"Linguistic Revival Will Foster Unity" (Zimbabwe)

Don Osborn dzo at bisharat.net
Thu Apr 19 18:05:52 UTC 2007

The following column from the Harare paper, The Herald, was seen on
AllAfrica.com at http://allafrica.com/stories/200703150023.html .  Don

Zimbabwe: Linguistic Revival Will Foster Unity
The Herald (Harare)
March 15, 2007
Posted to the web March 15, 2007

Stephen Mpofu

ZIMBABWE looks set to mount a human rescue operation whose importance
probably approximates Noah's ark - a linguistic revival.

The recent announcement by the Secretary for Education, Sport and Culture,
Dr Steven Mahere, that Shona and Ndebele will become compulsory subjects up
to Junior Certificate and that all other indigenous languages will be taught
and be examined at Grade Seven might not appear extraordinary to a casual
observer. But if pursued with a clear vision and unflinching determination,
the linguistic renaissance could mark a significant milestone towards
redeeming the bruised robust image of our people to its original identity.

The effects of colonisation, industrialisation and urbanisation have had a
telling impact on the Zimbabwean personality, indeed on black people across
Africa, eroding a common layer of consciousness that our people long shared
about their Africanness. In the absence of a lingua franca, which might be
used to teach science, mathematics, economics, and geography among other
subjects, our mother tongues have suffered a wanton and systematic assailant
by foreign languages with their dysfunctional imperialist cultural values.

This prompted one man of God, Bishop Tudor Bismark of Harare, to talk of
"ShoEnglish" when addressing a church conference in Bulawayo last year.

To complete the cycle of linguistic contamination, one can also talk of
"NdeEnglish" in the same way that other Africans may bemoan the pollution of
languages by colonial French and colonial Portuguese.

In this writer's view, the new languages policy seeks to arouse an
instrumental consciousness to evacuate us from a culture of prostituted
tongues that threaten to be an identity card for our future generations, a
blank card.

This article will attempt to interrogate the languages issue further from
the melting pot, urban set-up, perspective and from the wider context of
Zimbabwe's rural population where most people live, notwithstanding the
urban drift that threatens to overrun social amenities in beleaguered towns
and cities. What immediately comes to mind are names of some provinces that
are misnomers in so far as they give an impression that they
compartmentalise people within tribal homelands similar to South Africa's
former Bantustans.

In that sense, therefore, these names do not appear to be a fillip to a new
beginning in promoting our mother tongues that now play a perpetual
Cinderella role to a colonial language that has strenuously sought to hound
them out of existence.

On the contrary, some of the provincial names would appear to engender a
psychological insularity to a free flow of the will to learn languages
spoken by the majority in the other provinces.

"Mashonaland", "Manicaland, (Manyikaland)", "Matabeleland - (MaNdebeleland)"
-- in this age and time! Better is possible, surely?

To clarify this argument, let us suppose that the provinces concerned are
medical capsules and the people within them affirm their ethnic position
with: "I am what, I am what I am, what I am; complete and powerful within my
capsule. I do not want any intrusion to affect my stuff."

The above names are pregnant with psychological power. So, resistance to a
strange language cannot be completely ruled out given people's pride,
vanity, and sometimes unshakeable, even fatalistic beliefs. Having changed
many place names after independence, is it really too late in the 27th year
of our Uhuru to replace the names of provinces that are tribally connotative
with togetherness -- friendly names?

Consider these: Northern Province, North- Central Province, North-East
Province, Eastern Province, Masvingo, the Midlands, Southern Province,
Western Province, and the metropolitan provinces of Bulawayo and Harare.

That is this sociologist-cum-communicologist's Zimbabwe with "We are one --
Sisonke" as her motto. Let Zimbabweans not forget too soon that some
Machiavellian characters have in the past tried to sow seeds of disunity
riding on the coat-tails of sentiments of people in particular areas with
tribal names by painting a distorted picture that those people were
alienated by the State.

Perhaps those provinces under this spotlight should learn from the Midlands
Province where it is regarded strange for anyone not to speak both Shona and
Ndebele, for instance, at least conversationally.

Equally, great attention, if not greater, and more resources should be given
to the promotion of so-called minority languages within some provinces and
also spoken across Zimbabwean borders.

The Government's "Operation Rescue Tongues", as announced by Dr Mahere, only
tows those languages up to the seventh grade instead of hauling them along
with the national languages, Ndebele and Shona (and English) all the way to
Form Four. We now have a local examinations board in place for both Ordinary
and Advanced Levels, so what is the problem?

