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 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:

http://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/south-asias-africans/

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.

Travelling taboos

One of the nicest side effects of having this blog is that it creates a dialogue with readers, who point out things that are beyond the scope of my expertise and regional interest (and also, capacity, given the sheer number and exuberant diversity of African languages!). When I wrote my first post on taboo words, focusing on a number of West African languages, which I later followed up with this post on euphemisms in Songhay, I got a very helpful comment. My colleague Stefano Manfredi shared an article on taboo words in Kinubi with me. This Arabic-based creole close to Juba Arabic is spoken by the descendants of East African soldiers originating from Southern Sudan and recruited by the British at the end of the 19th century.

Today, most Nubi speakers or Nubis (NOT Nubians) live in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, and their language has many affinities with English, Arabic and Swahili. It is therefore not surprising that Xavier Luffin turns first and foremost to the latter two languages as possible sources for widespread taboos, including some that will be familiar to regular readers of this blog:

Debila, the word for ‘snake’ is only used at daytime, never during the night, when it has to be paraphrased with labil-lata – literally ‘rope on the soil. The word for ‘needle’ – libra – can also not be uttered in the dark. And never ask for mile ‘salt’ at night, demand sukar-mula ‘meal’s sugar’ instead! Luffin explores similar taboos in Chadic Arabic, and in other languages of the area, such as Fadija Nubian, where not only similar interdictions are attested, but where they are also given similar motivations – saying the name of a snake at night is seen as inviting it into the house. He also mentions similar beliefs in Swahili, something for another instalment in this series.

But as the previous posts on West African languages have shown, these taboos are shared across much larger geographical areas, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and across the Sahara. Their distribution and local flavours would make a great topic for an in-depth study!

To read more on taboos in Kinubi, consult this article:

Luffin, Xavier. 2002. Language taboos in Kinubi: a comparison with Sudanese and Swahili cultures. Africa: Rivista trimestrale di studi e documentazione dell’Istituto italiano perl’Africa e l’Oriente, Anno 57, No. 3 (Settembre 2002), pp. 356-367

Table manners in Segou

During my recent stay in Bamako, I had occasion to revive some of my rusty Bambara. Many exchanges happened at lunch time, and now, back in London, I’m rereading a classic article to strengthen my practice. In “De l’alimentation au Mali”, Gérard Dumestre lays out the ceremonial sequence of eating and the Bambara formulaic expressions that go with them. The idealised template presented in the following will be familiar to inhabitants and visitors of many places in West Africa – a shared cultural script that makes the sharing of food with guests, and even strangers, a cornerstone of West African conviviality.

A table setting starts with the arrival of the meal, introduced by dúmuni fílɛ ‘here is the food’ or dúmuni nàna ‘the food has arrived’. The guests sit down, on a mat or around a table, and wash their hands in a container with water that circulates. It falls to the head of family or a senior member of the group to pour the gravy (ná, designating both a liquid ‘sauce’ and its contents in term of meat, fish, and vegetables) over the rice or fonio and to distribute morsels of meat or fish so that every guest finds their portion on their section of the plate.

With the words bìsìmilayi ‘in God’s name’, the meal is opened. Once a person has finished eating, they withdraw from the place of eating, thanking the household with the words ábarika ‘thank you’, the response to which is ábarika ala yé ‘thanks to God’.

Wait, you might think. What about the women behind the curtains who have prepared the food? Whether they will eat together with men or the entire family is a matter of regional and personal conventions. But whatever the case, it is possible to thank the always female cook with the words I ni gwá ‘You and the kitchen!’ To this, the answer will be Kà à súmaya ì kɔ̀nɔ ‘ May it [the food] cool inside you.’

