Dilemma of a small African culture and its language




At some point in history the gradual shift long in the works, from the spoken to the written word, as the mainstay of culture becomes a tangible phenomenon. By the middle of the 20th century the need to find a voice in the written word, grew loud and clear for most cultures around the world. In Europe and the Americas many cultures already enjoyed the wide spread use of the written word.

In Africa men like Chinua Achebe (Nigeria) Sembene Usman (Senegal) Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt) Okot p’ Bitek (Uganda) Ngugi wa Thiongo Kenya) and Peter Abrahams (South Africa) and their significant collections of superlative works were the product of this new imperative that said to cultures. Write or be damned. In Africa, once the scene of a brutal scramble for colonies, there was the complication of language. Could an African culture express itself in a foreign language? Could any culture? These are old debates that are still ongoing.

By the close of the 20th century new technologies centered on the computer threatened to restore the primacy of the spoken word in the sense in which the Greeks or the Africans had lived it as a rich and totally satisfying milieu of cultural expression. It was not to be.

The new and not so new technologies of communication were all rooted in the written word. The cinema is an oral medium. But Citizen Kane, generally acclaimed the greatest motion picture ever made, could not have been produced without the written word. To produce good movies, scripts must be written. Likewise to produce modern stage drama you begin from written scripts. Most music making today require the use of the written word. Like it or not the written word is king. In spite of its multi media nature the internet is dominated by the written word.

Though the process commenced long ago, LebLango and Lango culture is still in the early stages of creating its own written tradition. It does this in an environment where the English language is dominant; and when as a language it has already fallen into the category of endangered species. Endangered, in the sense that a growing number of Langi (plural for Lango), are now migrating away from the use of the language in their daily life. For those who may not know, the Langi are a community numbering over 2 million who live in Northern Uganda.

There is widespread understanding within the culture that the written tradition of Lango culture like its spoken tradition, now gaining a new vibrancy on radio especially, must be in the mother tongue. However many Lango speakers have complained that written LebLango is unreadable and many of them generally avoid having to read it. Most publications written in the language including newspapers have been negatively affected by the impact of this self censorship. Language experts have asserted that the difficulty in reading LebLango stem from the absence of a clearly defined orthography.

Sometime in 2010 under the auspices of Mango Tree Organization and its leader Craig Esbeck, a Lango Language workshop was organized in Lira to deal with the problem. The Lango Language Board which led the workshop and its Chairman Dr Okaka Dokotum has since issued a new orthography for LebLango. Although it does provide some guidelines, the new orthography has not made much impact in the last two years of its existence. Usually orthographies find validation only in usage. The trouble with written LebLango has not disappeared. What is the way forward?

Good written practice seems the most promising answer. And so we come again to the idea of usage. Good practice will create examples and models that others can and will follow. A long time ago people like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Daniel Defoe and Jane Austen did this for the English language. LebLango will need writers with the skills to produce engaging easy to read and informative materials, materials such as essays, memoirs, novels and plays. Reading materials that approaches good or even great literature in the manner say of the great Chinua Achebe. Achebe of course wrote in the English language.

There are talents out there in Lango land that can do this now lurking just below the surface. A century of classical or formal education has produced a body of literate and erudite people from the community many of whom have wide and valuable experience. Good written practice and the literature it will produce will encourage increased general reading activity in the language. The demand for more reading materials written in LebLango will produce more writers writing in the language. Good or even great literature will emerge. Before long a written tradition will be on its way. It helps that LebLango is now being taught in Uganda schools and at college level.

Today the problem in LebLango is the paucity of materials written in the language. Fr Angelo Tarantino’s historical work Lango ikare acon, written more than sixty years ago is still the reference point. More recent works includes Absalom Oteng’s Tekwaro Lango, and Goodman Okonye’s Lango Dictionary, a first of its kind. The problem in Lango culture is the lack of written materials about the community in LebLango and for that matter in any language. The fact that J H Driberg’s work The Lango, a Nilotic People written more than ninety years ago remains the key treatise on Lango is a measure of the scale of the problem. Where are the scholars and the story tellers?

A beginning to a resolution of the problem in written LebLango is feasible through a deliberate strategy of creating well written, interesting, informative reading materials that are affordable and readily available. We cannot afford the luxury of waiting until such a process takes place by itself and of itself. This is the new imperative and a call for action, if LebLango is to remove itself from the growing list of endangered languages.

These problems of the culture and of language are far from unique to Lango. The neighboring Acholi culture and Acholi language experience the same problem if only to a mildly lesser extent. Many small cultures and communities around the world experience similar problems. What works here may work elsewhere and may save cultures and languages now otherwise under the threat of extinction.


In this project we propose the creation, the production and the widespread distribution of well written, informative and easy to read works in LebLango. The focus will be on history on memories and on events:

  • History of education in Lango
  • History of sports in Lango
  • History of agriculture in Lango
  • Biographical sketches of memorable individuals in Lango history

Specified topics will be searched. Materials will be recreated, will be presented in a story like manner that is accessible and easy to read. People will be invited and encouraged to participate in the program as writers and as facilitators. Organizations and individuals who can will be requested to provide small grants in support of the project. It is projected that the first book from the project will go to print by mid 2016.