If a shortage of materials is the drawback, then those concerned should have
their priorities right. Why not train people from areas where those
languages are spoken to produce the requisite literature that is pregnant
with a national and cultural ethos? That way, communication among the
speakers of the language concerned and other Zimbabweans, not with their
linguistic "cousins" over the border, will improve and unity will be

Language is the cultural lifeblood of a people, colonial regimes neglected
the development of languages spoken within Zimbabwe's border and other areas
with the risk that Zimbabweans and those with whom they shared a common
language in neighbouring countries might have developed an affinity to the
extent of splitting loyalties between countries if the chips were really,
really down.

If people realise that their language is recognised, they will feel
appreciated as people who truly belong in Zimbabwe, come what may.

The melting pot scenario is a real poser, exposing Zimbabwe's false sense of
linguistic security similar to a false sense of active labour security under
which some countries overseas once lived.

In the latter scenario, those countries worshipped family planning as it
were, only to scramble up monetary and other incentives to couples to
produce more babies to avert a looming disaster in commerce and industry
after old age and death had virtually wiped out their active labour force.

In this country, the young, who are the Zimbabwe of the future, appear daily
to slip or to founder in a tongue-less culture with language that has no
form or structure.

Decipher this conversation on a commuter omnibus between two young men who
do not wish the uninitiated to listen in:

A: Twas pu?

B: Maybe taking my jalopee to the garage then going for a nkrid with my Vum
then going for a vumies then a deb.

The translated version:

A: Where are you going, and what are you up to today?

B: I am taking my car to be checked at a garage in town after which I will
check on my girlfriend and go for a drink with her and then to a movie
before returning home.

George Orwell would probably call their lingo "Decadent urban Speak".

Like their peers, these same young men probably write letters propositioning
a girl in English, embroidering it with jawbreakers and amorous phrases
culled from great writers to impress, because they cannot express themselves
adequately in their mother tongue.

Not only that, an application letter in Shona or Ndebele or other local
languages in response to an advertisement in a newspaper for a job is most
likely to arouse sneers and frowns at the other end even though the
requirement is that the applicant should be conversant in indigenous
languages -- because a colonial mentality has taught us to regard our mother
tongues as inferior to the white man's language.

Even more tragic and unZimbabwean is that some of those who are supposed to
lead by example can barely deliver a complete speech to a black audience in
their mother tongue without breaking down and summoning the English language
with a black interpreter to tow them to the end.

But perhaps Shona and Ndebele ought to be made compulsory to these political
leaders first so they will be seen to truly "lead by example" as national
leaders. But maybe we should forget about them as a lost cause, since "you
can not teach an old dog new tricks" and instead concentrate on the very

Now, stop by a group of black Zimbabwean school children and listen to their
talk. In almost all cases, they communicate not in their mother tongue but
in English.

On the other hand, you will never hear their peers of English stock or of
Asian origin talking in Ndebele or Shona. A possible explanation is that
many black Zimbabwean families raise their children in a state of social
confusion. Teachers at crèches, school and maids in the home are the
surrogate parents, mainly responsibly for socialising the children. And when
not at work, biological parents proudly talk to their offspring in the
foreign language used at school, not in their own language to develop it.

In the process, the impressionable children swallow and internalise decadent
alien values with the result that some of them become directionless, even
deviant, thus unAfrican and as long as black parents remain ashamed of their
mother tongues and of their African way of life Dr Mahere's ark will remain
holed in parts.

Trouble with the social chaos in urban areas is that the traditional
extended family system, as we have known it, does not exist in these areas.
Instead a reconstituted extended family system -- comprising neighbours
working in different sectors -- which applies there has failed lamentably to
come to grips with social pathologies spawned by western decadent values.

As things stand now, the future looks terribly grim for our indigenous
languages and Zimbabweans in urban areas might wake up one day in the future
to discover that they no longer have a language they can call their own.

Because the urban set-up has often acted as a pacesetter for the countryside
in many ways, what is left of the extended family system -- which served as
a conveyor belt of cultural and moral values between generations -- is also

Operation Rescue Tongues now appears to be the only hope for the folk in
communal lands as well since language is also a conveyor belt of cultural
values. Zimbabweans should, therefore, realise that people who "speak the
same language" are wont to understand and appreciate each other's social
circumstances better and to unite rather than mistake the others for an

Copyright © 2007 The Herald. All rights reserved. 
Herald House, George Silundika Ave/Second Street PO Box 395, Harare,

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