Most Pan-Africanists, notably the cosmopolitan Du Bois and other African liberation leaders, were multilingual and also educated or exiled in Europe, USA, Russia and China. But this did not mean that they became less attached to their African roots or causes. So should we be wary of the colonial languages, including Portuguese, that dominate the Pan-African discourse today?
Being, like most readers of New African, bilingual in my native language Portuguese and in English, I feel at ease to state that English is also the “lingua franca” of Pan-Africanism – without it we all could not so easily understand each other. But, as I twice pointed out in letters published respectively by the British dailies, The Guardian and The Times years ago, I feel this also puts “foreigners” like us at an advantage over those Britons or Americans who only speak English. We all can share in their cultures, while keeping and comparing it with our own – whether African, Asian, Arab, European, Chinese, Hispanic, Indian or whatever.
Like the case with English in the US, the total of Portuguese speakers in Brazil alone far outnumbers those in the country of origin. And the same will happen with Angola and Mozambique for whom Portuguese has also become part of their national identities.
Moreover, historically, most Pan-Africanists, notably the cosmopolitan Du Bois and other African liberation leaders were multilingual and also educated or exiled in Europe, USA, Russia or China. But this did not mean that they became less attached to their African roots or causes. This, of course, also applies to French or Portuguese-speaking Africans who ended up by knowing more about France or Portugal than either the French or Portuguese knew about them – an extremely useful advantage in the overall struggle for African emancipation. In fact, English, once the language of imperialism, has also significantly been turned into the “lingua franca” of anti-imperialism.
Unlike Britain or France, which, despite having started decolonisation in Africa more than half a century ago and still keep most of the members of their Commonwealth and Francophone Community under their respective spheres of influence, small Portugal, having radically withdrawn from its former African colonies, has tried to forget its centuries-old colonialist history. Practically all that is left from the linguistic and cultural links arising from the past is reduced to the resumption of trade, investments and technical cooperation.
And, as in the past, by concentrating their small resources on a specific area, i.e. Angola and Mozambique, the Portuguese (except in what concerns oil) have managed to compete with bigger and far more imposing powers such as Britain and the US who have had to spread more thinly over the vast so-called “developing world”.
Africans, therefore, should at least use their “marginalisation” to reflect peacefully on their common history and future. For different reasons, this also applies to small Portugal, to some extent even within the EU over which the former Portuguese prime minister, Durao Barroso, currently presides.
However, with the political idealism of old overtaken by overpowering commercialism, ideology or the study of history itself seems to be marginalised. In this respect, Afro-Portuguese trade relations appear to be epitomised by the fact that the popular tune “Grandola-Vila Morena” once used in a broadcast by the 1974 coup conspirators in Portugal to signal the start of the revolution, is now used in radio advertising to promote a particular brand of olive oil.
During the recent Portuguese presidential election (January 2006), while the other five left-leaning candidates, including communists and socialists, refrained from any reference to still sensitive African issues, only the newly elected president, Cavaco Silva, did so. A professor of economics and former prime minister, running as an independent, who has made common sense look charismatic, Silva ended his first presidential address by recalling that small Portugal’s greatest and lasting achievement might be the fact that Portuguese is a language spoken by the Community of Portuguese Speaking Countries (known by its Portuguese acronym, CPLP), a cultural community already comprising more than 220 million people, 80% of them Brazilians.
President Silva, like his immediate predecessor, is a fluent English speaker, having attained his higher degrees in economics at the University of York in the north of England. Knowing him personally, I can say that, by current US or British political standards, he would perhaps be regarded as a liberal. His attachment to Africa derives from the time that as a conscripted army officer, he served in Mozambique in the 1970s and since then he has become interested in the affairs of the continent.
Left unsaid, but tacitly understood in a culture whose main 16th century poet-patron, Camoes, characteristically wrote that “times, peoples and trends change/all the world is made of change”, is that the CPLP, ethnically, is almost half white and half black, or mixed Afro-European. Given that the populations of Angola and Mozambique alone are already more than double that of Portugal, and that Brazil’s population, soon approaching 200 million, is predominantly mixed and black, the CPLP, at the comparative current rates of demographic growth, will eventually have a black majority.
