I was recently delighted to be invited to the annual English Language Society Award Ceremony to accept their 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, Chief Humbugwa and head 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 English undergraduates.
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 the World.
Since childhood, I have regularly read English newspapers. I knew that English educational carnage since the 1960's 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 milkman.
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.