Globalisation between language and gender

By Ali Mazrui
Guyana Chronicle
January 16, 2000

What is development? How does it now relate to globalisation? Since among fragile societies globalisation is a mixed blessing, we would have to redefine development: development equals globalisation minus dependency.

Globalisation and Language

One strategy of transcending dependency is indigenisation. This includes greater utilisation of indigenous techniques, personnel, and approaches for purposeful change. Indigenised approaches to globalisation would include greater use of African languages in the pursuit of scientific, economic and constitutional change.

No country has ascended to a first rank technological and economic power by excessive dependence on foreign languages. Japan rose to dazzling industrial heights by `scientificating' the Japanese language and making it the medium of its own industrialisation.

Korea has approximately scientificated the Korean language and made it the medium of its own technological take-off.

Can Africa ever take-off technologically if it remains so overwhelmingly dependent on European languages for discourse on advanced learning? Can Africa look to the future if it is not adequately sensitive to the cultural past? Culture as communication and culture as production need to converge. Israel resurrected a dead language, Hebrew, and made it a language of modern efficiency.

This lingo-cultural gap may be disastrous for reducing dependency in Africa's experience. This gap may also delay the full maturation of Africa's scientific genius.

In the 20th century, no language is automatically a scientific language, but every language is automatically a poetic language. Two policies - of scientification of African languages and support for African poets and writers - have to be jointly pursued as part of long-term national development. Culture as communication and culture as identity should find a meeting point in literature.

Three Africans have won the Nobel Prize for literature since 1986. It was possible for an Egyptian Arab, Neguib Mahfuz, to win it for literature written in his native Arabic. It was possible for a South African white, Nadine Gordimer, to win the Nobel Prize for books written in her native European language.

But it was not possible for the only Black laureate, Wole Soyinka to win the Nobel Prize for literature written in his native Yoruba. Soyinka could only be in the running for the prize through the imperial language of the Other.

Are we waiting for modernisation to come? Or are we waiting for dependence to leave? In this domain, the linguistic Other has precluded the linguistic Self from ever being noticed as being of literary relevance.

Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel Prize in 1913 when India was still a British colony. The works for which he won the Nobel Prize were in Bengali. He created literature from his linguistic womb. When Tagore won the Nobel for literature written in Bengali before the first intra-civilisational war (World War 1) it must have looked like a major step towards a Concert of Cultures, a step towards a partnership of civilisations.

The award signalled the potentialities of parity of esteem across cultural divides. But progress in cultural parity since Tagore has been slow and painful. The functions of culture in almost every society continue to feel the hegemony of Western power and the omnipresence of Western civilisation.

This, in the era of globalisation, means a linguistic revolution in Africa will need to be reinforced by a gender revolution - for in every society, women are the trustees of indigenous languages. Mothers transmit the mother tongue from generation to generation.

Globalisation and Gender

In most sub-Saharan traditional lifestyles, a woman was culturally supposed to have a triple custodial role. As custodian of fire, she finds herself in charge of rural Africa's most important source of domestic energy - firewood. She treks long distances to collect it. As custodian of water, the African woman ensures water supply for the home and for the extended family. Again she will often walk a mile or two to a lake or river.

As for the woman's role as custodian of earth, this is linked to the concept of dual fertility - the fertility of the womb (Woman as mother) and the fertility of the soil (woman as cultivator). In many African countries women are the majority of the farmers - as well as being major suppliers of domestic water and firewood.

What role does culture allocate to men? In societies of mixed husbandry, males (both boys and men) are in charge of the larger domestic animals like cattle or camels. Some cultures allocate responsibility for all domestic mammals (goats, sheep, etc) to males - leaving only poultry in the hands of women. Men fell trees so that women can use branches for firewood. Men go to cities or mines to work while their womenfolk remain on the farm.

A new division of labour emerged with some colonial economies - women cultivated food-crops like yam and maize while men took charge of cash crops like cocoa, cotton and coffee. But in places like Karicho in Kenya, it is still women who pick the tea leaves at harvest time. It is considerations such as these which make cultural awareness indispensable for effective development planning.

In this age of globalisation, the role of women also needs to marry culture with technology. Science itself needs to be androgynised. This is a process of conferring both female and male characteristics to a phenomenon. Only 67 per cent of girls of school age in sub-Saharan Africa are in school. Only 23 per cent enter secondary school. And only three per cent find their way into higher education.

Among the young women who finally do go to universities, only a small fraction study science and technology - a mere three per cent in a country like Chad rising to 28 in South Africa (but a disproportionate number in South Africa are non-black).

All over Africa girls are routinely discouraged from engineering and high science. Scientific and technological careers are widely regarded as the preserve of men. In the new century, it is time to dissolve this superstition. Science and technology in Africa need to be androgynised.

Does this have implications for the brain drain? Migration in Africa's history has been disproportionately masculine. Men have migrated for jobs in mines, cities and across the seas. Will the brain drain of women be at most half of the brain drain of men? Do African women have greater cultural obligations tying them to their ancestral land?

The search continues for female excellence, partly as an answer to wider problems of African societies which men have failed to solve.

In the sciences and technical professions in Africa, the dissemination and instruction should initially focus on the four traditional custodial roles of the African women.

1. Woman as Custodian of Fire: The science of energy supplies, from firewood to petroleum and natural gas.

ll. Woman as Custodian of Earth: The science of agriculture with greater facilitation in credit access and equipment for women.

lll. Woman as Custodian of Water: The science of water-management and the role of women in water supply.

IV. Woman as Home Manager: A new science needs to be developed to make home management more efficient, cost-effective, and part of the wide computation of the Gross National Product of a given society.

These moves towards the empowerment of women in science may need empowering them in society also. In terms of legislative empowerment, one scenario is in terms of gender reservation of seats. Let us say 15 per cent reserved seats for women in parliament; and 85 per cent open to both male and female contests.

PHASE l: The candidates would be women and the voters for these particular seats would also be exclusively women.

PHASE ll: The candidates for these seats would still be women but the voters would be both men and women. The women candidates would thus have to address the concerns of men as well as women.

PHASE lll: When female parliamentary candidates on the common electoral roll would be in sufficient numbers to stand a chance of winning without special gender-reservation of seats. Gender-reservation of seats would be abolished - and women would compete on the common electoral roll.

If development equals globalisation minus dependency, how is the dependency to be subtracted from the globalisation? I have suggested two strategies for reducing dependency - indigenisation and androgynisation. Language and science are at stake. In both of them, skills have interacted with values.

To paraphrase the English poet, Alexander Pope (1688-1744):

Excessive globalism is a dangerous thing?

Drink softly, or taste not the planetary spring./PANOS

(Veteran commentator on African affairs, Ali A. Mazrui, is Director of the Institute of Global Cultural Studies and Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities at Binghamton University, New York).

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