In this respect, the new Portuguese president, in his first speech, was also trying to shake the Portuguese, a timid and reserved people at the best of times, from the state of oblivion, colonial guilt and denial over their past. In this process or drift into alienation from Africa, I, a self-taught individual as many Africans are, have become one of the few and dwindling number of bilingual Portuguese Pan-Africanists, who more than 30 years after the end of the old and anachronistic empire, still study issues affecting Portugal and Africa, both empirically and through reading the ensuing problems of transition.
Recently, as if to confirm the much-quoted ancient Greek saying, “there is always something new coming out of Africa”, even I, a veteran Africanist student, was just as surprised as most New African readers would have been, when I saw a 500-page Dictionary of Portuguese-African Civilization – From Discovery to Independence, published in the late 1990s.
As such, it was, of course, not so much “out of Africa”, but about Portuguese-speaking Africa, which, with Angola and Mozambique, is an important part of the mosaic of African diversity. Compiled over 11 years between 1978 and 1989, therefore four years after the end of the Portuguese African empire (by Dr Benjamin Nunez, judging by his name, a Hispanic-American academic), the dictionary was co-published by the University of Florida, Gainesville, USA, and the reputable international Africanist publishers, Hans Zell. According to the announced editorial plan, this most useful book of reference of dates, events, institutions and terms from slavery to colonialism, will be followed by another volume dedicated to biographies.
One of the curious facts surrounding its publication, however, is that, although inevitably based on Portuguese documents and literature, this commendable editorial initiative had little or no Portuguese active input or support, official or otherwise. In fact it has passed completely unnoticed in Portugal, and it might even be beyond the financial scope of the under-funded Luanda and Maputo universities. In his foreword to the Dictionary – which, incidentally, has no equivalent for either British or Francophone-related African countries – Prof Olabiyi Babalola Yai, the chairman of the Department of African and Asian Languages and Literatures of the University of Florida, states that, if anything, the title of the book could be deceptive as it is seemingly restrictive to the so-called Lusophone Africa, when, in fact, it covers the “Portuguese cultural space”, including Brazil. “And what part of Africa,” asks Prof Yai, “was not touched by the Portuguese at one point or the other of her history”, a fact that is evident in the thousands of entries in the Dictionary (as well as in so many old or still prevailing African place names)? The editor, Dr Nunez, himself, justifies his considerable effort by stating that the historical record on the Portuguese in Africa “is rich and varied, spanning a period of over 600 years. Every viewpoint is represented, European or African, king and slave, establishment or revolutionary, scientific and poetic, religious and secular. And virtually all this rich literature is in Portuguese, a language mostly inaccessible to English speakers”.
The alienation might also partly be due to the fact that the Portuguese, despite their own long history of imperialist rule, were deeply resentful of “neo-imperialism” under which they themselves suffered due to the implications of the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance (see NA Feb 2006) or, more recently, the implications of Portugal’s membership of the US-dominated NATO (especially during the Cold War).
We all know that if we cannot undo history, we can at least preserve and improve on the most positive that we inherited from it. Besides if we ourselves do not study how and why we became what we are, others will do it for us with less accuracy. Portugal was both a witness and a participant in both the process of de-humanisation as well as the process of renaissance of Africa and black people.
From an Africanist point, the fact that the Portuguese and French languages – in their turn both derived from the provincial Latin languages of the ancient Roman Empire – are, alongside English and Swahili, the official languages of the African Union is, therefore, both practical and useful, as it gives Africans easier access to Europe and the modern world. Moreover, in the case of Portuguese, since Brazil (the emerging South American superpower) is, like the US, one of the most populous nations with the highest densities of black and mixed people, the Portuguese language is a unifying cultural affinity for many millions of black people - specifically in football and other sports, music, literature, TV, trade, and the sciences.
For centuries, the orders were mostly shouted in the languages of the invader, whether slave trader, empire builder or colonial settler; the pain, grief and hopes of the enslaved and the colonised were expressed in their own native tongues, in oral stories, slave songs, funeral rites or religious gatherings. Now that we are all largely released from the unjust patterns of the past, let us hope we can all begin to speak the same language of human empathy and mutual interest.