“I’ll fight till I see Amharic AU’s working languages”- Rahmatou Keïta

Today’s guest is a Nigerien journalist, writer, and film director, Rahmatou Keïta. Born in Niger, she began film career in 1990.

After studying philosophy and linguistics in Paris, Keïta started her career in France. Before becoming a movie director, she made a name for herself as a journalist for European TV channels. She appeared on the cultural program L’assiette anglaise on France 2.

She directs short films and created the TV series Femmes d’Afrique (Women from Africa) (26 x 26-minute episodes, 1993–1997), which screened on national channels in Africa. With friends, Keïta started Sonrhay Empire productions to produce films “off the beaten track.” In 2005, her first feature film, Al’eessi…, about pioneers of African cinema such as Zalika Souley was selected at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Sojourner Truth Award. Al’lèèssi… received several awards, including the Best Documentary Award in Montreal and at the FIFAI.

A committed activist for African causes, Keïta is a founding member of the Panafrican Association for Culture (ASPAC) and takes an active part in the dialogue of cultures and civilizations. In 2016, her film Zin’naariya! (The Wedding Ring) was released.

For years, Keïta has been struggling to make Amharic the official language of the African Union. While she was in Addis, The Ethiopian Herald had a short stay with Keïta to know the effort she made so far to realize her dream and the feeling she has about Ethiopia in general.

What inspired you to stand by the side of Ethiopia’s Amharic language and strive to make it an official language of the AU?

For the first time, I came here to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to participate in the African Union summit, which was held between 2008 and 2009. When I first visited the AU, I observed the establishment document of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), which was signed by our four fathers. Surprisingly, I don’t see any documents written in Amharic and Geez languages. That was the thing that surprised me.

As a linguist, I understood that Geez is one of the most ancient alphabets in the world, and Amharic is one of the nine official languages in Ethiopia. I started to research why Amharic, the language widely spoken throughout the country, is not used as an official language of the AU. Ethiopians are always used to speaking their own native languages instead of using others. We have to talk to or communicate with Amharic.

In 1963, the founding fathers of the OAU decided to use languages that were spoken on the entire African continent as the official language of the organization. At that time, Arabic was one of the most widely used languages, apart from other colonial languages such as Portuguese, Spanish, French, and English. However, the treaty of the African Union is written in Amharic and Geez. I thought Emperor Haile Selassie I, who was also one of the founding fathers of the OAU, refrained from raising the idea of making Amharic the official language of the AU when the agreement was signed in Ethiopia. He just did not want to push them for that. Nevertheless, Swahili was selected as one of the official languages of the OAU.

Later on, I discovered that Alpha Oumar Konaré, the former president of Mali and the African Union Commission, put Swahili as one of the official languages of the AU. Later, when I became familiar with that, I tried to talk to the president to understand who could do it. However, I could not do that as he was ill. Other officials who were working with him told me that he would call when he was good. He later died.

The second important point is that even if we have some alphabets and languages in Africa, some of them have disappeared due to invaders distractive roles. As language is a human treasure, we have to protect our alphabet for future use. When I kicked off the straggle, the population of Ethiopia was 80 to 100 million, and now the number has grown to 120 million.

The world population is now greater than eight billion. I stand up for making Amharic one of the official languages of the African Union, having a vision of protecting the language from being vanished. Even if it is the language of 120 million people, it could disappear if we do not give it serious attention and protect it.

Now, English has become the world’s medium of communication and serves as a tool for the exchange of goods and services. It has been used as an economic language around the world, which greatly contributes to its prosperity. Africans with deep pockets send their kids to foreign countries to have better education abroad, especially in the US, and the poor Africans dream of being rich in western schools. On the other hand, the language of these rich people is less and less used for thought.

One of the arguments raised here is to protect our treasures. A people can exist if they have their own language and culture. If our language appears and the culture disappears, we don’t exist anymore. We have to protect all the languages that exist in Africa. Amharic, which has its own ancient alphabet, is one of the languages. Researchers find Geez in the hieroglyphs. This indicates that it is more ancient than we think. A hieroglyph has now disappeared. So let us work together for the survival of Geez and Amharic by making them the AU’s official languages. That is how I started my campaign. Everywhere I go, I talk to people in and out of Africa. As a film director, I have been promoting my campaign while I attend various international film conferences. Some of my friends understand that it is a wonderful idea and appreciate my campaign.

Amharic has now become a language spoken in a range of countries, including Sudan, Egypt, Djibouti, Eritrea, and the USA. When I go to Los Angeles, for instance, there is a town called “Little Ethiopia.” If you don’t know Amharic, you have faced challenges in performing any activity. Students are taught the Amharic language in schools and universities. Some people who reside in Germany, England, and Israel used to speak Amharic. Our sisters and brothers, who go back to their  roots, are also taught the Amharic language in Israel. No one could say that it was just in Ethiopia. We have to have a lot of arguments that we need to convince.

When I started the campaign in 2009, I talked to Meles Zenawi, the former Prime Minister of Ethiopia. He appreciated the idea, but it is not regulation. He gave me hope to meet and talk about the matter and to discover ways of realizing it. He then became ill and died. However, he was highly interested in the matter. Now it is not my interest alone; it is the curiosity of all Africans.

