Monday, April 24, 2017

Dissertations written in African languages

A recent news item on a doctoral dissertation written in Xhosa at Rhodes University by Hleze Kunju brings up the question: How many dissertations have been written in what African languages?1 This post won't provide a definitive answer, but will point to some information2 in the hopes of eliciting some responses and developing a more complete picture.

First, Dr. Kunju's dissertation, entitled "IsiXhosa ulwimi lwabantu abangesosininzi eZimbabwe: ukuphila nokulondolozwa kwaso," is the first PhD thesis in Xhosa at Rhodes. It considers a Xhosa community in present day Zimbabwe that had responded to incentives given (but not followed through on) by Cecil Rhodes, The news article describes this work as "'a milestone' for Xhosa academic writing and a glimmer of hope in the quest for a decolonised and transformed education system in [South Africa]."

The same article mentions that seven other doctoral students at Rhodes have done their writing in African languages, without giving more details.

This story brought to mind one from last decade where Gatua wa Mbugwa wrote his PhD dissertation in plant science at the University of Wyoming in 2008 in both Gikuyu and Engish (abstract in English here). This was after doing the same with his master's thesis at Cornell University - writing in Gikuyu and translating into English. These were remarkable efforts, praised as an inspiring model by author Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who said that Dr. wa Mbugwa "almost single-handedly invented scientific Gikuyu language, thus proving that scientific research can be reported in an African Language without loss of scientific content and value."

There are other examples. In South Africa again, for instance, Zinhle Nkosi wrote her 2011 dissertation at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Zulu. It was about the teaching of Zulu at the primary school level, and the work on it "meant finding the right terms to describe research methodology and theories of language and learning." Dr. Nkosi subsequently supervised master's students writing their theses in Zulu.

First PhD dissertation in Yoruba in 1990

In Nigeria, there have apparently been doctoral dissertations written in Yoruba, going back to the first one at Obafemi Awolowo University, Department of African Languages and Literatures in 1990 (according to Prof. Lawrence Adewole on his Yoruba for Academic Purpose blog). Master's theses go back to 1981, As of 2015, there had been five PhD dissertations written in Yoruba at that institution. It is interesting that this was evidently the result of a deliberate departmental policy.

I do not at this time know whether similar policies have been implemented at other institutions in Nigeria or dissertations written in other Nigerian languages. Prof. Adewole's survey of published works and dissertations in Yoruba3 would have more on what has been done in that language (I don't presently have access to the book).

It has been suggested that there have been dissertations and theses written in Hausa at universities in northern Nigeria, but I have seen no references. In terms of time scale, a bibliography of doctoral dissertations in 1946-76 shows only English titles,4 so perhaps we are looking only at the period since 1976 for work in Nigerian languages?

Swahili established in academia

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, given the extent of use of Swahili and its policy support by several governments in East Africa for decades, this language is fairly widely used in academic writing. A 2003 discussion of Swahili academic style5 mentions among the categories of writing consulted, "Dissertations submitted to the Swahili Departments of various Universities in East and Central Africa." (Note the apparent limitation in terms of discipline.)

I have no information on the first PhD dissertation in Swahili, though that may go back a number of years. Nor did I find any figures on the numbers of theses written in this language, but it must be significant.

Few PhD dissertations, but many master's theses in Amharic

Ethiopia, one of the two countries on the continent never to be colonized and one of the few to have an indigenous language in an official role - Amharic - is a case where one might expect to see doctoral theses in that language. Indeed there are evidently a few PhD dissertations in Amharic, but apparently a fair number of master's theses. See for example a list of theses in Amharic Language, Literature, and Folklore at Addis Ababa University.

Some dissertations have gone beyond language itself, such as one entitled "ባህልና ልማት በበርታ ብሔረሰብ" ("Culture and Development in the Berta Ethnic Group").

Other languages in other countries

It may be that no Francophone university in West Africa has any examples of doctoral dissertations written in an African language. I had thought that maybe Guinea during the Sékou Touré years might have some examples, but apparently universities there did not offer doctoral degrees and master's theses were in French. One apparent innovation in Guinea at the time was that theses had abstracts in one or another national language - something that might be considered at universities elsewhere on the continent today.

That leaves many languages and countries on the continent unaccounted for, so hopefully I can return to this topic with more complete information.


The typical pattern, such as emerges from the very limited survey above, is for dissertations and theses in African languages to be accepted only in departments of African languages and literature, and for there to be some production of master’s theses in an African language before any dissertation. However, there are exceptions.

The first two examples above, concerning dissertations about history and plant science, are examples of using African languages for complex subjects other than the languages themselves, and their use or teaching, The scholars involved found an advantage to writing in their first language and in so doing innovated in those languages - Xhosa and Gikuyu - as well as in their respective academic fields. These examples stand out, but as the dissertation title in Amharic mentioned above indicates, they are not unique.

So, as we develop a list of dissertations in African languages, particular attention should be paid to the range of disciplines concerned.

Also important to track are university and departmental policies on use of African languages in writing theses - changing to permit this, such as at Rhodes University, or actually encouraging such writing, such as at Obafemi Awolowo University.

1. I have not included Arabic in this analysis, since it is a widely used international language.
2. Thanks to Lawrence Adewole, Solomon Atnafu, John Philips, Charles Riley, and Valentin Vydrine for their willingness to share information they have. I take full responsibility for any innacuracies in this post, however.
3. L.O. Adewole. 1987. The Yoruba Language: Published Works and Doctoral Dissertations, 1843-1986. Hamburg: Helmut Burke Verlag. (Review available online.)
4. E.S. Muogilim. 1982. "Nigerian Education: A Classified Bibliography of Doctoral Dissertations , 1946-1976." A Current Bibliography on African Affairs Vol. 14, Issue 3.
5. H.J.M Mwansanko. 2003. "Swahili in Academic Writing." Nordic Journal of African Studies 12(3): 265–276.


Tafsir BALDE said...

Un article très intéressant.
Ps: Permettez moi de poster mon commentaire en frnçais.

J'ai lu dans le journal Béninois intitulé "gorado" (en langue Batonoum) et "lilaaɗo" (en pulaar du Benin), dans son n°14 sur un mémoire soutenu en langue africaine dans l'une des universités du Bénin. Sauf que je n'arrive plus a le retrouver sur le site du journal!

Par ailleurs, l'université du Caire a aussi soutenu des thèses de Doctorat en Fulfulde depuis des années. Docteur Abdou Bah qui est professeur du pulaar a cette université nous dira plus de détails sur ces thèses de Doctorats soutenues a l'université du Caire.

Don said...

On jaaraama Tafsir. Merci pour ces informations. On peut poser une question à propos du mémoire soutenu en langue béninoise sur la liste H-West_Africa pour voir (je peux le faire). Il serait bien aussi de contacter le département des études africaines à l'université de Cairo - je me demande s'il n'y a pas aussi des thèses soutenues en n'ko.

Tafsir BALDE said...

Pour le cas du N'KO, j'ai demandé un expert en la matière, mais il paraitrait qu'il n'y a pas de mémoires ou thèses de Doctorats soutenues en N'Ko.