found in Africa, far more than on any other continent. These groups speak 750 different languages, and over 1,000 dialects. Despite the formation of ostensibly national states during decolonization, there is little prospect that the number of ethnic groups will decline rapidly. The languages of the ex-colonial powers are generally used for official business, so education does not reinforce a predominant national language, but creates a bilingual situation in which people speak their traditional tongue at home. (251)

What Bever does not point out is the fact that many people speak not only one other African language but often more. These are the languages which they used before the European usurpation of Africa. The average African, therefore, speaks approximately two different languages—one African language, and one belonging to the colonial intruder. This bilingual, and sometimes multi-lingual, characteristic of the African is bound to lead to linguistic interference as one language, sooner or later, will begin influencing the speaker's pronunciation or fluency in another language. The colonizing nation therefore was the determining factor as to which European language African nations spoke upon gaining their independence. It is for this reason that some Africans speak English or French or Portuguese without any difficulties, while others have to begin learning the one or the other when they decide to settle in an English, French, or Portuguese nation accordingly.

Do you have phones in Africa?

Yes, there are phones in Africa, but the technology in most places is not top of the line. The need to further develop this has now been challenged, however, with the emergence of cell phones. Virtually everyone, teenagers and adults, now owns a cell phone, and so people do not care about getting lines installed in their homes any longer. Yes, cell phones are everywhere and in virtually every hand, as is the case anywhere else on earth. There is this joke about cell phones being so common that even hard working market women (buyam-sellam they are called locally), have their phones with them even as they chase vehicles with fresh loads of grocery items from the fields which they buy to turn around and sell for profit. It is the same with those who practice subsistence agriculture for survival and are always in the fields working; everybody laughs at the changes when ever once in a while a cell phone rings in the farms where a few years before landlines for phones did not exist.

Does "black" stand for evil in Africa too?

In many cases it does, and this is because the language and worldview "gunned" into Africans during the colonial era belonged to Europeans who passed them on along with their biases. There are moments in Africa, however, when "white" stands for evil. People, for example, always talk about one being "white" when one is seriously sick and anemic as a way of showing the gravity of the situation, and it is also common to paint the image of an evil ghost appearing all in white. Leon E. Clark must have found this out before entitling a chapter of his book "Too White, Like a Devil" (vol. 1), and before going on to observe forcefully: "Bear in mind that white skin is a sign of illness in Africa, and that evil spirits are often depicted as white" (1: 123). This notwithstanding, the association of black and evil is predominant. Of recent, however, Africans have begun modifying English as a language such that it communicates Africa also and not Europe only.

 
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