Africa in Europe: overcoming and creating borders

I have a good excuse for having stayed away from the blog for some time: I was busy getting ready for the 8th European Conference on African Studies which took place at the University of Edinburgh last week. This was my first ECAS, and with 1,500 participants and hundreds of panels, it was almost overwhelming. My impression of this mega-conference remains very partial, since even with the greatest stamina it was only humanly possible to sample a very limited selection of what was on offer. My interests were divided between sessions on decolonisation, increasing exchange with Africa-based researchers, and of course panels dedicated to language, on which I will focus in this post.

Diversifying outlooks and epistemologies requires equal access of researchers to resources, discourses and debates. The obstacles are manifold, but one is keenly felt in the UK at every international scholarly gathering: the difficulties for African researchers to obtain visa. For the panel that I co-organised with my colleague Fiona Mc Laughlin, this meant that one of the African participants could not deliver his talk in person, since his visa had been refused. This is not an isolated case: visa refusals have dramatically increased since the introduction of the hostile environment to immigration. The anger at this persistent injustice has prompted leading researchers to write an open letter about which you can read here.

It is impossible to think African languages without thinking multilingualism, and all panels I attended shed light on its various aspects. Fiona Mc Laughlin’s and my panel “Language and the political imagination – connections and disruptions” featured three talks (panelists from Zimbabwe had to withdraw their participation), each of which laid bare how multilingualism is negotiated even at the smallest local scale, and how diverse the motivations are for associating a language with a place.

In my own talk “Putting the history back into the speech community: firstcomer-newcomer dualisms and language territorialisation” (the title being a nod to Paul Nugent’s paper “Putting the history back into ethnicity: enslavement, religion and cultural brokerage in the construction of Mandinka/Jola and Ewe/Agotime identities in West Africa, c.1650-1930′”) investigated how the languages of firscomers who settle strangers and control the land rights in linguistically heterogenous places can over time become re-imagined as the ethnic languages of entire spaces. The second talk, set in the Western Cameroonian grassfields, by Pierpaolo di Carlo and Ivoline Bidji Kefen showed the process of language territorialisation in the making through illustrating how a language, however minimally distinct from its neighbours, becomes a tool for the constitution of a political unit.

Pierpaolo di Carlo on the intrinsic relation between language and polity in Munken

Fiona Mc Laughlin’s presentation on emerging multilingual language practices in Dakar’s Chinese market forcefully illustrated the great willingness of stallholders and customers to forge practices acknowledging their interlocutors’ linguistic profiles by creating a pidgin that reflects their interactions, not for mere communicative needs, as she argues, but as playful and creative practice in a shared sociolinguistic space.

Not born out of necessity: Centenaire Pidgin in Dakar, Fiona Mc Laughlin’s talk

In a different panel, Paul Kerswill’s and Edward Salifu Mahama’s talk on the great differences in multilingual organisation in two rural settings in Northern Ghana resonated with these talks in highlighting the need for detailed ethnographic and historically embedded studies in order to apprehend the significant differences in patterns of multilingualism in two geographically very close yet distinct settings.

Kerswill & Mahama: using only the languages associated with a polity excludes many of its inhabitants
Kerswill & Mahama: lessons to be learned from multilingual settings for development communication and language policies

On Friday, a panel on the disruptions concerning the use of indigenous languages oscillated between observations of versatility and trauma. Elise Solange Bagamboula’s paper “Modernisation et l’émergence de nouvelles pratiques langagières en Afrique sub-saharienne: vers une analyse glottopolitique du cas de la Rébublique du Congo” was dedicated to the adaptability of both ethnic and linguistic configurations to new circumstances, including the growing presence of Chinese investors. But Mathias Bwanika-Mulumba and Taiwo Oloruntoba-Oju deplored the continuing disinvestment in indigenous languages, the fact that their teaching remains tokenistic and their prestige non-existent in the face of English. A testimony of the continuing pain and exclusion induced by colonial language legacies and also, as Bert van Pixteren reminded the audience in his talk, an enormous waste of talent.

