President Yoweri Museveni has asked teachers and language developers in Uganda to preserve and promote local languages as a means of knowledge storage.
The President said that Africans are finding themselves out of depth because they have relegated their mother tongues in preference to western languages which are not as rich as African languages.
Museveni was speaking at the launch of the Runyankore/Rukiga Thesaurus which he co-authored with three other people, who included, University Professor, Emmanuel Muranga, Alice Nakinkunda Muhoozi and Alex Gumoshabe. The Thesaurus translated as Katondoozi took almost 10 years to complete and has 22,000 words. It was published by Fountain Publishers.
The launch took place at the Kampala, Serena Hotel and was graced by Judges, diplomats, academics, politicians and other Ugandans.
The president said that he decided to write the Thesaurus because he was afraid the rich indigenous languages were dying out. He explained that for example, the Banyankore had their writing similar to the Egyptian hieroglyphics which was relegated to decorations.
"The problem is we never write our languages. I decided that I owed it to humanity to capture our language. I was afraid that we if we lost these languages, the whole of humanity will have lost. Our elders were dying off and with our limited writing, I got worried," Museveni said.
Museveni also castigated African chiefs who he said surrendered African sovereignty along with the rich languages to colonialists who made sure that these languages were regarded as inferior and uncivilised by their very owners. This he said was an inferiority complex on the part of Africans which persists to today.
He was particularly critical of academicians and politicians saying they have failed to explain to the people the importance of being grounded in their languages. Instead in Uganda, he said, the academicians and politicians chose to use the different dialects of the four languages to create unnecessary divisions.
"These are opportunists looking to promote divisions. The academicians and political actors want to magnify difference, so they say these are many languages. This is rubbish," Museveni said. He explained that the four languages are; Bantu, Luo, Ateker (Ngakarimojong/Ateso) and the Madi/Lugbara. All the dialects in the country, he said fall within these four major groups.
Museveni also said that he intends to engage with the Swahili Council in Dar-El-Salaam to explore how the language can borrow from the four major languages to make a rich black man's language. He said that as it is currently, Swahili which Uganda is expected to use with other regional countries and borrows from the Arabic language is not rich enough.
Prof. Muranga protested the Ministry of Education proposal to scrap the local languages from the school syllabus and asked the president to prevail over the Ministry not to do so. Instead, Muranga said, the languages should be promoted in order to give Ugandans a competitive advantage and better understanding of the world.
He said that each language needs to have a grammar, dictionaries and Thesaurus. "Each of our languages when developed can support a unique industry...,"Muranga said.
The Managing Director of Fountain Publishers, James Tumusiime noted that mother tongues in all formerly colonised African and other countries suffered the same fate. "The people were conquered and their languages and cultures suppressed and marginalized until some got extinct," Tumusiime said.
He said, however, that Africans should use the power to write to revive and preserve their languages. "When the colonialists left, they had put a seed in our minds that our languages were not important and therefore could be ignored. It happened. But of recent there have been efforts to reverse the trend," he said.
He commended the President for promoting mother tongues and urged Ugandans to publish in their own languages to that the young people can learn and be grounded in their mother tongues.
"Denying children chance to learn their mother tongue is child abuse and enslavement," Tumusiime said.