Several people at different times have expressed the view that the Tumbuka language is in danger of dying and have asked me to write and suggest what should be done to prevent this from happening.
One of them thought we should press the government to provide funds for the teaching and preserving of chiTumbuka. This is a hopeless proposal. Those who worry about the possible death of the Tumbuka language should be reminded of the facts of history and what is being done about other minority languages currently.
People speaking minority languages have appealed to some international organisations to help them revive their languages precisely because they have seen that their own governments dominated by people whose mother tongue is the national language would rather see the minority language die like the dodo.
I read in the magazine recently that the people of Corsica, the French island which hatched Napoleon , have been appealing to the government in Paris to support their attempts to preserve their language. The government has told them that France has got only one language. One of the grievances of the Catalonians in Spain is that the Spanish government is blocking their attempts to have their language recognised by the European Union.
When the British were ruling this country, they recognised two languages as lingua Francas; chiNyanja and chiTumbuka. Chinyanja was the lingua franca for the whole country and eastern Zambia. ChiTumbuka was recognised as the lingua franca for the Northern Province of Nyasaland.
Languages such as Yao and Lomwe may have been spoken by more people but the Yao and Lomwe people spoke chiNyanja as naturally as the Nyanja because they lived in the same part of the country under same chiefs and went to school when the medium of teaching was chiNyanja. As regards people in the North, it was a different matter. They lived far away from where chiNyanja was spoken and went to schools where c h i Tumb u k a , Kyangonde and chiTonga were used.
However, due to the influence of the Livingstonia Mission who used to bring students from the whole North to the Overtoun Institution, for higher classes and vocational courses, most adults from the whole North learned chiTumbuka. Today, it is rare to find an adult in the North who cannot speak chiTumbuka whatever his tribe.
Governent newspaper such as Nkhani za Nyasaland and Msimbi and Harare-printed newspaper Bwalo la Nyasaland were published both in Chinyanja and Tumbuka. The Malawi News mouthpiece of Malawi Congress Party was at first published in three languages: English, chiNyanja and chiTumbuka.
In 1968, president Hastings Kamuzu Banda, whose mother tongue was Chichewa, then officially known as Central Province chiNyanja,, decreed that chiTumbuka be discontinued as an official language and that the national language for the whole country should be renamed Chichewa.
Do Tumbuka people seriously want to preserve their language? If so, they should recall the adage “fumbi ndiwe mwini”. He or she who has a problem is the one who must work hardest to get it solved. It is up to the Tumbuka speaking people themselves to initiate action.
History of Christianity in Europe and Africa gives a clue as to how the preservation of a language can be achieved. Geek and Latin languages were once lingua francas of empires and were the medium t for scholastic and spiritual documents. As Greek and Rome empires collapsed, so did their languages. It was the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches which did everything possible to preserve them. Though sacred writings and others had been translated to modern languages, it was still necessary to read them in the original because words in modern languages do evolve so that sometimes translations mislead. For example, when Jesus said “Don’t judge”, according to modern to the authorised version of the Bible, did he mean you should not work like as a magistrate? Not at all. Modern rendering would preferably be “Do not be a fault finder”.
I was born and got my early education in the day when the Livingstonia Mission was under the Free Church of Scotland. When you compare what missionaries did and what the leaders of the Livingstonia Synod are doing as regards to languages, I see some difference. The missionaries were dedicated to mastering African languages, translating hymns and Bibles with great care. Some wrote dictionaries such as Tumbuka/ Tonga to English and so on. I do not find the equivalent of Dr Laws, Donald Fraser or Thomas Cullen Young who left behind books describing their missionary work, African history and customs.
ChiTumbuka is the main language of the Livinsgtonia Synod and it was the missionaries of the Free Church who first put chiTumbuka into writing. The synod should be at the centre of those who want to preserve it.
Those who want to preserve chiTumbuka should, therefore, remind the leader of the Livingstonia Synod of their responsibilities. The mistakes I come across when leafing through chiTumbuka and Ngoni hymn books make me shudder.
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