Culture History Opinion

The Great Hippo says “au revoir”

Many ways exist to subjugate and exert power on an independent and sovereign people: land theft, military occupation, economic control, and language imposition.

Mali keeps its foot on French colonialism’s neck by continuing a long tradition of anti- and decolonial resistance. The country defied French occupation by momentarily succeeding at leaving Franc CFA and introducing the Malian Franc used between 1962 and 1984. Mali has recently kicked out French military forces and following a referendum that took place on 18 June 2023, it changed its constitution: downgrading the French tongue from official to work language, and elevating 13 Malian languages to officialdom.

Colonized countries have inherited their official language from their colonial masters. It has been used to conduct business, legislate, and in education. Local realities, however, don’t always match what’s on paper. That is the case for Mali. Although French is very much present in writing and used in schools and in the news, the de-facto official languages of the Malian people have always been our Afrikan tongues.

Close to 100 idioms are spoken in Mali, and 13 languages have now been made de jure official languages. Bamanankan, the most spoken idiom, is accompanied by several others including but not limited to Bobo, Bozo, Dogon, Fula, Hassaniya, Kassonke, Maninke, Minyanka, Senufo, Songhay, Soninke, Tamasheq.

Should you one day be blessed with visiting the country named after the great and fierce hippopotamus, you will mostly hear people starting their interactions in Malian languages. If, however, they can’t find a common Malian or West Afrikan idiom, they will use French as a last resort. But don’t rely on that too much for a significant number of people don’t understand or can’t have an entire conversation in that oui oui talk.

When the Malian people rose up and chose that our tongues should be the national ones, we witnessed the formalizing of something that had been real for a long time. French was only ever used as a bureaucratic instrument. The human connections have always been built in our mother tongues. Afrikans are renowned for being multilingual. A Bamana person may know a bit of Fulbe (Fula). A Fulani person may be proficient in the Dogon language. And a Songhai in Tamasheq.

I firmly believe that the Whitestream media is barely covering this decolonial victory to prevent inspiring other Afrikan countries to do the same. French is only globally relevant because of Afrika. I don’t see any other reason for the existence of the Francophone Games (whose 9th edition is taking place in Kinshasa, Congo from 28 July to 6 August 2023) than trying to keep it significant and alive. As brilliantly explained in L’Empire qui ne veut pas mourir language is used as a soft power tool to conquer minds and hearts. It’s not the mere replacement of languages that we are witnessing. It’s an official freeing of the souls and a hot slap in the face of French colonialism.

There might be legitimate concern about how this can be implemented. Let me remind you that if laws may be used in a prescriptive way, they also often reflect the country’s situation. This means that the law follows what the people do. This was already happening and now we put it onto paper. But of course, any other Afrikan country that wants to follow suit should apply such change by respecting, adapting to, and mirroring their own individual local realities.

In A Bilingual Revolution for Africa co-written by yours truly, the authors explain the potential of a bi and multilingual educational system in Afrika. In my essay which constitutes the fourth chapter, I give some ideas on promoting our beautiful tongues. In “Mother, teach me” I imagine a new school system that caters to students by grouping them together using language as additional criterion. This is possible and we will make it happen.

“We hereby tell you to never fix your mouth to call us a francophone country ever again. We don’t claim nor want that tongue. Name our languages”

Those who have known me for a while know how much I love languages and how often I have said that we will one day get rid of this murderous tongue. To see my country move closer to that goal fills my heart with immense pride and joy. I am my country’s child and wouldn’t expect anything less from Maliba.

We hereby tell you to never fix your mouth to call us a francophone country ever again. We don’t claim nor want that tongue. Name our languages. And I mean this. My father told me a lot of Malians despise French and my cousin said we will work even to forget that language. That’s how serious we are.

All of us Malians move in a rebellious way, so be like a hippo.

N’ko, Maliba don dɔ bɛ se – I say, the Great Hippo will one day be victorious (Bamanankan).

P.S. To our Malian siblings, do bless us with your mother tongues and let us know how you say “N’ko, Maliba don dɔ bɛ se” and “M’be Mali fɛ(I love Mali as shown in the featured image) in other Malian languages.


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