RFI and Voice of America learn Manding

African languages such as Swahili and Hausa have a long history of being used by foreign broadcasters such as the BBC, Radio France International (RFI) and Voice of Russia (formerly known as Radio Moscow). That said, despite its massive spread across West Africa and historical and current status as a lingua franca, none of them have offered Manding language programming in recent years. Now in the last two years both France’s RFI and the United States’ Voice of America (VOA) have both made moves to offer Manding language programming.

It’s hard to divorce this new Manding-language programming from Mali’s 2012 coup and subsequent Islamist takeover in the North. Indeed, Voice of America’s promotional material for the new broadcasting is very explicit about the connection. As early as August 2012, “with the free flow of information being stifled by Islamic militants in northern Mali” they introduced a mobile friendly service. This service, Mali1, seems to have simply been a series of newscasts that ran in French and Songhai (the principle language of the major cities of Northern Mali) for one year (08/2012-08/2013) and were hosted on their Tumblr website in low quality formats that could easily be streamed by mobile phone users. VOA continued to make moves though and in January 2013 “as Malian, French, and Nigerian forces look to push back an Islamist alliance that has taken over much of the north” they reached a deal for a new antenna to offer 24/7 FM radio broadcasts of their French-language service through a station based in the capital, Bamako. Even at this time though VOA expressed an interest in “looking into translating news into Bambara.” A month later VOA officially announced that Manding/Bambara language programming would be available by March 2013. Produced in Washington DC, this 30 minute news segment, Mali Kura (‘New Mali’), began officially on March 4, 2013.

As the VOA press releases make clear, Manding language programming (just as Songhai) appeared because of Mali being seen as a new frontier in a global war against Islamists (I can remember a Fox News style talk of Mali as a potential “Africanistan”). It appears that Songhai-language programming has been completely abandoned at this point; perhaps unsurprising in light of French troops and subsequently the Malian government being able to re-establish control of the major Songhai-speaking cities. But why then continue on with Manding/Bambara language programming at all when most Manding-speakers live far from the former or current threat of rebels or Islamist militants?

VOA has variously characterized Bambara as being spoken “in the Bamako region”; by “more than two million people” or vaguely but most appropriately as a language that is “easily understood by much of the population”. Manding/Bambara is spoken by an estimated 80% of the Malian population as either a first or second language. If this figure is anywhere close to correct than it’s accurate to say that it’s spoken by upwards of 10 million people in Mali alone. If influencing the “New Mali” requires comprehension of the message then it’s unsurprising that VOA would opt to offer Manding alongside the French programming that listeners may sociolinguistically prefer. And they indeed seems to be moving in this direction: this January VOA began a Manding-medium call-in showAn ba fo [sic. — it’s more accurately written and translated as such: An b’a fɔ ‘We say it’] and even posted a job offer for a Managing Editor of Bambara Language Programming in September.

While the VOA push for Manding programming seems significant, it’s really the recent news about the diplomatic channel of France’s (RFI’s) plans for Manding that represents a real language policy coup. When the US’s VOA offers programming in French to Africa, it’s likely simply regarded as more practical. Mali remains an officially Francophone country with essentially all government activities carried out in French (e.g., legislation, schooling etc.) and therefore necessarily has a sociopolitical elite and range of the general population in all parts of the country that speak French. Critically this is also the case for much of Africa in general and it’s therefore ultimately easier for the US to just invest in French language programming when it comes to broadcasting to parts of the world that are not deemed as being of any major strategic importance. When Mali and the Sahel are suddenly on the front pages and understood to be a new front in the US’s confrontation with Islamist militants though it becomes important for VOA and the US to actually have their message understood by a larger segment of the population and they unsurprisingly opt for adding Manding and Songhai programming. France, on the other hand, has very direct stakes when it comes to language policy and Mali.

Mali and much of Africa are an essential part of France’s narrative of the global French-speaking community or Francophonie. While French clearly remains a language of global importance, it’s unquestionable that it’s status has been in decline since the rise of English as a global lingua franca in the 20th and 21st centuries. Francophone Africa remains one of the few places in the world where knowing English will get you more or less nowhere in day-to-day life — simply put, French can be essential for survival (though I’d argue that if you’re interested in living and not just surviving then an African lingua franca might be a better bet). Couple this with geographic spread and a growing population and it’s easy to see how Francophone Africa is an integral part of France’s narrative of French being a world language. France’s RFI broadcasts does broadcast in 2 African languages but both, Hausa and Swahili, are languages that are most dominant in Anglophone Africa. RFI’s intention to begin producing programming in Manding [note their use of Manding over VOA’s choice of “Bambara”, discussed below] is therefore a fascinating evolution because it is akin to France recognizing that Francophone Africa might not actually be, well, Francophone (or at least not in the monolingual, standard way that Westerners would like). While I’m thrilled regardless, I’m sure that the notion of the Francophonie in Africa is nowhere close to being abandoned by RFI or France. Maybe they’re simply taking a page out of Educational Linguistics research and realizing that they have better chance of teaching/spreading French if they can first connect with people in their first language or a language that they already master.

