English and the
Art of Wildebeest Hunting
I am delighted to have been
invited to this annual English Language Society
Award Ceremony to accept your prestigious Prize
for Promotion of the English Language.
This award was given for a
groundbreaking collaboration between English
university undergraduates and an African tribe.
The project arose from
desire by students at a major English university
to enhance the lives of people in the Third World.
The African Umbagwi Tribe
of hunter-gatherers was selected, and the
president of the Students Union wrote to me,
as chief of that tribe, offering assistance to
modernise our lifestyle and culture.
The concern was much
appreciated, although as soon as I began to read
his letter, I was deeply moved by the appalling
situation obviously endured by those unfortunate
I recalled that a school
had been built in our Umbagwi village in the 1960s,
coinciding with radical change in English
education. In England, traditional systematic
teaching methods had been abandoned in favour of
unstructured and undirected learning
experiences aimed at developing the
creativity of young people. The Umbagwi School
had thus been the fortunate recipient of a forty
foot container from England packed with
unfashionable, discarded English textbooks and
unwanted major works of English literature.
My grandfather, then chief
of the Umbagwi people, had no knowledge of
fashionable English teaching methods, and so he
had simply instructed we children to do the
exercises in the books and read the literature.
He could never have known that this strategy
would lead to the Umbagwi Tribe having the
highest standard of spoken and written English in
Since childhood, I have
regularly read English newspapers. I knew that
English educational carnage since the 1960s had
resulted in few literate English people below the
age of fifty. That letter, however, brought home
to me the scale of the human tragedy. It was
scrawled by an English Literature honours student
who, it was clear, might struggle to comprehend
the destination board on the front of a bus. He
would certainly have been severely challenged by
the grammar, phraseology, spelling and
punctuation required to leave a note for the
I think of England as the
birthplace of Shakespeare and Milton. Indeed,
after a hard day of hunting wildebeest on the
savannah, I like nothing better than to relax
with the poetry of Wordsworth or Shelley. My
heart was saddened, therefore, to think of the
literary heritage lost to my correspondent and
his peers. I resolved that my Tribe must do all
in our power to help them.
The rest is history. Groups
of English undergraduates now regularly journey
to our village.
Initially, they proposed
this to be a reciprocal arrangement: We would
teach them English and they would enhance our
backward culture. We Umbagwi, however, were
sanguine of our culture. For example, we esteem
hunting wildebeest and, at the risk of immodesty,
are indubitably proficient thereat. We therefore
now primarily concentrate on imparting language
skills to our guests and introducing them to the
wonders of English Literature.
We have also, of course,
introduced them to the pleasures of hunting
wildebeest. Some have even begun to question what
it is about twenty-first century western culture
that is in any way superior to the lifestyle
enjoyed by the Umbagwi.
Now, that is progress.