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Is language Malawi’s development barrier?

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By Uchizi Changala Munyenyembe:

I had mixed reactions some days back when I listened to an audio recording of Member of Parliament for Nsanje South, who could hardly express himself in English. In fact, the word “express” would be generous as the law maker was heard reading poorly constructed sentences word for word.

Similarly, about a year ago, in an interview the Machinga South East Constituency legislator was rescued by a journalist who prompted the MP after she helplessly said “I don’t know how can I talk, chitukuko” in search for the word “development”.

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All this is a cue that language ought to be taken seriously in its role on the nation’s development.

Just like many, my initial reaction to the audio was to chuckle. But eventually I was filled with pity. I was hit hard in one of my whatsApp groups when someone commented “koma amamva awawa zomwe amakambilana mu parliament?”(Does he understand what is discussed in parliament?”

For those who once in a while follow parliament sessions would possibly concur with me that there is a genuine concern on English as the sole language of communication in parliament.

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We have seen MPs not contributing for the entire five-year’s term of their service. This does not justify their inability to deliver but to a larger extent I believe this communication barrier has costed us highly as a country.

Have you ever imagined that this person who “don’t know how can she/he talk is in the frontline passing bills? How does she/he reach to a decision to go for or against a bill when she cannot comprehend its pros and cons? I am of the opinion MSCE vocabulary is not strong enough to allow one to partake of the deliberations in policy making considering some have attained such through their Bachelors or Masters Degrees in Political Science, Governance, Law e.t.c? Am I saying MSCE holders are underqualified as law makers? Perhaps, but certainly not my point in today’s topic.

Briefly taking us back to our History, Malawi adopted English as its official language during colonisation and continued with the language even after independence in 1964.

This means Laws, policies and many other official communications are made in English alone. The system has been knowingly or unknowingly designed only for the few elites in Malawi.

For instance, is worrying that Malawi, a country whose economy leans highly on Agriculture will have its Agricultural policies in English only when majority of the stakeholders understand only vernacular languages. My question is to whose benefit is the communication that we are disseminating?

Recently, the State President said a powerful uniting speech at his inauguration ceremony after the re-run early July. After delivering the speech in English, he said it would be translated in Chichewa and read on radio later.

Pushing this communication to later on would tell a story on the little value of the vernacular speakers which makes up a majority of the Malawian community. This time gap gives room for misinterpretation of messages.

By the time the speech is read in Chichewa, even those who can hardly grasp a word from Chakwera’s American accent will have already sent false information to those who completely do not understand English. Time is a very important factor to be considered in communication. In fact, what differentiates current affairs from history is simply time.

Flip through the newspapers, all important information is in English. Chichewa articles will be Sauzika, Tidakumana Bwanji, with insignificant percentage of information on the development of the nation, so much that one would wonder why Chichewa is compulsory yet it becomes almost useless after School.

Clearly, it is not easy to develop in another man’s language. Unfortunately, we continue glorify the Queen’s language. When I worked as a teacher at some International school, all Indians spoke to their kids in their languages after dropping them, while my fellows Malawian proudly sought prestige in using the colonial language.

For those who know Napoleon Dzombe a successful Agripreneur, can acknowledge that his English is not that impressive but his works are ways ahead of thousands of Malawian English speakers. Good English speaking does not entail competency!

What’s the solution?

We might have been married to our English for too long to divorce it but we could give our local languages a chance. The African Union (AU) agenda 2063’s aspiration 5 talks about achieving an Africa with a strong cultural identity. AU acknowledges how Africa has been alienated from its culture due to historical factors. However, the onus is ours to liberate ourselves from linguistic slavery.

We could emulate countries such as Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya whose official languages for the parliament include up to two local languages in some cases.

For starters, Malawi could adopt some of the local languages to be officially used in parliament in addition to English. Laws, policies are made for citizens of the nation.

Malawi has trained experts in Chichewa at Bachelors level and beyond. Very little has been explored in their field, with most of them ending up in teaching. We could use the team that is already in the field to translate official documents into our local languages. Additionally, we could introduce interpreters in the parliament to allow at least the three languages to be used simultaneously for efficient and effective communication.

Using our local languages will make information accessible and it will enable fruitful debates in parliament. Perhaps some MPs need just that for them hit a jackpot.

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