Changing the world: Unforgettable date with Kiswahili don under a 'Franglophone' cloud
- If she does not continue in one capacity or another at Makerere, I am sure her services will be sought by either one of the new universities in the country or by international organisations.
- She is a woman of tremendous energy, sharp focus and unshakeable commitment.
- This may sound “ordinary” today, but Mukama and other women scholars of her generation achieved what they did in the face of almost unimaginable ethnic, class and gender biases.
The lady I have a date with is Prof Ruth Mukama, a prominent Kiswahili scholar and a Professor of Linguistics at Makerere. The occasion of our date is her valedictory lecture this Thursday, at the famous Main Hall of that august institution.
“Valedictory” means farewell, indicating the celebrated academic is officially saying goodbye to Makerere as she prepares to proceed into retirement.
You know, in the academic tradition, scholars elevated to professorial chairs are required to deliver an inaugural lecture at the beginning of their careers and a valedictory one when they retire.
But, from what I know of Uganda’s academic scene and of Prof Mukama, retirement is hardly likely to mean a quiet rest for her. If she does not continue in one capacity or another at Makerere, I am sure her services will be sought by either one of the new universities in the country or by international organisations, many of which already crave her advice.
For Prof Mukama (whose name means “master”, the one in charge) is a woman of tremendous energy, sharp focus and unshakeable commitment. At Makerere, she has served in practically every senior academic and administrative capacity, in addition to a full teaching, training and research protocol.
This may sound “ordinary” today, but Mukama and other women scholars of her generation achieved what they did in the face of almost unimaginable ethnic, class and gender biases.
Indeed, one of the most striking credits to Prof Mukama’s career at Makerere was the establishment of what is today called the Makerere University School of Women and Gender Studies.
Working with colleagues and activists, like Professor Joy Kwesiga, the current Vice-Chancellor of Kabale University in Southwestern Uganda, law Professor Sylvia Tamale and Professor Consolata Kabonesa, Mukama agitated for and eventually succeeded in attracting local and international funding for the establishment of the now highly respected School in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.
Indeed, in the process, she served as the Head of the University’s Gender Mainstreaming Programme, which ensured the highlighting of gender equity in every aspect of Makerere’s operations.
I suppose those who know me already realise there is more than enough to this lady to endear her to my heart. I mean, what can beat a good mix of brilliant scholarship, a systematic gender activism and a skilful love of language, including Kiswahili, and its relevance to the development of society? But there is a lot more, at a personal level, to my relationship with Prof Mukama than mere professional admiration. I will presently let you into a few of the secrets, if time and space allow.
But, as my heading above suggests, a little sad cloud hangs over our valedictory meeting and it is, unfortunately, connected to language or, more accurately, to the misuse or mishandling of language, to the detriment of society. This is specifically in our “Franglophone” neighbour, Cameroon.
“Franglophone”, as you realise, is a compression of francophone/anglophone, the most conspicuous linguistic baggage from our colonial past. But to those, like Prof Mukama, Ciugu Mwagiru, Dr Wanjiku Mwotia and me, who studied both English and French in the roaring 1960s, the term has a humorous ring to it. It reminds us of “franglais”, the error-prone mélange into which learners of either language were lured by the false “similarities” between the languages. Thus, French “deception” means disappointment, and “librairie” means bookshop, not library!
But in the case of Cameroon, French-English bilingualism was officially adopted as a national policy at the time of independence. This was in acknowledgement of the country’s torturous colonial history that led to the existence of two significant communities that used either of the colonial languages as their lingua franca.
This is not an uncommon phenomenon, as many countries are bilingual, or even multilingual. Canada, for example, is officially franglophone, while Belgium accepts French and Flemish (Dutch) and Switzerland has French, Italian and German on its books. In Kenya, we are Swahilophone/anglophone. Yet somehow we get along fine, or do we?
Anyway, in Cameroon, things seem to have been going from bad to worse over the decades.
The English-speaking minority is feeling increasingly marginalised and disadvantaged by the French-speaking majority. Relationships between the two are so bad now that the anglophone regions are seriously considering secession, under a new entity they are calling “Amazonia”.
(I am yet to find out why. Amazons were female warriors who used to slice off one of their breasts to facilitate their archery operations).
The way the Cameroon authorities are responding to the secession threats risks plunging the country into a veritable state of civil conflict. Need this be so?
Even more puzzling is the question whether language should be a reason for discriminating against our fellow human beings. More even is the pity when the languages at stake are colonial impositions.
I wish we could accept the linguists’ hard-headed dictum that language is, simply, a means of communication. But maybe that is easier said than practised.
As it happens, Prof Mukama’s lecture is titledChanging the World Through Language. I am sure she will draw on her vast experience in both scholarship and real-life struggles to throw some light on some of these questions.
But this reminds me I had promised you more on the good professor herself. But I can only tell you Prof Mukama has trodden the same academic institutional paths as I: Makerere, Madagascar, York and Dar es Salaam.
Yet, though a much younger person, she has been immeasurably more successful than I. That is an illustration of the difference that proper focus and efficient organisation can make.
Most importantly, however, Prof Mukama has, more than most of my other colleagues, had a strong impact on my career, especially in these latter years. I mentioned to you how her daring me to teach Kiswahili at Makerere launched me on my continuing active love-affair with the language of my region.
The rest, as they say, is total respect, from me.