Reflections on the Indigenous Hands and Voices of African Identity Conference

Among my favourite writings by Jan Blommaert, who died last Thursday, involve his debate with Tove Skutnabb-Kangas and Robert Phillipson about linguistic human rights. Two notable articles in this debate appeared in 2001 in the Journal of Sociolinguistics and referred especially to language rights in Africa. I was reminded of this last week when I attended the Indigenous Hands and Voices of African Identity: Discourse on Language Rights conference, a 2-day international virtual conference on indigenous African signed and spoken languages. I thought of Dr. Blommaert not only related to his position on issues of Indigenous language rights and language revitalization but also because of what he had to say about being a white European scholar working with African peoples.

For me, the most salient matter in every academic conference that is not led or organized by and for deaf scholars is how to gain access to it. I am a privileged person in that it was possible for me to arrange for American Sign Language interpreters for the conference (other scholars and colleagues facilitated the arrangement of British Sign Language interpreters through UK Access to Work provisions). And so, when the conference met virtually for the general sessions and sign language strand of presentations, the Zoom gallery featured ASL and BSL interpreters alongside Nigerian Sign Language interpreters and the presenters. With few notable exceptions, the majority of the presenters were African, non-deaf, and presented in spoken English. In other words, deaf academics and community members occupied a comparatively liminal role at this conference. The names of a number of mostly white deaf academics (who mostly had video turned off to save bandwidth) from Canada, the USA, the UK and Europe were visible in the gallery. Several of these deaf academics have conducted fieldwork in African countries and published research about sign languages in Africa. Participants also utilized the chat feature in Zoom to relay comments and questions in English text. On the first day of the conference, some time was taken up by discussion of the role of nondeaf scholars vis-à-vis deaf communities and the absence of deaf African scholars, such as Nyeleti Nkwinika, Sam Lutalo-Kiingi, Bonnie Busingye, and Noah Ahereza, from the conference. On the second day, Marco Nyarco, a deaf African scholar, appeared as a co-presenter, and several African and African-American scholars appeared as commentators.

Blommaert and Skutnabb-Kangas and Phillipson debated the matters of indigenous African language rights and the development of African languages. While Blommaert states that he is “in principle sympathetic” toward linguistic rights, he notes problems with the linguistic human rights approach. As he argues, a linguistic human rights paradigm can neglect other issues of inequity, such as the distribution of social and economic resources, and ignore data regarding speakers’ and signers’ language attitudes and practices. In particular, there are issues with named languages and diversity among these languages; languages are not “pure species.” Skutnabb-Kangas and Phillipson issue a solid rejoinder that I will not detail here but encourage you to read. Together, these writings bear relevance to the main substance of the sign language strand of the conference regarding the presence of ASL in (west) African sign languages and the need to revitalize and develop indigenous sign languages that are free of ASL influence. In the meantime, there are issues with the lack of early intervention and education services provided to young deaf children, and deaf children and young people’s lack of access to education. One presenter, Chikondi Mwale, who is also a sign language interpreter, delivered his presentation in sign language (and answered audience questions in sign language!) Mr. Mwale addressed the current state of sign language interpreting services in Malawi, including the situation of deaf people who became very ill and suffered the death of an infant due to lack of access to communication in health care. So, on the one hand it is important to revitalize and further develop indigenous sign languages as a matter of principle. On the other, in practice it is vitally important for deaf people to have access to a language. And then there is the matter of the sign language varieties that deaf people in Africa know and use, and how they regard their language varieties. Mr. Nyarco’s co-presenter Victoria Nyst also pointed out the benefits for deaf people of multilingualism in multiple sign languages.

In discussing what was important to his academic life, Dr. Blommaert talked about being both democratic and available to colleagues who lacked equal access to resources. He calls for “knowledge activism … in which knowledge is activated as a key instrument for the liberation of people, and as a central tool underpinning any effort to arrive at a more just and equitable society.” In my role and status as a white deaf academic from the global North, with access to interpreters and the unlimited resources of my university’s library, I hope I can also make my academic life more valuable to others.