One final thing of note is the different approaches to varieties when it comes to Manding-language programming. Radio Moscow operated in Guinean Maninka from what I understand, but I believe that the broadcast also surely reached (via short-wave only?) speakers of other varieties such Bambara or Jula [Update 11/14/2014 — according to Valentin Vydrin, Radio Moscow actually operated in Malian Bambara and not Maninka — he has a couple of transcripts even]. VOA has opted to call it’s service a Bambara-language program which is unsurprising given that it’s program operates as if it were specifically for Malians (take for instance the show’s name “Mali Kura”). They do broadcast on FM out of Bamako but I am wondering if this reaches outside of Mali. Per their own admission “Bambara” is also spoken in Burkina Faso (interestingly they omit Côte d’Ivoire despite the fact that Burkinabè and Ivorians (and even some Malians!) both call their form of Manding Jula). I’m also just curious what VOA’s audience is in Mali or the region now that they have an FM transmitter — I constantly heard and listened to RFI throughout my 2.5 years in Burkina, Mali, Guinea and Togo between 2009 and 2013 but never once heard someone listening to VOA. The director of France Médias Monde states that their programming will be in Manding (which encompasses the completely to largely mutually intelligible varieties of Bambara, Maninka and Jula) and based out of Bamako but will be diffused throughout the region. Given the mutual intelligibility and shared cultural identity of Manding-speakers despite national borders, this seems like the smartest investment. And given RFI’s strong listenership in the entire region, it’ll be fascinating how this could play a role in further diffusing Manding or continuing to codify one variety as a standard register. [Update 11/14/2014 — according to Valentin Vydrin, RFI’s plans for Manding programming are quite serious but they are planning on broadcasting in multiple Manding varieties. It’s unclear whether the variety would freely vary between shows or be targeted for where the shows were broadcast.]

Alright this is turning into my dissertation. Over and out. Kɔ́fɛ̀.

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4 thoughts on “RFI and Voice of America learn Manding

  1. I feel like there needs to be a visual or meta-linguistic system for explaining/ representing situations like this– dialect continua, where there aren’t clear ‘language’ boundaries, where most people are multilingual, where labels for languages and dialects overlap or contradict or get twisted for different political purposes. I struggle with this in terms of ‘Zapotec’ which includes mutually unintelligible variants, a variety of labels, etc.
    Maybe this system could have the descriptive linguistic layer of info, the political layer, and the popular conceptions layer, just to show how the 3 often diverge, and how understanding the reality means untangling these knots.
    Or maybe such a system is a doomed-to-fail attempt to reconcile the reality of human communicative practices with the notion of ‘A Language’ and ‘Languages’… But surely even within a parole-based paradigm, there’s room for structure and meta-paroling…

  2. First of all, sorry my comment is a complete departure from what you acually wrote about– which is super interesting & I hope it does become your dissertation or at least an article.
    Basically I was trying to think about how to represent the layers of, well, representation or language-labelling that are described in phrases like:
    “Per their own admission “Bambara” is also spoken in Burkina Faso (interestingly they omit Côte d’Ivoire despite the fact that Burkinabè and Ivorians (and even some Malians!) both call their form of Manding Jula).”

    So that really lovely map does the trick in terms of the linguistic description layer, but doesn´t show us the political interpretation/ representation layer that you’re talking about, or popular conceptions layer. Perhaps the best way to do this is just use plain terms and say ‘the government calls X Y’, most people call X Z, linguists describe X this way… And not bother with other terms. But I’m tempted to think that if there were other terms to distinguish these things it would help deconstruct the myth of Language as a fixed and autonomous object.

  3. Nice background and discussion, and still useful as we are on the eve of the RFI Manding service’s first scheduled broadcast (on 10/19/2015). Your mention of VOA’s cluelessness about the extent of use of Bambara is slightly alarming – although it is probably no worse than that among development planners and policy makers with minimal on-the-ground experience in Mali (and maybe even some with such experience). A lot more can be written on that general topic…

    Further to your comments about the significance of RFI’s venture into broadcasting in a major African language spoken mainly in Francophone states, note also that RFI’s Hausa service began only in 2007, well after that of the other main international radio operations. Most Hausa speakers of course are in northern Nigeria, but roughly half the population of Niger speaks Hausa as L1.

    And as mentioned in other fora, we’ll watch for the eventual webpages for RFI’s new service (which Valentin suggests might come a bit later).

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