Mwalimu George Ngwane*
A Press Release of June 16, 2016 by the Cameroon Bar Council ‘vehemently condemns the translation disparity between the French and English versions of the Penal code bill introduced in the June 2016 Parliamentary session’. The Release fears that the unprofessional translation would result in the divergence in interpretation and the likelihood of misinterpretation and application of the said bill with the probability of creating chaos in the administration of justice.
Petrol station in Mamfe in English-speaking Cameroon with all-French signs.
The date of the issuance of the Press Release coincides with the International Day of the Child observed worldwide in memory of the eleven year old Hector Peterson and his more than 60 friends who were massacred in Soweto, South Africa for standing up in arms against the imposition of Afrikaans language in their educational system.
In a terse opinion in the Post newspaper of February 15 2016 captioned “Cameroon as French Bilingual country”, Yerima Kini Nsom states inter alia
“it has become an unwritten law that almost all the official documents in Cameroon appear only in French. Nobody cares a damn as to the fact that those who speak, read and understand only English are cheated of their right to information”.
In an interview granted The Post newspaper on January 15 2016, Honourable Senator Nfon Victor Mukete of the ruling CPDM party is quoted as saying that the constitution of Cameroon gives Anglophones equal rights to their language but he has found it difficult to understand why the government cannot accord Anglophones the right to be fully informed of state issues in their own language-the English language. Nfon Mukete recalled that he had written to the Prime Minister and copied the Head of state on the need for the state-owned newspaper Cameroon Tribune to be published in English and French.
On Wednesday 27 March 2015 Honourable Cyprian Awudu Mbaya, Social Democratic Front Member of Parliament ripped off notices in the state-owned Hotel Ayaba in Bamenda because all signage and information notices are written only in French. The Member of Parliament pulled down theses monolingual notices because to him, Cameroon cannot be a bilingual country yet notices at public places in Anglophone regions are written only in French.
Lest we forget, in early 2000, the late writer Sango Mbella Sonne Dipoko had rubbed red paint on the road signs in the Tiko municipality that were all written in French.
Dr Peter Wuteh Vakunta in his seminal paper titled “Linguistic Apartheid and the quest for freedom and identity in Cameroon” (14 December 2014) argues that “official bilingualism in Cameroon has been treated with such levity that it has virtually been rendered dysfunctional”. He further attributes this to the absence of an institution that can be charged with the implementation of the nation’s bilingual policy.
The Post newspaper of October 10, 2014 carried the banner “Biya shocks Commonwealth with speech in French”. Of course more shocking is the fact that in our fifty-five years as a bicultural country no Executive state address has ever been delivered in English before being translated and read by someone else in French.
On March 9th 1990, I was arrested and detained for two weeks in the Brigade Mixte Mobile (BMM) cell in Ekondo Titi for writing a Memorandum to the effect that the then Minister of National Education, Mr Joseph Mboui addressed Anglophone students of Government High School Mundemba entirely in French.
Granted, more Ministers today switch between English and French than it was the case some twenty years ago. But there is a difference between individual bilingualism as an option and state bilingualism as a policy.
Petitions, Picketing, lone-range crusading, Policy dialogue Meetings, Media articles, Reports, Group advocacy campaigns and Memorandums have been addressed to the Government of Cameroon to respect Article 1 (3) of the country’s constitution and Presidential decree of 1996 which both emphasise that all official documents for public consumption shall be in English and French.
What all these advocacy campaigns suggest is that, to quote Dr Peter Wuteh Vakunta, Cameroon’s official bilingual policy is a mere statement of intent. Though strongly articulated in official policy documents Cameroon’s bilingual policy remains a mere manifesto on paper.
The Example from Wales
Thanks to a Commonwealth Professional Fellowship tenable at the Minority Rights Group, London early this year (February-May 2016), I had the opportunity of taking practical field lessons in Cardiff, Wales where I engaged the Welsh Language Commissioner Madam Meri Huws and also observed first hand the bilingual parity (Welsh and English languages) in the public spaces in Cardiff city centre and British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Cymru (Wales).
The two principal aims of the Welsh Language Commissioner are to ensure that the Welsh language is treated no less favourably than the English language so that Welsh speakers gain access to the highest possible quality of service and also persons in Wales should be able to live their lives through the medium of the Welsh language if they choose to do so.
The Welsh Language Commissioner is informed by three core principles:
- Compliance (there is a duty on public bodies with statutory Welsh language schemes to make sure that services for the public comply with the scheme’s requirements),
- Complaints (you can complain to the Commissioner about an organization’s failure to comply with a standard, about an organization’s failure to implement its Welsh language scheme or if you feel that someone has interfered with your freedom to use the Welsh language in Wales),
- Enforcement (if the Commissioner suspects that an organization is failing to comply with its language scheme, whether by means of a complaint received or by holding reviews or investigations, she may hold a statutory investigation under section 17 of the Welsh Language Act 1993 to decide if there was a failure. In case of failure the Commissioner has the possibility of imposing a civil penalty on a relevant person for failing to comply).
These three cardinal values give the Commissioner the roles of watch dog, advisor, whistle blower, regulator and jurist.
Bilingualism Best Practices
My tour of the Cardiff city centre brought me face to face with some of the best practices in preparing bilingual designs and producing bilingual signage in the public domain.
For any bilingual public design to be effective, both the client and designer are expected to be aware from the outset that the finished product will include both languages. The same font, font style, format, typeface, colour, size, clarity, prominence or quality are used for both languages. The two languages are not mixed in an inconsistent or haphazard manner but done to ensure that both languages are separated and easily identified (use of block by block, parallel columns or top and bottom formats).
Organizations in Wales have already understood that branding a business, product or service bilingually gives customers and potential customers a strong message and the organization a visual identity. All citizens but especially public servants are required to package any information in the two languages.
The question of translation is very critical as only qualified and professional translators with expertise in technical jargon are hired (there exists a directory of professional translators according to their areas of experience on a website as well as a Bilingual Drafting, Translation and Interpretation advice document on the Commissioner’s website). This Welsh formula has been so acclaimed that the Welsh Language Commissioner has now become a member of the International Association of Language Commissioners (IALC) that was created in 1996. Countries represented in the IALC include Canada, Ireland, Spain (Catalan, Basque), Kosovo, Belgium and of course Wales.
No bilingual country from Africa is yet a member mainly because such Commission (er)s do not exist in their countries so far. It would therefore be an unprecedented quantum leap for Cameroon to create a functional Bilingual Commission, implement the spirit and letter of its constitutional provisions, transform decrees pertaining to bilingualism into reality, respect the statutes of the Bilingual Commission and eventually seek admission into the IALC. The legitimate question is can a country which ignores Article 1 (3) of its supreme law of the land take on board the statutes of a Commission?
Be it as it may, to hurriedly dismiss the creation of a Bilingual Commission as another cosmetic, decorative and toothless institution would be to downplay the minimal yet significant impact similar bodies like the National Human Rights Commission, National Communication Council and the National anti-corruption Commission have been making in the behavioral, institutional and policy changes in Cameroon.
*Mwalimu George Ngwane is a Chevening conflict management Fellow, York, UK (2010), Rotary Peace Fellow, Bangkok, Thailand (2015), Commonwealth Professional Fellow, London, UK (2015), writer and Author of a forthcoming book “Diary of a Dismissed Delegate”.