Last week I had the greta pleasure of giving the Native Axe Sharpener lecture in Native's Johannesburg office (I also had the double pleasure of learning that Helen Moffett was simultaneously giving the Cape Town version of the same talk, but that's another story). It's like an internal TED talk so obvs it was an awesome experience that I would gladly repeat every week. I actually once got rejected for a social media job at Native so I found amusing that I got to go give a talk on social media.
I had wanted to focus my talk on Paperight and some of the other organisations that are finding interesting and exciting alternative distribution models of literature. And I technically did discuss that. However, even though I didn't intend to talk about the work I do but the discussion kind of became about that and the challenges of promoting the production and consumption of indigenous African language literature by itself. There were some very strong views from the audience which wasn't wholly surprising because the language question stirs up all kinds of emotions in South Africa.
African language publishing, particularly for children, should be flourishing given the great emphasis placed on language rights by the Constitution and the growing body of international research that indicates that mother-tongue based learning is ideal for children. On the contrary, our African language publishing is faltering. According to Galloway and Struik’s annual publishing industry survey report (2009), English books make up 73.2% of book sales to schools despite the fact that English is spoken as a first language by only 8.2% of the population. Sales of all the other African languages combined only account for 16.62% of overall sales, despite speakers of these languages making up 78.5% of South Africans. It's those kind of stats that fuel debate about if there's even a point in trying to elevate the position of our other languages and certainly those kind of stats that make my work complex and sometimes a little depro.
And it's no accident that I came to do the work I do. I understand perfectly the pressure to teach children English, to make sure they excel in that language, to make sure that they have a chance at getting into a good programme at varsity and then find a good corporate job. I understand feeling that African languages only have a place in the home, only when you visit grandparents but anywhere outside of that, they are useless. I understand white and black people thinking you are more intelligent, more capable and more right somehow because you can express yourself in this colonial language, imposed on this country much like French, Spanish, Portuguese were imposers on others. I understand what it's like to lose your mother tongue. I lost both of my home languages so the lesson has been learnt twice. And I also understand what's it's like to not feel bad about it at all because English is complex and beautiful and allowed me to give voice to every secret ambition, to visit anywhere in the world I wanted to go from my bed at home and stand up in front of hundreds of people without the fear of mocking or ridicule.
I understand the other side, both sides of the indigenous language debate, because I am the other side. I care and I don't. Excellence in English benefited me and it didn't. I'm not sure if I lost my languages or I threw them away. I was so young (3 years old at the time) that I'm not sure it even matters; I'm not sure I'm culpable either way.
So now I work to preserve and promote all our stories in all of our languages, especially for children and teens. The most difficult part of my job is having to explore my past, concepts of identity and heritage everyday without wanting to run away and hide in a book. Because I made trade-offs that I can't ever take back. I lost all links to my extended family, to my culture, to the Batswana people, to the stories of my grandmother and her mother and her mother... I lost that all and in exchange I got a great education, a great job, opportunities I never thought I'd ever have to do things that matter. If I could start again, 22 years ago, I'm not sure what I would choose. I'm not sure I could choose at all.