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Is Cameroon's language policy integrating the nation, as it was intended to do? Or is the approach to language threatening to tear the country apart?

The language question in Cameroon has become the elephant in the room - a problem that no one wants to talk about. Of all the burning issues that continue to plague Cameroon, the language question is the thorniest. This problem has snowballed into what is now being touted as the identity crisis in Cameroon. More than 50 years after gaining symbolic independence from imperial powers (France and Great Britain) Cameroonians still do not have a language policy that protects indigenous languages. There is no language policy put in place, to the best of my knowledge, to forestall the marginalization of linguistic minorities.

Arguing along similar lines, Ayafor posits: ‘There has been unrelenting efforts and frustration at the fact that language policy has not contributed to national integration through linguistic fusion’ (140). Unlike most other African countries which give pride of place to indigenous languages, French and English, languages of predatory imperialists, remain official languages in Cameroon in stark contradiction of the national constitution which stipulates: ‘The State shall guarantee the promotion of bilingualism throughout the country. It shall endeavor to protect and promote national languages (Article 1.3: 5)’.

The question that begs to be asked at this juncture is why Cameroon, where over 200 native tongues co-exist, does not have an official indigenous language policy. What explains the fact that Cameroonians are still dressed in borrowed robes five decades after gaining token independence from their colonial lords? How can Cameroonian leaders reasonably pontificate on the need to nurture a national identity without putting in place an indigenous language policy to foster indigenization and cultural symbiosis? These questions need to be addressed with the urgency they deserve. Cameroonian policy-makers seem to be oblivious of the fact that languages convey the cultural identity, worldview and imagination of the people that speak them. In short, language constitutes the memory-bank of a people; it is an embodiment of both continuity and change in the historical consciousness of the community of speakers of the language. In other words, Cameroonian native languages carry with them the habits, mannerisms, and identity of native speakers. What prevails in Cameroon today is tantamount to ‘linguicide’, a term I have used to describe the linguistic genocide that is prevalent in the republic of Cameroon. Our leaders need to put an end to servile linguistic assimilation nationwide.

Bjornson describes assimilation as: ‘The adoption of European tastes, languages, customs, and colonial government policies by Africans’ (19). He further notes that language is the soul of a people; it transports visible and invisible culture. If you destroy a man’s language, you destroy his cultural roots. Interestingly, Cameroonians tend to give pride of place to alien cultures to the detriment of their own indigenous cultures. Cultural imperialism manifests itself in different ways in Cameroon. The choice of what Cameroonians consume is an indicator of the degree to which they have been assimilated into alien cultures. There is a crop of people in Cameroon, notably political leaders, who will not go shopping in Cameroon. Every month, they fly to France or other Western nations to buy groceries, including bottled water. This attitude of alienating oneself from things made at home has sounded the death knell of domestic industries in Cameroon. Albert Gerard has a point when he maintains: ‘…Les gouvernements issus de l’empire français ne prennent guère de mesures efficaces pour encourager l’activité écrite dans les langues du peuple. Ils ont pour cela des motifs politiques valables’ (265) [Governments that were formed in the wake of political independence from France do not take effective measures to foster the codification of indigenous languages. They have valid political reasons for not doing so.">

Linguistic genocide is observable in all walks of life in Cameroon. In the judicial branch of government, the interpretation of the letter and spirit of the law is left to the whims and caprices of French-speaking judges who are ignorant of how the Anglo-Saxon legal system operates. This has resulted in several instances of miscarriage of justice. For example, miscarriage of justice was evident during the infamous Yondo Black trial way back in the 1990s when an Anglophone witness was deprived of his right to testify on the grounds that the presiding judge could not understand the English language. One wonders what has become of the pool of trained translators and interpreters at the Presidency of the Republic and Ministries in Yaoundé who waste valuable time translating trivialities such as inscriptions on ballot papers for elections that have been rigged beforehand.

The Cameroon Radio and Television (CRTV) is another venue where language abuse is a sore point. This government-owned news network has been so ‘french-fried’ [i"> that 95 per cent of the programs broadcast are solely in French, to the detriment of English-speaking Cameroonians who have the constitutional right to be informed as well. News items obtained from English-speaking countries overseas are rapidly translated into French to serve the needs of the Francophone majority at the expense of the Anglophone minority. During electoral campaigns, little or no time is allotted to Anglophone opposition leaders desirous of addressing the nation in a bid to sell their political platforms. The language of instruction and daily routine in the armed forces, police and gendarmerie is French. Anglophones recruited into these forces have to learn French 'overnight' or perish.

