Tuesday, November 16, 2010

MBOLO TO ALL!

When I first came to Gabon, I was very preoccupied with my low level of French. Actually, I envisaged Libreville as a kind of African Paris, where everybody would rattle away in French to my utter despair, not paying any attention to the little white girl's trouble with understanding. Even though I was not far from the truth when I imagined all this horror (I've told you about my adventures with French several times before), I must admit that for a long time I didn't really notice a very important thing: although Gabon is a French-speaking country, le français is not the only language present on its rich linguistic map.

The population of Gabon is constituted by an overwhelming number of about 50 ethnic groups. They are all similar but different, with their specific dances, ceremonies and... languages. Yes, we are talking about a country where not two, not three, but fifty languages are spoken daily. To this, you should add the Pygmies and 300 000 immigrants from countries such as Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, who are also bilingual in French and the something else. What you get is an intimidating number of languages spoken in a relatively small country (Gabon is roughly the size of Italy).

It is important to know that the biggest ethnic group are the Fang (about 30%). Other principal groups include the My
énè, the Tsogo, the Eshira, the Bapounou, the Batéké/Obamba, the Nzébi, the Bakota and the Mdébé. From what I've heard, the Fang tend to look down on the other groups, and, consequently, they are not very much liked by them. They are also said to be the richest and the most influential. The latter might be true: the biggest shopping mall in Libreville is called Mbolo or Hello in Fang.

So, each ethnic group boasts its own language and, you'll have noticed by now, there are plenty. They are officially divided into the following categories:
  • the Mazona (Fang) group in the north, which includes: Betsi, Meké, Mvaï, Ntumu, Nzaman and Okak;
  • the Meryé group in the south-west, which includes: Lumbu, Punu, Varama, Vili, Vungu, Eshira and Masango;
  • the Memberé group in the south-east, which includes: Obamba, Kaningui, Téké, Tsitségé and Mindumu;
  • the Myéné group in the north-west, which includes: Orungu, Galwa, Nkomi, Enenga and Adjumba;
  • the Membé group in the centre and east, which includes: Apindji, Bavuvi, Evia, Tsogho, Okandé and Simba;
  • the Menkona-Menaa group, which includes: Akélé, Bendambomo, Bawumbu, Beseki, Bungom, Mbahouin, Misigu and Shaké;
  • the Menkona-Mangoté group, which includes: Kota, Benga, Mahongwé, Mindasa and Samayi.
The next question to ask is: how come is French the official language then? And this is a relevant, if annoying, question, at least for me. Let me explain why. The fact that everybody speaks French (a vast majority of schools are monolingual in this language) is a direct result of colonisation. Hence, one could logically reason, the language should disappear with the rising of independence. However, French has obviously become a lingua franca in both Gabon and the rest of French-speaking Africa. Without it, some Gabonese might have serious problems with communication - even though they usually speak a few national languages (it's true, they are all polyglots!), they will at some point inevitably stumble upon an interlocutor whose mother tongue will be unknown to them. Moreover, as the national languages have mostly oral traditions (and very few, say, grammar books exist), it would be difficult to use them as official, standardized languages. Finally, how do you decide on the official language if there are fifty to choose from? How do you avoid ethnic and political conflicts? Also, imagine the amount of irrelevant translation! Finally something to compete with the bureaucracy of the EU! And so? French is here to stay, minority-language lovers (that's me, by the way) like it or not.

As a result, some of the national languages are on the verge of disappearing. Many people become monolingual in French (mind you, this is the case of Gabon and not other French-speaking countries in Africa). Notably, the president of the International Organisation of Francophonie is African (Senegalese).

As a final test, try asking a Gabonese what languages s/he speaks. The usual answer is: French, some English, a bit of Spanish... Consequently, I insist: What about the national languages? I am then confronted with a dismissive: Oh yes, that too. What can I say? Wake up, Gabon! Your
émergence should not forget about the linguistic heritage that was so generously bestowed upon you!

Abora for reading.

PS. Mbolo and abora are Fang words, meaning hello and thank you respectively.

The map comes from here.

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