Yet, colonial languages can also be creatively appropriated, and the afternoon offered a delightful taste of that. The film Frontières, by Burkinabé director Apolline Traoré, vividly portrayed how colonial borders persistently endure in her road movie. It features four women on a perilous coach trip from Dakar to Lagos, suffering the harassment and dangers ever-present at West Africa’s postcolonial borders despite the promises of free movement of the ECOWAS space. Of great interest to linguists, the film also illustrates linguistic borders, testifying of the colonial partition of Africa. But it also shows how these borders are overcome in the languaging practices of its protagonists. This theme, the erasure of boundaries through creativity, ends my ECAS experience: the truly transcendental Scottish-African Ha Orchestra closes the conference with a concert interweaving various musical traditions and musical and spoken languages, juxtaposing flute, mbira, kora, djembe and sintir. Although the spectres of physical and linguistic colonial borders continue to haunt Africa and Europe, artistic and linguistic resilience is there to build bridges, and I travel home with some hope and many new connections.

The language of cultural memory

Last week, I had the chance to visit an exhibition on David Adjaye, the British-Ghanaian architect whose work resonates with themes of identity, memory and belonging. Many of his buildings, such as the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC pay homage to the visual language of African arts, crafts and religious artefacts. The three-layered structure of the NMAAHC building, for instance, plays with the three-tiered crowns common in Yoruba art as you can see below.

Yoruba mask with three-tiered crown in front of a video clip showing the NMAAH

The patterned façade is inspired by ironwork typical for Louisiana and South Carolina. These two elements, from points of origin and places where enslaved Africans created a new craft form, is a beautiful metaphor for the interconnectedness of the Black Atlantic.

Patterns for the façade of the NMAAH inspired by ironwork

Currently, Adjaye is working on another ambitious identity-building project: the National cathedral of Ghana in Accra. This project aims at no less than at creating national unity through iconically citing symbols of precolonial power and cultural expression in its architecture, claiming Christianity, now the religion of ca. 70% of Ghanaians, as part of the religious landscape of Ghana. Of great significance are the shapes of the roof, which are visual nods to wooden stools used by West African chiefs, as well as to floating pieces of textiles. Fabrics hold manifold social meanings in West African societies, some of which I have mentioned in a previous post. In a Ghanaian context, particular symbolic importance is held by cloths decorated with Adinkra symbols.

Adinkra symbols are a visual language associated with the Asante, expressing complex messages through aphorisms and proverbs. These meanings are expressed through stamps, often made from calabashes, into which the graphic symbols are carved, and which are then used to decorate fabrics. The symbol below is the stylised symbol of a bird looking back onto itself and instantiates wisdom – the capacity to learn from the past.

Sankofa Adinkra symbol: always look back!

Of course it would be impossible to mention Adinkra symbols in the wider context of weaving cultural symbolism into architecture and art without mentioning the artist Kwesi Owusu-Ankomah, whose body of work is a contemporary recontextualisation of Adinkra symbols. Africa’s artistic expressions are as vibrant and transnational as its linguistic ones, creating new meanings for and with old forms and remixing them into powerful tools of memory and identity: look closely!

Microcron – Kusum No. 8 by Owusu-Ankomah

The exhibition “David Adjaye: making memory” is at the London Design Museum until August 4 2019.

Kwesi Owusu-Ankomah is represented by the October Gallery in London and also has his own web page.

The ngomas of India

Surely I’m not the only thinking first and foremost of the Americas and the Caribbean as the regions hosting African diasporas. The transatlantic slave trade that saw so many Africans subjected to the middle passage and violently resettled in the New World has spurred much research and is prominent in the public awareness of slavery and forced migration from the African continent. In previous posts, I have written about Atlantic diaspora communities from the Upper Guinea coast in Peru and North Eastern Brazil, and about the spirit of Mama Jombo lingering in Louisiana.

But on the continent’s Eastern shores, the Indian ocean connects it with South Asia, which, just like the Mediterranean and the Atlantic ocean, has facilitated bidirectional traffic for much of the last millennium. I will not go into the details of the many trade networks through history in this post. Instead, I focus on India, where a diaspora of Afro-Indians assumes a distinct identity today, although of course, as with all diasporic groups, their heritage is a dynamic reconfiguration of multiple influences rather than the retention of traits of a supposed culture of origin.

