Burying mother tongue, burying literature’s soul


There has always been a mother tongue; sometimes neglected and forgotten and sometimes remembered and preserved.

Mother tongues were there when the colonialists made the long trip to Malawi. Mother tongue is not a language but a way of life.

No wonder, then, that organisations such as Malawi Pen have been promoting writing and reading in mother tongues. It is a way of linking literature to the people.


For example, Malawi Pen initiated a programme aimed at promoting reading and writing in disadvantaged schools. Three schools such as Chichiri Reformatory School at Chichiri Prison, Ntcheu Community Day Secondary School and Nkhamenya Girls Secondary School benefitted from the same.

Under the project, Namisu Women’s Reading Club was included. Pen International website indicates that this was done “as we felt the move required specialised attention in the field of literature. Our support fits the group’s aims because the starting point for the reading club participants is the reading of literary materials before including other reading materials on HIV and AIDS, farming, environment, gender, climate change and health.”

It is common knowledge that groups such as Namisu Women’s Reading Club did not need literature materials published in English, hence the importance of mother tongue.


Mother tongue clout

The sheer joy of communicating in mother tongue outweighs everything else.

No wonder that colonialists did everything to suppress the mother tongue, and made all attempts to treat their own language – the invading language—as a potentate, even if it was a language loaded with words from Latin, French, Portuguese, among other foreign languages. They simply could not tolerate languages such as mother tongues spoken by African natives.

Unfortunately, the gulf between the mother tongue and official tongue, which is often looked down upon, stays unabridged.

From time to time, steps have been taken to suppress the mother tongue, in the rush for the so-called civilisation.

But the ceiling of respect for mother languages such as Chichewa, Tumbuka, Tonga, Lhomwe, Sena, Yao, among others, dropped so low in 2014 when mother tongues were booted out as media of instruction in schools. Malawians are an English-speaking people.

Those who value mother tongues emerged from the year 2014 to face a falling sun. Their beloved mother tongue— be it Chichewa, Tumbuka, Tonga, Lhomwe— was still there, but had been declared unofficial in a country where the speakers are called natives.

It is clear that the country’s education system is full of the scars of colonialism and imperialism.

The issue of mother tongue is, of course, haunted by another battle— the battle for supremacy among mother tongues. But that is another story.

Bad habit

Professor Pascal Kishindo, University of Malawi language and linguistics lecturer, observes in a paper titled ‘ Language and the Law in Malawi: A Case for the Use of Indigenous Languages in the Legal System’ that the habit of looking down upon mother tongues by embracing, for example, English, is as old as the soil we step on.

He cites the use of English in the legal system.

The abstract reads: “In Malawi’s legal system, English is used as the language of legal proceedings and records. In cases where the plaintiffs/defendants do not speak English interpreters are provided. However, there are two factors which militate against this state of affairs. First, Malawi is a highly non-literate country with an estimated non-literacy rate of 48 percent. Second, English is not the vehicle of communication for the majority of the Malawian population.”

The paper therefore argues that the legal system should make use of indigenous languages; “not only will this facilitate communication but also eliminate the need for court interpreters. It will also give the feuding parties the confidence that they are not being misrepresented. Since communication is only successful when the receiver can interpret the information the source has put in the message, there is need, therefore, to render the law into the languages(s) that is/are familiar to the receiver. This will save citizens from being poorly defended, misjudged and unjustly condemned.”

Kishindo is not the only one to bemoan the fact that indigenous languages seem to be neglected in the country, as Themba Moyo, in an article titled ‘Language Loss and Language Decay of Malawi’s Indigenous Languages’ puts it crudely that Malawi is reeling from the problem of language decay.

The article indicates that, with the exception of Chichewa, almost all of Malawi’s indigenous languages face “decay”.

“The languages facing loss and decay have been suppressed, neglected and not developed, particularly since Malawi attained her independence in 1964. This is a crucial matter in issues of national unity, group identity, language choice and community culture, all of which impact considerably on nationhood, state democracy, equality in language use and in the general development of a country,” Moyo observes.

He argues that the neglect of such languages is evident in printed materials.

“This article contends that, in effect, the rest of Malawi’s indigenous languages are facing considerable loss and decay with regard to their development. This is particularly in print, where none of them appear as instructional languages in early education, mass communication or in literary publications such as in novels, short stories, poems, plays, etc,”

Moyo then calls for “equitable recognition of linguistic diversity and development of all languages” to act as “a unifying force for the overall development of the country’s national life”.

Bad turn

However, in a move that can best be described as a blow to indigenous languages, the Education Act passed in Parliament in November 2013, which former president, Joyce Banda, assented to in 2014, means government’s policy is that the English language is the only medium of instruction in education institutions.

Kishindo indicated in Blantyre on Friday last week that this means “the medium of instruction in schools and colleges is English”. Like weeds, Chichewa, Tumbuka, Sena, Tonga and other languages have fallen by the wayside.

The Act in question introduces the [English as a medium of instruction] policy as follows: 78. Language of instruction. (1) The language of instruction in schools and colleges shall be English. (2) Without prejudice to the generality of Sub-section (1) The minister may, by notice published in the Gazette, prescribe the language of instruction in schools.”

Malawi Pen president, Alfred Msadala, is bemused with the development.

He, however, observes that the bill was passed when election fever gripped Malawians in 2014, a development that culminated in the bill escaping close scrutiny.

“We are beginning to be isolated as far as mother tongues are concerned. In Zambia, our friends have benefitted from funding [going towards projects that promote mother tongues],” Kishindo bemoans.

“As it is, Malawi is an English-speaking country. Actually, I was surprised to learn from the Commonwealth Secretariat that Malawi no longer recognises mother tongues. This means we cannot access funding for literature projects that focus on the mother tongue and, yet, our friends in Zambia and other countries are benefitting from funding,” Msadala says.

Ironically, Msadala presented a paper titled ‘Malawi in an African Society’— which focused on the issue of Chichewa as a language in Malawi— in Cairo, Egypt, as recently as 2015.

He might have been speaking about a language that is no longer recognised, and appreciated, thanks to government policy.

He, surely, might not have known that, after former Education Minister Luscious Kanyumba had held Meet-the-Teacher Meetings aimed at selling the English-only policy, it was too late to reverse the situation.

“This is bad and means people cannot publish in local languages. People can also not access funding from, say, the Global Fund to raise awareness on issues using mother tongues. I think this [passing of the bill and the subsequent enactment after Joyce Banda assented to the bill] happened because Malawians were focused on other things. The Act came into force when people were focused on [tripartite] elections,” Msadala observes.

As Joyce Banda enjoys coffee in foreign lands, as Lucious Kanyumba clings to the memory that he once served as Education Minister— and that under his watch the Act came into force— Malawians hang in the balance. The local languages they were supposed to hold dearly to have been stripped of their sense of national relevance.

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