A Language Lesson in the Nuba Mountains
By Omer M Shurkian*
July 10, 2006 — It may be argued that a language is a natural instinct whereby human beings could express their desires, demand their basic rights, learn new skills and acquire lifelong experiences. Nonetheless, the Australian colonists succeeded in the destruction of more than 150 Aboriginal languages in 25 years, leaving more than a hundred languages on the edge of disappearance in Australia. In South America, the Spanish conquistadors and the Portuguese colonisers crushed tens of native Indian languages to their oblivion, as the early immigrants to North America were also successful in obliterating around three hundred native Indian languages. Among the hundred languages that were previously spoken in what is now called California, only half of them survived the assimilation process, and most of them are mainly spoken by the elders of the communities of these different tribes. Undoubtedly, globalisation has played a central role in perishing the vernacular languages of indigenous peoples around the world. The English language, on the other hand, has become a predominant means of communications, as it is almost impossible for the educated elites to dispose of regardless of their culture, place of origin or creed. This is partly due to the fact that the diverse world businessmen communicate in English, and - in addition - the English language is the language of technological revolution that has helped in its own creative way and via means of telephones, televisions and planes, to mention but a few, to travel and spread far and wide like other languages of dominant cultures and economies. Despite its dominance in the world as well as back home, the English language has not been able to make headway in eradicating the Welsh language in Wales, the Gaelic language in Scotland nor the Irish language in Northern Island.
Although there are a number of languages in France, the French language is the only official language of the country. However, several historical and regional languages are still spoken to some extent. Some of them are sometimes called patois, but this term - roughly meaning dialect - tends to be considered derogatory, just like the attitudes experienced by the speakers of indigenous languages in the Sudan. In Brittany region in western France, the local population speak their own language that is called Breton, and they get irritated by the domination of the French and their language. In the last century, the Breton-speaking citizens reached 268,000 out of a population of a million people. Several other languages are spoken by a substantial percentage of the population due to immigration. In April 2001, the French Minister of Education, Jack Lang, admitted formally that for more than two centuries, the political powers of the French Government had repressed regional languages, and announced that bilingual education would, for the first time, be recognised, and bilingual teachers recruited in French public schools. The 1999 Report, written for the French Government by Bernard Cerquiglini, identified 75 languages that would qualify for recognition under the Government’s proposed ratification of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Although ratification was blocked by the Constitutional Council as contradicting the Fifth Republic’s constitutional provision enshrining French as the language of the Republic, the Government continues to recognise regional and minority languages to a limited extent (without supporting them, protecting them or granting them official status) and the General Delegation on the French language has acquired the additional function of observing and studying the other languages of France, and has had ‘and to the languages of France’ added to its title.
While the marginalised languages are inevitably vulnerable and likely to perish, languages - unlike human beings - can be resurrected. This can be exemplified by the revival of the Hebrew language in the state of Israel, which is now the official language of that country. When the last Miami Indian to speak his mother-tongue language of Miami Indians in the USA died in the 1960s, Darrel Baldwin, then 41 years old, resuscitated the language and injected a new life into it. Mr Baldwin was studying at Montana University, while preoccupying himself with a research on the language of his ancestors. He studied the texts written by the Christian missionaries and other scholars that went back to the seventeenth century. With the guidance of a linguist at Berkley University, Baldwin taught himself the Miami Indian language vocabulary, grammar and the origins of phrases after which he introduced the language into his own house as a family learning tool. In his strenuous efforts to revive the language, the self-educated Baldwin then involved others from the Miami Indians community who formed part of a tribe with the population of 7000 people. The community members produced a CD ROM to teach the language to the children. They also produced stories and dictionaries for pupils.
In 1922, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk abolished al-Khilafa (Caliphate) and declared Turkey as a republic under his presidency, and in 1923 political reforms were introduced, including the rewriting of the Turkish language with the Latin alphabets. Probably taking modern Turkey as a model, the Condominium authorities in the Sudan (1898-1956) contemplated using the Latin alphabets to write Arabic language in the Nuba Mountains Province in order to redefine a Nuba identity that could be different from the riverain communities in the country, but they never implemented such a plan.
It is worth noting that Prof Ngugi wa Thion’go, a Kenyan professor of African languages at one of American universities, writes in his own native language, the Kikuyu, and advocates the idea of vernacular languages very strongly indeed. He has published several books, which have been translated into English, including Devel on the Cross. Once upon a time, Prof Thion’go was quoted as saying: ‘It is wrong to say no to the English language nor to the French one in Africa, but the marginalised languages should not be obliged to die, because if the current trends do continue, then Africa - as a cultural identity - will not have any effect as far as a practical perspective is concerned.’
The Sudan has recently been much in the news, despite the situation in Dar Fur having been plainly apparent since February 2003. The tragedy unfolding for the people there is also a tragedy for minority languages, many of which may never recover from the dislocation and dispossession that follows, as its inhabitants are turned into refugees in their own land. Broadly speaking, however, many groups have been scattered from their home area and now exist only as refugees in large Sudanese towns. Although the older members of the displaced communities are very committed to their language, the Sudanese Government is equally committed to the destruction of minority languages and the enforced adoption of Arabic. As a consequence, many ethno-linguistic groups are finding it difficult to maintain language competence among their children. This is particularly true in the case of the peoples of the Nuba Mountains in Southern Kordofan, where violent attacks on these communities during the 1990s caused many villages to be deserted and their inhabitants scattered or killed. If taken individually, the Nuba communities were always small in number by comparison with peoples such as the Dinka, Nuer, Fur and Zaghawa, and their languages correspondingly more fragile.