Sidis or Siddis, as Afro-Indians are called today, live in several Indian states, with their largest concentration in Karnakata, Gujarat and in Hyderabad. Sidis speak Indian languages, but in some of their musical practices, vestiges of Swahili and other East African languages remain. The drums in a Sidi Sufi musical perfomance in Gujarat bear witness of their origin: they are called goma or ngoma. In Swahili and related Bantu languages, this word denotes a type of drum, and in parts of East Africa, the word ngoma also designates a social event involving dance. The word Ngoma in a Sufi ceremony in present-day India beautifully illustrates how the merging and adaptation of cultural practices neither statically preserves nor completely obliterates their origins but blends and remixes multiple roots into something ultimately new.

You can see a video of a Ngoma performance at a Sufi festival in Gujarat here.

More on the history of Afro-Asians in and beyond India, plus a wealth of references can be found on this piece by Shihan de Silva:

If your in-law’s name smells of grass

Taboos are a popular topic among readers of this blog, for understandable reasons. They give insight into people’s beliefs, as in the case of night-time taboos that can be found all over Africa, including Mali and South Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. Or they illustrate the rules that guide social interaction, as is often the case in naming conventions. In any case, how speakers replace words that can’t be uttered in certain situations testifies of their linguistic creativity. Additionally, and that’s an important bonus for linguists, avoidance strategies also offer access to how speakers perceive similarity between words.

Today, I turn to a language that has a fairly developed system of avoidance words, often called an avoidance register by linguists. The language in question is the Tanzanian Nilotic language Datooga. Datooga-speaking women face a special task once they are married: they are not allowed to pronounce the names of most of their male in-laws. Not a big deal, you may think, but the taboo goes further: not only are the names themselves not permissible, but also any word that resembles them. So, if your father-in-law’s name is Gídámúlda (gídá meaning ‘male’), you must avoid all words beginning with mul – in consequence, words such as múlòoda ‘log’ or múlmúlánèeeda ‘thin metal bracelet’ are off limits.

No female speaker of Datooga masters the entire avoidance register. This is because extended families live together in compounds, and co-wives of a husband and sisters-in-law share the same male relatives. Consequently, they only need to avoid those words that resemble their limited set of names. This is a probably a blessing, since Datooga names are freely descriptive: people can be named after landmarks such as lakes, rivers, fires, after noteworthy events, or after characteristics of their birth year, etc. So imagine your in-law’s name ‘smells’ – this is how similar-sounding words are described in the language – of grass, nyéega. You can avoid this taboo word by referring to a particular type of grass, ng’àróojiga. Many taboo replacements work this way, by substituting a word with a semantically related one. The versatility entailed by constantly having to think up lexical alternatives (for married women) and interpret them correctly (everybody else) must make Datooga speakers extremely good at crosswords!

Remarkably, there is one context in which Datooga women are allowed to pronounce the name of their husbands’ ancestors: when they are in labour. Apparently, enraging their spirits will wake them up and so incite them to help in childbirth.

Read more on Datooga women’s dynamic avoidance practices here:

Mitchell, Alice (2016): Words That Smell like Father-in-Law. A Linguistic Description of the Datooga Avoidance Register. In Anthropological Linguistics 57 (2), pp. 195–217. DOI: 10.1353/anl.2016.0004.

The contact of the lambs: From Latin pascha to Wolof tabaski

Happy Easter, dear readers! Whether you observe this Christian holiday or not, you may be interested in the regional entanglements and semantic changes of the Latin word pascha ‘Easter” as it travelled through the Mediterranean and beyond. With <ch> pronounced as [k] in Latin, the word bears resemblance to many words designating a major religious celebration, often particularly meaning ɛīd al-kabīr in a number of Berber languages. These languages, spread across the Maghrib and a number of sub-Saharan African countries, have forms such as tafaska (Central Moroccan Berber), tfaska (Ouargla and Djerba) or tăfaske (Tuareg).

In his book on Berber in contact, Maarten Kossmann suggests that the semantic bridge allowing the Judeo-Christian word for Easter to become used for the Islamic celebration of ɛīd al-kabīr is the central role of slaughtering sheep in both ceremonies.

Sheep on Goree

A sheep wandering in the streets of Gorée. Will it be eaten at Easter or Tabaski?