The foregoing is only a tip of the iceberg of the logjam that has earned the sobriquet the ‘Cameroonian Crisis’. There is no turning a blind eye to it. It will fester and become an incurable wound. Worse still, it will haunt not just the present generation of Cameroonians but also those yet to be born. It may even affect Africa as a whole because Cameroon is, indeed, Africa in miniature, a microcosm of the continent. Besides, the phenomenon of globalization is tearing down the invisible walls that nations have hitherto erected around themselves. Cameroonians have to face this linguistic challenge squarely. We do not need another Bosnian or Rwandan genocide in order to acknowledge the fact that we cannot ignore a festering wound for too long.

Downplaying the importance of indigenous languages amounts to self-hatred - a harbinger to identity crisis. Confiant et al perceive identity crisis as an anomaly. They point out that the tragedy of the ex-colonized is the servile manner in which he tries to ‘portray himself in the color of elsewhere’ (80). In other words, the formerly colonized suffers from self-hatred and self-delusion. Franz Fanon describes Africans who behave in this manner as people with ‘black skin’ wearing ‘white masks’ (15). To put an end to this cultural erosion, it is incumbent on Cameroonians to defuse what Ngugi wa Thiong’o calls the ‘cultural time bomb’ (3). He maintains that the sharpest weapon wielded and actually daily unleashed by imperialism against that collective defiance is the cultural bomb. The effect of a cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves.

Cameroonians need to cultivate plurilingual proficiency. Language experts are unanimous on the fact that multilingualism is indispensable in today’s global village. In fact, monolingualism, they argue, is fast becoming an anachronism. To put this differently, ability to communicate in several languages is an asset; not a liability. Multilingualism is an added advantage to the multilingual individual and to the nation as a whole given that what is acquired in one language is transferable to the other language. Studies have shown that multilingual individuals exhibit a higher level of cognitive ability than their monolingual counterparts. Surprisingly, Cameroon’s so-called bilingual education policy has proven to be a nonstarter on account of ill-will, ethnocentrism and bigotry. Worse still, the language policy in Cameroon has been transformed into a political game of chess where ignorant players chip in with the sole intent of scoring political points. I want to reiterate the fact that the latent linguistic warfare that we are waging in Cameroon is not restricted to vernacular languages. English and French are at daggers drawn as well.

The second fiddle status that has been assigned to English-speaking Cameroonians by francophone members of government has made the implementation of the nation’s bilingual education policy a stillborn. There seems to be a deliberate attempt on the part of government officials to asphyxiate the Anglo-Saxon culture and language in Cameroon. This probably explains why in English-speaking towns and cities such as Buea, Tiko, Kumba, Bamenda, Bali, Nso, Ndop, and Nkambe to name but a few, there are billboards and toll-gates with inscriptions written in French. Tiko is an irksome example. As you approach this town, you are greeted by a billboard that reads: ‘Halte Péage!’ What is this sentence intended to communicate to Anglophones who commute on this road day in day out? How do the powers-that-be in Yaoundé expect the average Joe who has never been given the opportunity to learn French to understand what this inscription connotes? Tiko is not an isolated case.

There are myriads of such monolingual billboards all over the country. Similar linguistic hotchpotch litters Cameroonian airports. The Nsimalen Airport in Yaoundé is an example. At this airport commuters are exposed to stomach-churning gibberish such as: ‘To gather dirtiness is good.’ This is a word-for-word translation of the Français petit nègre [ii">: ‘ramasser la saleté c’est bien’. The French in this sentence leaves much to be desired. But it is even more annoying to realize that there is no English language translation of the notices posted on the billboards. The originators of this unintelligible stuff know full well that in bilingual countries the world over, all official communication: billboards, memos, letterheads, road-signs, application forms, court forms, police documents, health forms, driver’s licenses, hospital discharge forms, and a host of others, are all written in the official languages of the country in question. Failure to do so is tantamount to a violation of the constitution, an illegal act punishable by law in countries that respect the rule of law. At the Nsimalen, one finds on billboards inanities such as: ‘Not to make dirty is better’. This linguistic trash is meant to be a translation for: ‘Ne pas salir c’est bien’. If the situation were not so serious one would be cracking up but the question of language policy in Cameroon brooks no laughter. I wonder what diplomats accredited to Yaoundé think of Cameroonians when they read this entire linguistic potpourri.

