Reflections on invoking Sankofa in African language policy and planning (by Aisha Barise)

My journey on researching African languages began with my Master’s thesis work (Barise, 2021) on Somali linguistics––an East African Cushitic language. Currently in my PhD, as I revisit the contentious and age-old question of the language and the nation in Africa, I find myself being inspired by East African writers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiongʼo (1986) and seeking refuge in East African languages such as Kiswahili, Somali, and Amharic beyond research work. As a Somali speaker, who cannot speak Kiswahili or Amharic, I find myself growing in awe of these languages as majestic sounds and symbols in which Africa sheds tears and laughs in joy. Tears and laughter need no translation. Through them, I hear myself lost yet found, whether it is through Kiswahili calling me by the name Maisha, the nostalgic songs of Tizita in Ethiopia (wa Ngũgĩ, 2021), or the uplifting dances of Dhaanto in Somalia.

African Student Association UW Seattle. (2019). [Video of Somali students preforming Dhaanto]

National languages (NLs) are a source of contention in African countries (Simpson, 2008), given the complex triglossic ecology: a colonial language at the top of the hierarchy, subordinated by a regional African lingua franca, and multiple indigenous languages at the bottom (Rubagumya, 1991). NLs are African languages, typically a widely spoken variety such as a regional African lingua franca—presenting a dilemma of being counter-hegemonic over colonial languages, yet hegemonic over indigenous languages (Guardado et al., 2022). Despite this dilemma, many Sub-Saharan African countries (SSAC) are seeking to implement NL(s) as a vehicle of national integration. However, they are faced with issues of reconciling claims of efficiency in retaining the inherited colonial official language policy (Fishman, 1978; Tangwa, 2017). Almost all SSACs take the position that colonial languages never reconcile claims of authenticity, rather only the implementation of a NL(s) for sociocultural integration achieves that (wa Thiongʼo, 1986). For example, Kiswahili, a widely spoken African lingua franca, achieves the sociocultural integration in Kenya in comparison to English, due to its status as colonial and non-indigenous language. 

Ogunjemilua et al. (2020): Map of Sub-Saharan African countries (countries below the grey area), Fig. 3. p. 53.

The burning desire for implementing Indigenous African languages as NLs into practice is a challenge, as African language policy and planning (LPP) is marked by vagueness, fluctuation, and declaration without implementation (Bamgbose, 1991).

To address these challenges, I propose Sankofa as a LPP framework (Barise, 2023a) for African Indigenous language reclamation. Sankofa is an African episteme that roughly signifies ‘looking back to retrieve what was lost/forgotten’ (Temple 2010), based on the Akan proverb: Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi. The concept of Sankofa re-emerged as a decolonial methodology (Watson & Knight-Manuel, 2017), to position the Indigenous African ways of knowing as central to African and Black emancipation (Dei, 2012). I argue that Sankofa as a LPP framework is about strategically looking back, temporally, across and within state borders and societal domains, to dissecting the LPP that served and did not serve Africans as a unit, to move forward to implementing decolonial and Indigenous African language policies. In this post, I share what emerged from my journey of critical reflection on African LPP by invoking Sankofa.

Sankofa is an African philosophical concept construed through the Adinkra (Ghanaian) symbol of a bird flying forward while looking behind and tightly grasping an egg-shaped gem. Sankofism (Dzobo, 1981) is a philosophy of how the past enlightens the present through African Indigenous knowledge and wisdom. Therefore, the bird looks back at the past while flying forward into the future, carrying Indigenous knowledge and wisdom represented by the gem.

Invoking Sankofa in African LPP means embarking on a complex confluence of temporal and pan-African reflections. I reflect on the pre-colonial era of Africa which represented the wide use of African indigenous languages, and on the colonial and neocolonial interruptions through linguistic hegemony, that currently promote monolingualism through ‘one nation – one language’ model (Baker, 2011). I reflect on moving toward a future of possibility illuminated by these temporalities across nation-state boundaries through a Pan-African lens: “a political and cultural phenomenon that in the early stage regarded Africa and persons of African descent as a unit. It aimed at the regeneration of Africa and the promotion of a feeling of solidarity among the people of the African world” (Mudimbe, 1983, p. 144).

