March 6, 2005
Knowledge Fades As Africa Languages Die
MAPUTO, Mozambique (AP) -- A U.N. Conference on Trade and Development report on protecting traditional knowledge argues that beyond a devastating impact on culture, the death of a language wipes out centuries of know-how in preserving ecosystems - leading to grave consequences for biodiversity.
The United Nations estimates half of the world's 6,000 languages will disappear in less than a century. Roughly a third of those are spoken in Africa and about 200 already have less than 500 speakers. Experts estimate half the world's people now use one of just eight languages: Chinese, English, Hindi, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Portuguese and French.
Villagers in Indonesia's Kayan Mentarang national park, for example, have for centuries practiced a system of forest management called Tanah Ulen, or "forbidden land." On a rotating basis, elders declare parcels of the forest protected, prohibiting hunting and gathering.
Along a boulevard lined with flowering acacia trees, young people in designer clothes and high-heeled shoes chatter on the sidewalk struggling to be heard over the driving Latin rhythms spilling from a nightclub.
Maputo's vibrant nightlife lets people forget it is the capital of one of the world's poorest countries. Here you can eat Italian, dance like a Brazilian and flirt in Portuguese.
One thing that's in ever shorter supply and perhaps even less demand: Mozambique's own indigenous languages, the storehouse for the accumulated knowledge of generations.
"Sons no longer speak the language of their fathers ... our culture is dying," laments Paulo Chihale, director of a project that seeks to train Mozambican youths in traditional crafts.
While Mozambique has 23 native languages, the only official one is Portuguese - a hand-me-down tongue from colonial times that at once unifies a linguistically diverse country and undermines the African traditions that help make it unique.
Chihale looks up from his cluttered desk at MozArte, the U.N.- and government-funded crafts project, and complains bitterly about how his nation's memory is fading away.
"Our culture has a rich oral tradition, oral history, stories told from one generation to another. But it is an oral literature our kids will never hear," says Chihale, who speaks the Chopi language at home.
Anthropologists speculate that tribal people whose ancestors have lived for tens of thousands of years on India's Andaman and Nicobar islands survived Asia's tsunami catastrophe because of ancient knowledge. They think signs in the wind, the sea and the flight of birds let the tribes know to get to higher ground ahead of the waves.
But finding economic reasons to keep tradition alive can be a challenge.
In Mozambique, cheap foreign imports have destroyed the market for local crafts beyond what little can be sold to tourists. Horacio Arab, the son of a basket weaver who learned his father's trade, said he improved his skills at MozArte but then abandoned weaving because he could not make a living.
Mozambican linguist Rafael Shambela says the pressures from globalization are often too great to resist. To conserve native languages and culture will require societies to find ways to cast them with an inherent value, he argues.
On a small campus along a dirt road south of Maputo, Shambela has joined a government effort to write textbooks and curriculums that will allow public school students to learn in 16 of the country's 23 languages. But the program is limited by Mozambique's poverty.
"A language is a culture," says Shambela, who works for Mozambique's National Institute for the Development of Education. "It contains the history of a people and all the knowledge they have passed down for generations."
The trade-off in settling on Portuguese as a unifying force after independence in 1975 has been an erosion of the rites and rhythms of traditional life.
"From dating to mourning, the rules are becoming less clear," Shambela says.