A CASE FOR OUR NATIVE LANGUAGES

A cross section of Malawian books
Image from flickr

For day 2 of WinterABC2022 I decided to talk a bit about how Malawian languages specifically Chichewa, are slowly being erased out of our daily life. Native languages are a huge link to our history and culture but we no longer see their value as English and other global languages continue to deepen their roots in our society. You can read my first WinterABC2022 post here

A few weeks back, I asked in our Utawaleza bookclub group chat if anyone could recommend some Chichewa novels. Only three books were mentioned and when I looked them up online, none were available for purchase or were located in American university libraries some 8000 plus miles away. This was not so surprising as a few years back, my brother had asked me to purchase a certain Malawian book for him and when I looked it up, the book was out of print and among the very few available copies, the prices were quite high. I am pretty sure that if I am to visit a few bookshops around town, I might get these books but what of the Malawians in diaspora. This experience got me thinking about the availability of Chichewa literature but also the value of Chichewa and other native languages in Malawi. For starters, Malawi is a country made up of different tribes, these include Chewa, Lomwe, Yao, Tumbuka, and Sena just to name a few. Many languages abound in this country of ours but for reasons that Kamuzu and a few of our elderly countrymen know, Chichewa the language spoken by the Chewa tribe was adopted as our official national language along with English, thanks to colonization.

The coming in of independence coincided with the spread of formal education across the country. As most of our parents’ generation went to school, they adopted English as a language, for pretty much every school subject was instructed in English with the exception of Chichewa. The adoption of western education and style of living has led many Malawians, especially the educated class to start viewing their native languages as inferior to English and our first president did not help matters. When establishing Kamuzu Academy, the premier secondary school in the country also known as the Eton in the bush, the life president apparently only if not, mostly employed white teachers as he viewed locals inferior to the Europeans and not educated enough to teach at his Eton. This, I believe contributed heavily to the promotion of English as the intelligent language as opposed to our local languages.

In the Malawian education system, the government administered curriculum is taught in Chichewa for the first four grades of primary school and English is adopted as the language of instruction in the fifth grade onwards. In the Cambridge system, Chichewa is not taught at all and I highly doubt if the Cambridge curriculum includes any lessons on Malawian history or culture, something that the government curriculum does. This means that we have a significant proportion of our population, that do not learn anything about the country they inhabit. How then do we expect to have a citizenry that is connected to its country?

At least most Malawians speak Chichewa, they may not write it or read it efficiently but they are able to speak. But what of our other tribal languages? How many of us are fluent enough in not just speech, but the written form of them as well. I, for one am a proficient listener of the two tribal languages I am affiliated with but I fail miserably when it comes to conversation. Which begs the question. What are a people without their language? We complain so much of eroding cultural values and yet we fail to see how the promotion of English and the lack of native languages in our learning institutions or daily life is the first sign of culture loss. When I was in secondary school, there was a period of time when the Headteacher had instructed prefects and class monitors to take note of anyone who spoke Chichewa as we were only supposed to speak English. Needless to say this never worked out but I know of people who grew up without speaking Chichewa and I wonder how this impacted their view of our country.

In a world, where languages are dying as our elderly leave the planet, I would like to propose that we promote our native languages. We need to shed off the inferiority complex that the colonizers imposed on us. Decolonization is a buzzword I keep seeing around and I do not feel qualified enough talk about it. But if there is one thing that I do know, embracing Chichewa, Chiyao, and Chitumbuka, to name a few is one aspect of decolonization.

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