This framework inspired me to conduct a rigorous Pan-African policy analysis of various data sources on African language policy, such as the legislative and constitutional provisions of all SSACs. In Barise (2023a), I survey the linguistic situation in all 49 SSACs to create a taxonomy of: (i) official language policy type, and (ii) the national language implementation approach. This reveals that the language policy of SSACs is overwhelmingly monolingual and mostly colonial-language oriented. Only 14% (7/49) of SSACs have a national language as an official language, in a joint bilingual policy with a colonial language. An overwhelming 71% (35/49) of SSACs have a monolingual official language policy in place; 88% (31/35) of them reflect a monolingual policy of colonial languages. Despite multilingualism being a hallmark of Africa, due to a high degree of linguistic heterogeneity, only 8.2% (4/49) of SSACs have a multilingual policy which includes (more than one) colonial and African national languages. 

These empirical findings on language policy echo the reality of linguistic hegemony and imperialism (Phillipson, 1992)that inherited colonial LPP reflects in the African context. In a study I am conducting with colleagues (Guardado et al., 2023), this African language policy ecology points to a major disconnect with African family language practices that reflect African plurilingualism. To bridge this gap in language policy and practice using Sankofa, it is important to reflect back on the implementation approaches that underpin language policy and planning. 

Even though only 26% (13/49) of SSACs in fact have a NL policy in place, within this small group, the NL policy is still rarely implemented as a consistent practice. This gap in the desire to implement NL policy through functional practice is tied into the implementation strategies underpinning NL policy. SSACs fall under three main NL implementation strategies: status quogradualist, and radical (Bamgbose, 1991). Most SSACs take a status quo or gradualist strategy, which are not as effective as a radical implementation strategy in NL policy implementation. Tanzania and Somalia are the only SSACs that have taken a radical approach to NL strategy.  In a status quo strategy for NL implementation, such countries take no measures to implement NL policy, because they prioritize reconciling claims of efficiency (nationism, see Fishman, 1978) by retaining the inherited colonial language as a vehicle of socio-economic integration. Under a gradualist strategy the adaptation of a NL language is favourable; however, “a long-term view has to be taken of the matter. While steps are going on to evolve an indigenous national language or languages, the foreign language currently serving as an official language should continue to serve in that role” (Bamgbose, 1991, p. 31). A radical approach to NL implementation takes immediate steps towards the development and spread of NLs across a wide range of domains. Tanzania did this through Kiswahili as a NL, and Somalia did this through Somali (Bamgbose, 1991).

Giullian, J. (n.d.). Somali Language, Culture and Literature: Home [Map of Somalia].

I argue that these two radical approach contexts to NL implementation should be leveraged to conceptualize a successful NL implementation strategy. Drawing from Sankofa, I look back at the NL implementation approaches (Bamgbose, 1991) of SSACs to move forward into a future of decolonial African language policy. As such, I theorize successful NL implementation by building on the NL implementation approaches of Bamgbose (1991). I argue that this entails enriching Bamgbose (1991)’s NL implementation approach to: (a) distinguish the emergence of an African NL(s) in relation to the parameter of removing the inherited colonial language, and (b) critically engaging with multilingual policy in Africa as a reality in the African context. The two minimal ingredients to successful NL implementation approaches emerge from reflecting on radical NL contexts (Tanzania, Somalia): 

  • African NL(s) through Africanism: A decision towards at least one African national language must be made through Africanism (as in Tanzania’s nationalist policy Ujamaa that promoted Kiswahili).
  • Refusing Colonial languages (Barise, 2023b): A decision towards removing, or, at least, setting limits on inherited colonial languages as official languages (as Somalia successfully removed colonial language policy).

A radical approach may not be feasible in most Africa countries, as Bamgbose (1991) states, given that one of the reasons is the lack of resources available to undertake immediate steps towards these goals. However, applying these two ingredients in the emergence of an African NL policy is feasible in all African countries through a gradualist approach (a long-term approach rather than an immediate one), as indicated in the gradualist approach types B-C (Barise, 2023b). In this approach, claims for nationism and efficiency are considered, but adopted with the goal of achieving a radicalist type including these two minimal ingredients. 