The Nuba are most well-known in Europe as icons, flamboyant body-painters in the photographs of Leni Riefenstahl, and it is a particular irony to meet these peoples today, dressed in traditional white Sudanese robe and turban, culturally transformed in a generation. Even if the Nuba eventually return to their villages much of the Government’s aims will have been achieved anyway - that is, the destruction of the distinctive culture of the Nuba peoples. The Nuba, together with the Southerners and other marginalised people of Sudan, have been caught up by the paradoxes of civil war against the central Government; although they appear physically similar to Southerners, they live in the North and have little in common with the Northerners. As a result of political and economic hegemony, it has proved difficult to the Khartoum Government to harmonise their goals with the general aims of the Southern movements and the question of the Nuba Mountains - or, currently, Southern Kordofan - is so far unresolved in the way the Southern problem was tackled in the peace talks. Nonetheless, many Nuba groups have language committees and are active in promoting and writing orthography. Many also have musical performance groups and these are important in keeping musical traditions alive. However, resources are limited, and often language and culture committees break up as their members disperse seeking work.
Sudan probably has as many endangered languages as any country in the world and the long-running civil insecurity has generally meant they are very poorly documented. The situation is made worse by the fact that they are ‘intentionally endangered’, actively discouraged by Government policy. The absence of attention by the various endangered languages funds is, therefore, all the more striking. There is no work at all going on by the various funding foundations to document these endangered languages. The deculturisation process to which a number of indigenous population have bee subjected is far greater than what others could think of. This alienation process has worked badly for the native Nuba people in Northern Kordofan where they lost their languages, culture and identity in the face of the overwhelming arabisation and the intensified pressure of Arab immigrants and settlers. The last Nuba man to speak his own language in what is usually referred to as Seafare Mountains was in the 1920s. Second to lose their vernacular languages are the Nuba generations who are born in cities in Northern Sudan, and, as this process is proceeding so fast indeed, they could soon be uprooted unless something tangible could be done about it. The language centres that are being established in capital cities are the right step in the right direction, and so is the resolution of All Nuba Conference at Kauda in December 2002 to ‘encourage and promote’ vernacular Nuba languages besides the English language as a means of education, communications and administration in the Nuba Mountains. There is nothing more enjoyable and exciting than listening to someone singing a traditional folk song in a native language, or hearing somebody reciting nursery rhymes, fairy tales and popular folklores in their vernacular language as these songs, melodies and stories bear wisdoms, sermons and examples of chivalry and customary sacrifices that have all been passed down through generations. In article 1.2 of the Naivasha Protocol on Southern Kordofan/Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile States - signed between the Sudan Government and the SPLM/A in Kenya on May 26, 2004, the text reads: ‘The diverse cultural heritage and local languages of the population of the State shall be developed and protected.’ Not only is the recognition of all spoken languages in the Sudan is absolutely vital, but it is equally important that the literature and history of these languages are recorded and taught at schools, colleges and universities to their indigenous speakers as well as amateurs, who yearn to learn them.
The seeds of these linguistic recordings were sown during the Condominium Rule in the Sudan when academicians, scholars and Christian missionaries embarked on recording the Nuba languages and publishing the Bible and short stories in some of these languages. Their findings, together with a plethora of anthropological studies, are buried in university libraries and Government archives in the Sudan and abroad, including the UK and Germany. The role of today’s Nuba educationists and intellectuals is to dig up these findings and use them as a basis for drafting languages curricula. Since old languages can be resurrected, the already existing and rampant languages could be textualised and recorded to save them from eradication. The widely spoken Swahili language in east African - that is, the official language in Kenya and Tanzania - is a very good example indeed. The ball is now in the hands of the incoming administrators in Southern Kordofan to transform theory into practice and implementation, bearing in mind that these languages concord with the definition of a regional language in international law. For the purposes of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, ‘regional or minority languages’ means languages that are:
To sum up, we have seen that languages could die if they are subjected to adverse conditions; old languages could be resurrected for nationalistic purposes, and languages could be written - or rewritten - with different alphabets. Promoting and developing the indigenous languages of Sudan are a fundamental human right, because this is the surest means through which people could express their socio-political rights, if they cannot do so through the Arabic language - that is, the arbitrarily official language of the country. Nurturing national languages is a civic right for accountable governments as a legitimate medium for the provision of information on health issues, benefits entitlements, municipal services, legal advice, the court of law, traffic instructions, to name but a few, in various community languages to their citizens. Better still, the governments have to provide interpreters and translators in civil service to ensure that everybody access the services and no one is left out, regardless of the colour of skin, hair texture, place of origin, ethnic background, religious belief, gender, age, political affiliation or belonging to a particular social group.
* Dr Omer M Shurkian is a Sudanese from the Nuba Mountains in central Sudan. He is the chairman of the London based Nuba Mountains Solidarity Abroad (NMSA) As a human rights activist, he was involved in a campaign against the Sudan Government’s human rights violations meted out on the Nuba people in the Sudan. He also published a number of articles on the plight of the Nuba people. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org