Is there any progress that you can mention here as a success?

In Africa, we have a lot of people who speak their own languages. The effort to make Amharic the official language is a process that takes some time. So, it is not considered a simple task. In my country, Niger, Hausa was the most widely spoken local language in Nigeria, as it was used by more than 48 million people. Following this were Yoruba, Nigerian Pidgin, Igbo, and Fulfulde, which registered approximately 39.5 million, 30 million, 27 million, and 22 million speakers, respectively.

We are still speaking our languages, even if we are facing various challenges, including the brainwashing education of colonization culture. We still exist. The second thing is, we cannot present the entire quest you have at a time. My struggle is to make Amharic one of the official languages of the African Union. Because I am not from Ethiopia, people interview me curiously or write papers on the matter.

When I started the campaign, people were laughing at me. It may succeed or not. However, if you want to fight to gain something, you have to start on your own, and that is the reason I decided to have an Amharic title (generic) for my film, The Wedding Ring, even though the task is very expensive. The Wedding Ring was my last film in the Oscar computation for best foreign language, and the generic subtitle of the film was in Amharic. When you came to the Oscar theater, we all, the stars of Hollywood, kept silent when Amharic subtitles came, and after the screen all came to us, they asked me; “What is this? I replied that it was Amharic. “Are you from Ethiopia?”, They asked me, Are you from Ethiopia?, I responded that I am from Niger. All film makers are writing subtitles for their films in their countries languages.

What is your message for those who want to join your campaign?

Anyone can come and join my campaign. Of course, there are some who conducted research and thought about the Amharic language. So, if they are convinced of what I am doing, they have to join me and make the campaign stronger. As far as I know, it is a national issue, and your Minister of Foreign Affairs, Taye Atskeselasse, proposed Amharic as the new official language of the AU while making a speech at the 37th ministerial summit.

My campaign is considered a pan-African movement, while the minister is national. So, the campaign will be stronger, and for that, we need some time. I, for instance, met Foreign Minister Taye at the African summit, and we deliberated on the matter. They have the power, but we only have the commitment to do that. When I started the campaign, I did not know anybody. And I am convinced culturally and psychologically to do the task. As we are in a cultural war, Africans are convinced I should do that.

People don’t think about their culture as they are tightening up in their daily routine tasks. You have to be strong in defending those who act against cultural invaders. There are a lot of places in Africa where war is still a challenge for our culture. When you are in a war situation, there are a lot of things you do not know or think about. If we knew each other better, things would not be beyond our capacity. If we are all humans, humanity comes from Ethiopia. People of Africa, people of the first humanity, should have a chance to show peace, love, and the significance of culture to the world. Now, we are really cautious about culture. However, our children are reliant on the internet instead of writing books.

Is there any organization that assists you in realizing your reverie?

So far, no one has assisted me. Undeniably, some people are giving moral support. As you all know, every campaign has its own cost and it also takes time for your own work. Sometimes, the campaign requires traveling to a certain places and you have to cover expenses related to transportation, accommodation, and so on. The African Union summit is a place where heads of state assemble to pass decisions on various issues. After I arrived here, I talked to a lot of high-level officials, including the Chairperson of the AU Commission, Musafaki Mahamat.

I sent a letter to President Paul Kagame, President Felix Tshisekedi, and President Azali Assoumani, the ones who became the present AU president. I have also written a letter and informed them well about the campaign. As your minister asked, we have to go fast to make Amharic an official language of the AU this year. The AU chairperson, Musafaki, will be replaced by a newly elected commissioner of AU. If we are not successful this year, we are forced to start the agenda from scratch with the newly elected commissioner.

I gave a letter personally to the existing AU commissioner and talked about the issue, as it is one of the steps to follow for the success of the campaign. As I told you earlier, I promote the Amharic language wherever I go so as to achieve my vision. In order to succeed in this noble cause, we need the intervention of prominent people such as Athlete Haile Gebre Selase and Mo Ibrahim to be with us in resolving some financial bottlenecks.

As a linguist, you know that every language has its own philosophy, and what is new you came across in Amharic?

I think each language is special. Each language has its own way to see the world, its own way to think, and its own philosophy. This should be protected. The special thing that I see in the Amharic and Geez languages is, they have 94 percent of all African tones. You cannot write them in Latin or Asian languages. It has its own unique alphabets, called “Fidel” or “ha, hu,” and number systems. Its consonants and vowel sounds are merged into distinct orthographic characters, i.e., one character is a complete phoneme or sound system.

So, Amharic has the base of all African sounds. It is strange because no one of these languages has all these tones. When I say 94 percent, if you take one of the South African languages—Xhosa—Amharic does not have all the tones of Xhosa. I know they have their own way to write it too. A language found in Africa that has all the African language tones is Amharic. For me, it is evidence. If the office of the AU were in another country, I would not look for it. I just came here to Ethiopia; I know this alphabet and language.

Thank you very much.

It is my pleasure.



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