In my opinion, public officials, namely mayors, governors, senior divisional officers, sub-divisional officers, police officers and gendarmes ought to maintain zero tolerance in upholding Cameroon’s bilingual policy. Yet all they do is take bribes, drink beer and sleep around with free women. Breaches of official language policies ought to be punished severely. There are lots of translators at the Presidency of the Republic and Ministries downtown in Yaoundé spending valuable time on trifles. These technocrats were educated at the expense of the Cameroonian taxpayer and should be made to serve the nation by translating official documents aimed at public consumption. Cameroonian administrators should avail themselves of the services of these civil servants. Let myopia, inanity, and blind allegiance to selfhood not deter them from giving credit where credit is due.

Personally, I couldn’t care less how much cosmetic surgery is performed on the language of Voltaire. What I do care about, though, is where my mother tongue, Bamunka, fits into the linguistic picture in Cameroon. I believe it is the call of every Cameroonian to use all means necessary to prevent the demise of their own indigenous languages. The importance of native tongues has been stressed by scholars in the field. It is important to ponder the views expressed by President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana on the importance of having an implementable indigenous language policy. In a speech titled ‘Ghana is born’, this African visionary perceived the use of European languages in Africa as one of the problems compromising the freedom, equality and independence of African countries. He suggested the following blueprint for correcting the anomaly:

‘It is essential that we do consider seriously the problem of language in Africa…Far more students in our universities are studying Latin and Greek than studying the languages of Africa. An essential of independence is that emphasis must be laid on studying the living languages of Africa for, out of such a study will come simpler methods by which those in one part of Africa may learn the languages in all other parts (Quoted in Kwame Botwe-Asamoah, 2001:747)’.

In the aforementioned discourse, Nkrumah did not only warn against the dangers inherent in the neglect of one’s mother tongue, but he also underscored the importance of linguistic competency in the struggle toward the psychological liberation of Africans. Nkrumah believed that Africans should steer clear of embracing political independence with linguistic servitude, to echo another Ghanaian Africanist, Samuel Gyasi Obeng (2002). Echoing him, Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, points out: ‘Every language has a dual makeup; it is both a mode of communication and a bearer of culture’ (13). Asante might have injected a dose of iconoclastic humor in his reaction to the language question in Africa but his point is worth taking when he opines that ‘If your God cannot speak your language, then he is not your God’ (4). These postulations are pointers to the fact that linguistic dependency plays a deleterious role in the underdevelopment of Africa.

Many years ago, I read some offensive material that brought tears to my eyes and made me rethink the place of the English language in the Republic of Cameroon. The offensive document that I read was the C.A.P examination. The following is an excerpt culled from Francis Nyamnjoh’s book, ‘The Cameroon G.C.E Crisis: A Test of Anglophone Solidarity’(1996): ‘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’ (114). So much for Cameroonian bilingualism. Frankly, any one in his right frame of mind reading this excerpt should be wondering what the hell is going on in Cameroon. Is this English, Franglish, Pidgin, or Camfranglais? How could Anglophone students possibly perform well on a test whose phraseology has been tinkered out of shape? This unintelligible material is supposed to be an examination that determines the fate of hundreds of Anglophone students who spend four years studying at technical colleges nationwide. Little wonder they fail in drones.

Cognizant of the long term ramifications of linguistic apartheid in Cameroon, Anglophone parents and teachers took to the streets in the 1990s and asked for the creation of an independent board to manage the affairs of Anglophone students. That initiative gave birth to the Cameroon GCE Board as we all know it today. Nyamnjoh notes that when irate Anglophone teachers confronted the erstwhile Minister of National Education, Mr. Robert Mbella Mbappe, over the issue of an independent examination board for Anglophones, he made the following remark: ‘You can do whatever you like with your so-called GCE board, none of my children studies in Cameroon’ (114). In a decent country, this senile man would have been asked to resign without further ado. The rape of the English language in Cameroon speaks volumes about the disdain francophone decision-makers have for English-speaking Cameroonians.

In the final analysis, Cameroonians without exception need to muster the courage to ask the hard questions: is our national language policy serving the purpose for which it was designed? Is this policy mere window-dressing or an implementable paradigm for attaining linguistic autonomy? Cameroonian policy-makers need to stop dancing attendance and cuddling moribund policies that tear us apart rather than unite us. Cameroon’s national language policy was intended to serve as an integrative instrument. Interestingly, for decades facts on the ground tell a different story. Cameroonian politicians have hijacked the bilingual language policy and converted it into an instrumental tool for achieving self-gratification.


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* Professor Vakunta works at the United States Department of Defense Language Institute in Monterey-California. This article is an excerpt from his upcoming book 'Nation at Risk: A Personal Narrative of the Cameroonian Crisis'.
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