Via Berber languages, the word may have arrived in West African languages spoken further south and exposed to Islam and Christianity much later than their northern neighbours. And this may explain why ɛīd al-kabīr is known as tabaski in Wolof and many other languages of the region – an uncanny linking of two major religious holidays that at first sight do not appear to have much in common through historical connections reaching far into these languages’ past.


Read more on the contact history of Berber in this chapter:

Kossmann, Maarten (2013): Berber in Contact. The Pre-Islamic and Early Islamic Periods. In Maarten Kossmann (Ed.): The Arabic Influence on Northern Berber: Brill, pp. 51–85.


Writing from the UK, where questions of exiting loom large, I can’t help being affected by the uncertainties of this country about its trajectory. For many, it’s clear what they want to move away from, but where they’re going seems completely in the dark. It’s not the English language that is at fault here, as English allows verbs of leaving to occur with source-denoting prepositions (exit from Brexit), path-denoting ones (exit through the gift shop), but also with prepositional phrases indicating a goal of motion (exit to nowhere).

In the Mande language Jalonke of Guinea, such generous conflation of meanings does not happen. Verbs of directed movement such as ‘enter’ and ‘exit’ are limited to the expression of only one particular direction. For ‘enter’, soo, this is motion towards the goal; and for ‘exit’, keli, it is movement away from a source. This is because in Jalonke, unlike in English, adpositions only express a particular location in space, and not the direction of movement. To express that component of meaning is left to the verb itself.

Have a look at these two sentences. Both feature the postpostion kwi ‘in’, but once with soo ‘enter’ to yield ‘enter into’, and once with keli ‘exit’ to give rise to ‘leave from within’:

Lüpke (2005: 115)

Still not convinced? Have a look at these two sentences. The first one doesn’t have a verb at all, only an object that is located (a jar) and its location. In this case, a static location is expressed. The second one has the compound verb sabaana soo ‘play’ (not to be confounded with soo by itself – its literal meaning is ‘enter the play’). There’s no movement in the verb, so again, location, rather than movement, is expressed.

Lüpke (2005: 115)

But in Jalonke, it is very uncommon to just specify where one leaves from – it is much more widespread to find sequences such as ‘we left there, and then we went here’, nxo keli na, nxo faa ji. Good linguistic forward planning, isn’t it?

Read more on Jalonke here:

Lüpke, Friederike.2005. A grammar of Jalonke argument structure. Nijmegen: MPI Series in Psycholinguistics 30

A dirge for Nketia

On March 13, the great Ghanaian ethnomusicologist Joseph Hanson Kwabena Nketia died at the age of 97. His hugely influential body of work contains books and papers on an area very important for many African cultures, located at the meeting point of music and language: drumming.

He worked extensively on drumming in several societies of Ghana and adjoining countries, first and foremost on drumming among the Akan. A fascinating area for everybody interested in language is his research on talking drums. They are proverbial for many African settings, but do you know how the drums actually speak?

Nketia distinguishes between different modes of drumming, depending on the intentions of the drummers to send short, conventionalised signals, imitate speech, or provide a rhythm for dancing. The first and third modes appear straightforward: dancers learn a code and tap it, and listeners can interpret it as a warning, call to a meeting, etc. Or they simply follow the beat in danced movements.

For the speech mode of drumming, the signal needs to be memorised by the drummers, translated into drum beats and pulses, and retranslated into speech by the listeners in order to be understood. Poems, oral history, proverbs could all be drummed, and understood by the audience based on rhythm and pitch of the drums. This art was already becoming rarer at the time when Nketia documented this skilful practice and is rapidly vanishing, since it requires years of instruction. Here is an extract from a text on oral history that could be drummed:

A text drummed in speech mode from Ashanti (Nketia 1963)

Because he was aware of the rapidly changing role and function of education in West African societies, Nketia wrote much on the importance of musical education to continue and modernise these traditions. A contribution that remains very topical, since formal education does still not give space to the learning of West African performing arts. Read more in his seminal work:

Nketia, Joseph Hanson Kwabena. 1963. Drumming in Akan societies of Ghana. Edinburgh: T. Nelson for the University of Ghana