Kwesi Prah is launching a Pan-African literacy movement based on clustering dialects into twelve mutually understood written languages, thus increasing access to information, reducing government costs, and enhancing ties among formerly separate communities.
The New Idea
Kwesi's goal is to harmonize dialects into mutually understandable languages, thereby creating "economies of scale" in teaching and learning literacy.Kwesi's groundbreaking research reveals that 75 to 80 percent of all sub-Saharan Africans speak one of twelve root languages: Nguni, Sotho, Tswana, Swahili, Amhara, Eastern Inter-Lacusterine, Western Inter-Lacusterine (Kitara), Haura, Yoruba, Igbo, Bambara, FulFul, Oromo, and Berber. Dialects within each root grouping are mutually intelligible.The idea is timely in the Pan-African context because of the current shift away from written colonial languages as a basic building block of an educated citizenry. Kwesi's approach will create a new kind of literacy base, linguistically uniting people who live in different countries. For example, speakers of Gbe, a common root language in West Africa, would be able to communicate in writing with other native speakers in Nigeria, Benin, and Togo.
In Africa, hundreds of written dialects masquerade as languages, isolating communities, impeding efforts to reach literacy, and reducing the range and scope of literacy's impact. Until recently, African governments had not been aware that these linguistic barriers were surmountable; they just accepted them. Thus, literacy efforts and investments have followed old colonial patterns, reinforcing these barriers without really understanding them. To get around the problem, governments have relied heavily on European written languages.For example, the South African government declared eleven official languages in an attempt at inclusion, but this has created enormous difficulties with teaching literacy and translation costs. Kwesi asserts that the eleven languages are in fact dialects of four root languages. For instance, Zulu, Xhosa, Swati, Ndebele, Shangaan, Ngoni, Tumbaka, and Ntsenga are 85 percent mutually intelligible as spoken languages, and all fall into the root group called Nguni. By creating a written form of Nguni, all these communities will have access to materials in their own language that is also culturally sensitive.The impact of this unification has huge implications given the history of division between, for example, South Africa's Zulu and the Xhosa speaking people. It also means that groups in Tanzania, Malawi, and Zambia have access to the same materials since related languages are spoken in those areas, emphasizing the arbitrariness of the borders created by the colonial powers of the past.
Kwesi has demonstrated the viability of his idea by piloting it with a family of languages called Gbe, spoken in Nigeria, Benin, Togo, and Ghana. Kwesi has produced a new orthography for Gbe's mutually intelligible dialects so that all these speakers can have access to a common literature. One of the first effects of this project is that it reduced the perception of differences among the people who speak different dialects of Gbe.Kwesi has developed a cost-effective strategy to spread the idea of clustering dialects into common written languages by linking orthographers to governments and foreign donors. He is now taking the next step: convincing governments, international institutions, and civil society to buy into this process, beginning with schools and gradually encompassing all forms of written communications coming from the government. South Africa is already producing literacy-training materials on HIV/Aids, human rights, soil fertility, water, sanitation, and agriculture. Kwesi is leading donors to rethink both the content as well as the scale of literacy-oriented projects. By improving accessibility, his work will facilitate information distribution to a significantly larger percentage of the population.
Kwesi's work in ten African countries as a teacher and a social anthropologist led him to understand the commonalities among African languages and cultures. He spent many years researching and writing articles on this subject. While bringing his idea to scale, he has also demonstrated it within small-scale projects for health nongovernmental organizations. In 1999, he reached an inflection point, left academia and set up a civil society organization called the Centre for Advanced Studies of African Society (CASAS), from which he partners with governments, donor agencies, and other nongovernment organizations. In Ghana, where he was born, Kwesi's mother was the first woman in national broadcasting and his father an education leader. Kwesi went to school in Holland, returned to Ghana, and then left again because of political strife. Convinced that communication was a significant barrier to development, in 1976 he formed the Soweto Studies Fellowship grant to support children from South Africa. He then started to probe whether the many written forms of African languages could be grouped and thereby simplified. He moved to Cape Town to work at the University of the Western Cape and later left to pursue his idea on a full-time basis.