Food is generously shared in many West African cultures, but often, it is not plentiful. What is shared communally , the sùman, ‘staple, everyday food’, is therefore often complemented by nègèlafɛnw ‘snacks’ – literally, ‘things of desire’. Those are eaten mainly out of the house, far from the realm of responsible sharing. The akara or syɔ̀furufuru I wrote about some time ago are a classic nègèlafɛn. And now I have to stop, I’m suddenly feeling very hungry…

Read more on the social aspects of eating in Mali here:

Dumestre, Gérard. 1996. De l’alimentation au Mali. Cahiers d’Études africanies, 144, XXXVI-4, 689-702

Getting planes into Bijogo

After having been mainly engrossed with Mande languages recently it’s time to return to the Upper Guinea Coast for a bit. Today, I’m taking you to the Bijagos archipelago off the coast of Guinea Bissau, where Bijogo languages are spoken. Bijogo languages have noun classes, which in these languages mostly take the form of prefixes. For all languages with gender or noun class systems, the way in which loanwords (a silly name, since the words are there to stay) are integrated offers insight into the various ways in which words are assigned noun classes or genders.

One option is the form of the word. Bijogo has a noun class marker ka-, which forms its plural with ŋa-. If a a borrowed item starts in k(a)-, it is reanalysed as belonging to noun class ka-, and is given a plural form in ŋa-, as you can see in these examples, which all figure words from Portuguese-based Kriol (Segerer 2002: 99):

Kriol origin Singular Bijogo word Plural Bijogo word Gloss
karta karta ŋa-rta ‘letter’
kalsa kadisa ŋa-disa ‘trousers’
kopu kɔp ŋa-ɔp ‘glass’
guuja kuuja ŋa-uuja ‘needle’

Misfits whose initial syllables don’t neatly match an existing noun class prefix, can retain their bare forms in the singular and get the prefix – in the plural, as do these three words (Segerer 2002: 99):

Kriol origin Singular Bijogo word Plural Bijogo word Gloss
lebri dɛbri kɔ-dɛbri ‘hare’
mango mango kɔ-mango ‘mango’
boti boti ko-boti ‘boat’

This is also an option for words that start in a vowel, such as arupudanu ‘plane’, or aju ‘garlic’, – they can also enter the ko-class in the plural and turn into kɔ-aju and ku-rupudanu. Words whose meanings fit those of an existing noun class paradigm, as the ones for humans, they get fully integrated and get a noun class for the singular and the plural (Segerer 2002: 99):

Kriol origin Singular Bijogo word Plural Bijogo word Gloss
soldadi ɔ-soɔndane ya-soɔndane ‘soldier’
fransis ɔ-paransis ya-ɔparansis ‘French person’
fula ɔ-puda ya-puda ‘Fula person’

Sometimes, these words unwittingly give their age away. Because arupudanu (from Portuguese aeroplano)is not used anymore in present-day Kriol but has been replaced by avion (from Portuguese avião), we can conclude that the word was most likely introduced into Bijogo in the first half of the 20th century according to Segerer (2002), from whose grammar of Bubaque Bijogo this information is taken.

Here comes the full reference:

Segerer, Guillaume. 2002. La langue bijogo de Bubaques (Guinea Bissau). Louvain/Paris: Peeters

There might be West African languages in your beauty regime

Indulge in body butter? Look after your lips with a velvety lip balm? The chances are that your cosmetics contain an ingredient whose name betrays the origin of one of the oils used in them: shea butter or beurre de karité.

They are made from oil of nuts of the same plant, Vitellaria paradoxa. In English, it is called the shea trea, but guess where this designation hails from? I was reminded of its origins when watching Na baro kè’s brilliant video chat on the cold season, in which inhabitants of the city of Bobo Dioulasso in Burkina Faso mentioned that they use body lotion, si tulu (literally shea oil, often pronounced with a sh sound, phonetic [ʃ]) in the Bambara language.

So how did shea oil or butter, si tulu, into beurre de karité? Whichever French-speaking person introduced this word to the French language took inspiration from Wolof, a language spoken in Senegal. In Wolof, the shea trea is called kaarite.

So whenever you use shea butter or beurre de karité, you’re connecting with a West African language linking the word to the area where the product is grown and harvested.