top of page

Africa and Her Languages - Kin by Tongue

Updated: Jul 15, 2020

The points at which various cultures and languages converge has always been a source of great fascination for me, as such, it is always exciting when I stumble upon fragments of my culture in other varying cultures.

Linguists have carried out research that traces the origin of all human languages to a single African mother tongue which was spoken about 50,000 to 70,000 years ago. In Christianity and Judaism, the story of the Tower of Babel also asserts that all languages originated from one, before they were scattered into various tongues by Yahweh.

“Ubuntu” is a word in the Zulu language of South Africa which means humanity. Its literal translation means “I am because we are”. The word has gained relevance in mainstream culture due to its powerful message of humanist philosophy. Various African cultures are replete with words which have a shared meaning with “Ubuntu”. Among the Xhosa who share linguistic and cultural ties with Zulu, “Umntu” is a word that captures the meaning of humanity. In Angola, Mozambique and Tanzania, the words used are “Gimuntu”, “Vumuntu”, and “Bumuntu”, respectively.

“Ubuntu” and its various forms are not only found in the Southern, Eastern and Central regions of Africa. It is also present in a number of Nigerian Languages, such as Hausa, Igbo and Yandang. Being a fluent speaker of the Hausa language, it has often struck me how the word “Mutum”, which signifies humanity, mankind or man, bears a resemblance to the Xhosa “Umntu”.

“Ubuntu”, though retaining its meaning - takes on a slightly different spelling among the Shona of Zimbabwe, where it is referred to as “Uhnu”. It however bears close resemblance to “Unu” in my mother- tongue, the Yandang language of Adamawa State and to the “Una” of Igbo language. Both “Unu” and “Una” are plural forms of the personal pronoun “you” which can be used in addressing a group of people (Unu also appears in many Igbo dialects). Thus, in a sense “Unu” and “Una” also refer to “people”, “humanity” or “humankind”.

The Igbo “Una” has loaned itself to Nigerian pidgin English where it retains its original meaning. It has also sailed across the ocean and made a home for itself in the Caribbean Island of Jamaica. There, the word has undergone a slight change in pronunciation, from “Una” to “Unu” - or perhaps it was Igbo slaves with the Unu dialect that popularized it there - either way, it still retains its original meaning. This far- reaching journey of a single word across vast lands and expansive seas, points to the intricate evolution of language, and to the interconnectivity of African cultures.

“Unu” can cum wid me - Jamaican Patois
“Una” fit come with me- Nigerian Pidgin
“Unu” nwe ike e’bia solu’m - Igbo (Nigeria)
All above sentences mean - you can come with me.

Apart from the linguistic links connecting various regions of Africa, parallels can also be drawn from the traditional religious practices that abound on the continent.

The reverence of the sun is one of the most widespread practices which permeated various pre-colonial African cultures. The sun is the source of light and life. without it, the world would be plunged into death and abysmal darkness. Light symbolizes enlightenment; thus, the sun was hailed as the primary source of wisdom.

Similarities can be found among the names of solar deities in various African traditional religions. In modern times the most popularly known African solar deity is the ancient Egyptian “Ra”. The Hausa word for the sun “Rana” has often struck me for its evident similarity to “Ra”. Upon further research, I learned that the worship of a solar goddess named “Ra or Rana”, was prevalent among pre-Islamic Hausa people of Northern-Nigeria and Southern-Niger.

In East-Africa, the Wajjagas of Kilimanjaro in Tanzania refer to the supreme being and the sun as, “Ruwa”. Also, among the Chaga of Kenya, “Iruwa” is the sun, while “Mungu- Iruwa” is the supreme solar deity. Both “Ruwa” and “Iruwa” bear a resemblance to the Egyptian “Ra”.

In Nigeria, the Mumuye and Yandang people of Taraba and Adamawa states also have names for the sun and solar deities which bear similarities to the Egyptian God “Ra”. “La” is used among the Mumuye, while “Ru” is used by the Yandang. In the Yandang language, “Ru bi” literally means “The sun”. it is however used to refer to both “The sun” and to “God”. My middle name, “Rubi Nyakuru” means “God is watching over us”. In its literal sense, it actually means “The sun watches over us”. I think no words could be truer.

Sun worship was also an integral part of pre-colonial Igbo culture. The word for sun, “Anyanwu”, literally translates as “eye of light”. The concept of the sun as an eye can also be seen in the Egyptian depiction of “Ra” with the symbol of an eye, which is popularly known as the “eye of Ra”. There is speculation that the sky deity Amadioha with the root word “Oha” also pronounced as “Ora” meaning “the people” lends to sun veneration as many consider the sun the visible eye of Amadioha - the mastermind of the universe.

Among the Waja people of Adamawa state, the word for sun and the corresponding solar deity is referred to as “Yan”. So also, among the Jukun of Taraba and Nassarawa state, the sun is referred to as “Enu” and the sun god as “Olenu”. Enu is also popular in Igbo when referring to anything “up”. The Eastern state in Nigerian, Enugu, means “On top of the hill”, and with colonialism in full swing, Enuigwe now referes to the Christian heaven - a place on top of the sky.

The words “Anyanwu”, Yan”, “Enu”, “Olenu”, all bear a resemblance with each other, thus pointing to a common linguistic root. They also bear a resemblance to the word “Anu”, which was what the ancient Egyptians called their Heliopolis, the center of sun worship.

Similarities also exist in the modes of worshipping some of these solar deities. In the worship of the Igbo “Anyanwu”, the Waja “Yan”, and the Jukun “Olenu”, a mound of earth is used as a shrine, while priests also study the motions of the sun and moon to keep track of the planting and harvest cycles.

In present day Gorobi village, the ancestral homeland of my people, the Yandang, the mound of earth dedicated to the worship of “Ru” or “Rubi” still survives. However, as a result of conversion to Christianity, the mound now houses a white cross and is often used as a communal hill of prayer.

Africa is home to a myriad of cultures which on the surface seem to be as different from each other as German and Latin. This makes its indigenous people fiercely protective of their national and ethnic identities. It should then come as no surprise that our collective displeasure is often expressed when we hear a Westerner say that they are going to Africa, without actually naming the particular African country they are visiting. We should not be so riled up about being referred to as “Africans”, instead of Mozambicans, Angolans, Kenyans or Nigerians.

Even in our seemingly enormous differences, we are much more connected than we think, through language, culture and shared histories. Our cultural and linguistic bonds are a testament to thousands of years of migratory resilience achieved by our ancestors, from the Northern banks of the Nile, to the grassy savannahs of the Niger area, through the tropical forests of the Congo, the scorchingdesserts of the Kalahari and down to the Southern cape of good hope.

Written by: Lynda Binos

Lynda Rubi Binos is from Mayo- Belwa Adamawa State. She is a fashion designer, freelance writer and editor and an aspiring novelist.

When she’s not sewing, writing, or reading thrilling fiction, she is binge watching all her favorite shows on Netflix.

She writes cultural think pieces on her personal blog, and makes book reviews on YouTube at Lynda reads.


Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page