African Indigenous languages are the precious gem the Sankofa bird is carrying. This gem of sounds and symbols of African tears and laughter cannot be authentically captured through colonial languages. Under Sanfoka LPP, NL(s) implementation warrants strategic linguistic rigidity for African Indigenous language reclamation and African Plurilingualism (Barise, 2023b), despite linguistic fluidity being an African social reality (Makalela, 2016). 


African Student Association UW Seattle. (2019). Somalia, Afro Caribbean 2019. [Video of Somali students preforming Dhaanto].

Bamgbose, A. (1991). Language and the Nation: The Language Question in Sub-Saharan Africa. Edinburg University Press.  

Baker, C. (2011). Foundations of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism (4th edition). Multilingual Matters.

Barise, A. (2021). Somali Middle: Voice or derivation? ERA: Education and Research Archive. University of Alberta.

Barise, A. (2023a). Towards a Pan-African Language Policy: A Survey-based approach to linking official language policy and family language policy. Centre Canadien d’études et de Recherche en Bilinguisme et Aménagement Linguistique (CCERBAL) Conference. May, 2023.Accepted for paper presentation.

Barise, A. (2023b). Naming Colonial Languages as Linguistic Refusals: Filling refusal gaps towards decolonial African plurilingualism and translanguaging. American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL) Conference. March, 2023. Accepted for paper presentation.

Bolden-Kerr, D.L. (n.d.) Sankofa Art Print. [Painting]. Fine Art America.

Dei, G. S. (2012). Indigenous anti-colonial knowledge as ‘heritage knowledge’ for promoting Black/African education in diasporic contexts. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society1(1), 102-­119.

Dzobo, N.K. (1981). Sankofaism: A philosophy of Africa’s mental liberation. Sankofa: Ghana’s Illustrated Arts and Cultures, 5(1), 32–35.  

Fishman, J. J. (1973). Language and Nationalism. Newbury House.

Giullian, J. (n.d.). Somali Language, Culture and Literature: Home [Map of Somalia].

Guardado, M. Tsushima, R. &, Barise, A. (2023). Linking Translingual Family Practices to African Educational Policy: A case study of Ubuntu dissent voices. American Association for Applied Linguistics (AAAL) Conference. March, 2023. Accepted for paper presentation.

Guardado, M., Tsushima, R., & Barise, A. (2022). Sub-Saharan African National Languages: Perpetrators of Linguistic Injustice or Keepers of Linguistic Equilibrium? The Multidisciplinary Approaches in Language Policy and Planning Conference (LPP). McGill University’s Faculty of Education. Paper presentation.

Makalela, L. (2016). Ubuntu translanguaging: An alternative framework for complex multilingual encounters. Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies, 34(3), 187-196.

Mudimbe, V.Y.(1983). African Philosophy as an ideological practice: The case of French-speaking Africa. African Studies Review, 26(2-3), 133–154.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiongʼo. (1986). Decolonising the mind: The politics of language in African literature. James Currey.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford University Press.

Rubagumya, C. M. (1991). Language promotion for educational purposes: The example of Tanzania. International Review of Education37(1), 67–85.

Simpson, A. (2008). Language and national identity in Africa. Oxford University Press.

Tangwa, G. (2017). Revisiting the language question in African philosophy. In A., Afolayan, &T., Falola (Eds.), The Palgrave Handbook of African Philosophy (pp. 129–140). Palgrave Macmillan.  

Temple, C. N. (2010). The emergence of Sankofa practice in the United States: A modern history. Journal of Black Studies, 41(9), 127–150.  

wa Ngũgĩ, M. (2021). Unbury our dead with song. Cassava Republic Press

Watson, V. W., & Knight-Manuel, M. G. (2017). Challenging popularized narratives of immigrant youth from West Africa: Examining social processes of navigating identities and engaging civically. Review of Research in Education, 41(1), 279–310. 

Ogunjemilua, O. D., Akinjo, R.I., Olofinsao O. A., Abdullahi, T. A., & Tolorunju I. A. (2020) Effects of Pandemic on Economy in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Case of Coronavirus (COVID-19). [Map of Sub Saharan African countries (countries below the grey area), Fig. 3. p. 53].

Picture of Julius Nyerere and Ujamaa. (2015).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *