Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Student demonstrations this morning in Niamey. Happens just often enough that one loses track of exactly what the issue is - generally something with the bourses, that is the student living stipends, but sometimes politics.

On the national scene the local elections have been postponed from March to June. Not sure if there is a connection. (The curious can check out some of the links at J. Mayer's page - click on the link to that in the left column under "Niger" - for sources of news.)

I wrote an e-mail with a quick take on my interests (a networking/jobhunting thing important even as the clock ticks down...) which I'll revise part of a bit for this venue:

In effect I have one foot in language & multilingual ICT and the other in agriculture, environment and rural development. What links the two are

  • a conviction about the nature and importance of agriculture in human society (goes beyond the obvious; the relentless focus on production is leading to some very questionable results), and an interest in enhancing opportunities for smallholder farming families in poorer countries

  • an approach to land & resource management that emphasizes "putting the mind on the land" beginning with local knowledge (not stopping there, of course) and using various low & high tech tools of spatial imaging

  • a view of "development" that goes back to its core meaning of "unfolding, revealing potentialities" (if you start from there rather than the usual usages of the term, you get a much broader set of goals)

  • seeing education or "learning" as the dynamic thread linking these interests (with a Freirian accent - though this is pretty mainstream now)

  • understanding of the importance of one's first language in learning, "owning," and generating knowledge (but for various reasons most of education & development approaches in Africa minimize this)

  • the strong impression from experience that multilingual societies function differently from monolingual ones in ways that people used to monolingual living (or even alternating from one to another more or less monolingual setting using different languages) don't easily appreciate

  • recognition of the importance of language skills in life success and social skills, and that current education systems and economic factors are producing in Africa many people with what one might call "impaired bilingualism" (no schooling in the first language(s) and more or less limited acquisition of the language of instruction - the worst of both worlds when in fact the best of both is possible)

The latter is an interesting line of reasoning I have only recently begun to really think about - the suggestion being that inadequate skills in self-expression lead to social and psychological problems esp. in men (?), and that lack of words, of language skills, effectively equals inadequacy. A quote I ran across by Australian author John Marsden a couple of months ago got me thinking along these lines: "Language impoverishment can lead to frustration, impotence and/or rage."

Is lack of language education, within the broadly recognized "lack of education" (which tends to get reduced to the also important but different domain of vocational education - as if young people don't need to think as long as they learn to do), an underappreciated factor in problems in disadvantaged communities? And lack of good bilingual language education a factor in polyglot societies? A lot of the youth caught up in the violent armed groups in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Côte d'Ivoire, for instance, are probably really fluent in no language - whether there is any link or not I think is is a valid question to look at. Obviously all the violence plays out in a context of social, political and economic issues - but
how it is playing out may have something to do with a rootless/hopeless generation that speaks neither maternal language nor external language well. George Packer's descriptions of the youth in CI are worth rereading in this context.

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