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On Parliament’s official language



By Peter Kamzimbi Jnr:

Last year, in August, I came up with an article following calls from the public for Chichewa to be made the official language of the country. These calls came following the ‘murdering’ of English by one of our lawmakers from Machinga.

I advanced my argument along the line that it would not be possible as it would involve a lot of processes and resources. The article sparked another heated debate on social media and it was so interesting.

The past few weeks have also been quite interesting. Some Members of Parliament (MPs) from the opposition side have been defecting to the ruling side. At one of the welcoming functions, one of the MPs from Nsanje also ‘murdered’ the queen’s language. The clip went viral and what followed were calls from different organisations on changing the official parliamentary language from English to Chichewa. Some of the calls were already there before the clip went viral.

In the past, aspirants for parliamentary positions used to undergo a language proficiency test. The proficiency test was conducted by the Electoral Commission in conjunction with the Malawi National Examinations Board. However, sometime back the courts stopped this process.

In the past three to four parliamentary elections, aspirants have just been presenting their certificates be it Junior Certificate, Malawi School Certificate of Education or any post-secondary school qualification.

Some aspirants without such certificates have just been presenting a sworn affidavit that they can speak and read English well as stipulated in section 51 (1) b of the Constitution. Once they present that they are allowed to contest in the election. The one-million-dollar question can be: is it right to make such an assumption?

Having taught languages at secondary school for twelve years and about three years at university level I feel this assumption is not right. Most people attain these certificates when they have not fully acquired all the skills; the competency is not fully developed. Let us face reality here, the constitutional requirement is that one must be able to speak and read English well enough so that they can take part in the parliamentary proceedings.

In Malawi, mostly our learners are assessed in writing, we have no oral part. This oral part would have been assessing the skills that are required in the Constitution in section 51 (1) b. Even at university, where language and communication is taught in the early years of one’s study, the assessment is done the same way.

Indeed, students are involved in presentations but not everybody presents due to high learner-teacher ratio that is in our schools and universities. In these days where some people’s qualifications are questionable, especially PhDs, I am tempted to propose that all aspirants for the position of MP should also undergo the proficiency test. This may sound awkward to some but it is something which needs attention.

As language is a skills subject, it should be a comprehensive proficiency test involving all the four skills: writing, reading, listening and speaking. We need the proficiency test back as soon as possible.

The calls made by various organisations and individuals on adopting Chichewa as official parliamentary language sound interesting. One of the organisations is the Millennium Information and Resource Centre through its chair Flywell Somanje who is also National Executive Director of Bwalo la Achewa Heritage. He says wider consultations they did have showed that people all over Malawi communicate in Chichewa that if parliamentary deliberations start taking place in Chichewa nobody will be left out. He says, today, people have no interest to follow the deliberations because of the language being used. He, therefore, wants the use of Chichewa by our parliamentarians to start as soon as possible.

Airing similar sentiments is Frank Tumpale Mwenefumbo, former Member of Parliament for Karonga Central who is now a member of the UTM. He observes that Chichewa cuts across the language and cultural divide in the country and feels that people will follow parliamentary proceedings easily. He also points out that campaigning happens in Chichewa and other local languages but once in power parliamentarians are disconnected from the masses because of the use of English at Parliament.

So, he says it is like not representing the wishes and aspirations of the people. As a solution he says Chichewa should be adopted as an official parliamentary language as it will accelerate development in the country as communication will be meaningful and effective in the country.

As if the two calls were not enough, Centre for Democracy and Economic Development Initiatives Executive Director, Sylvester Namiwa, joined the debate urging Parliament of the same, use of local languages in parliamentary deliberations. He observes that such a move would lead to having meaningful deliberations. He further observed that most MPs fail to represent people well enough because of language barriers as they fail to express themselves.

Following closely the above sentiments, one is made to believe that these people have a valid argument. Statistics have shown that over 80 percent of Malawians understand and speak Chichewa though some cannot speak and write properly. Only a few literate Malawians can follow parliamentary deliberations because they are able to speak and understand the language in use, English.

In one of the papers I read recently, an observation was made that about 90 percent of Malawians are excluded in making decisions that affect them and probably if we were to carry out a research probability is so high that such would be the case with parliamentary deliberations.

Therefore, one can easily understand that the use of Chichewa in parliamentary deliberations would help to mitigate alienation of the majority of Malawians from national activities for them to participate actively in the economic life of the country. This would even have accommodated citizens from neighboring countries who are also crucial in the development of the country. Countries like Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and part of the South African population who due to migration also use Chichewa.

Secondly, the argument may hold in the sense that some of our MPs lack competence in English language. They are not able to perform when it comes to parliamentary business because they are linguistically malnourished. Examples are those whose clips have gone viral and that is evident enough that there may be more who are linguistically challenged but because they do not take part they are not known.

Such MPs cannot contribute effectively and most of the times they just listen to others. They speak once in a while, they read a prepared speech contributing towards something that was already presented like the State of the Nation Address and they cannot rise on a point of order for fear of language errors. Given a chance that indeed language is changed to Chichewa such MPs can actively take part in the deliberations. At the very same time Parliament can be sailing in the same boat with ordinary citizens out there.

In addition to the above, making Chichewa to be an official parliamentary language can help in rectifying mistakes of the past. It will be like rising to indigenous consciousness, using our own language to deliberate issues regarding our own development. Some of our neighboring countries like Tanzania adopted this way back, the use of Swahili and they have moved on with development. Don’t you think the use of local language has contributed immensely to their development? We can try as well.

However, if the suggestions being advanced by these organisations and individuals are to be implemented there is a lot that needs to be done. What we have to bear in mind is that the Malawi Constitution is silent on the national and official language. As such, we still base our linguistic practice on the 1968 Malawi Congress Party Convention outcomes:

(i) Malawi was to adopt Chinyanja as a national language

(ii) Chinyanja was henceforth to be known as Chichewa

(iii) English and Chichewa to be official languages of Malawi

(iv) Other vernaculars to be used in people’s lives in their respective areas

From the above clause, one observes that Chichewa is a national as well as an official language already. It is only that since 1968 English has always been given prominence. However, if at any time we think of giving Chichewa prominence, it should be done with caution. Many a times in Malawi, we have changed policies without doing any fact finding like some kind of a survey and we have ended up goofing.

A very good example in the area of language was the 1996 mother tongue education policy by the Ministry of Education. This did not see the light of the day because not a lot in terms of research done before trying to implement it. In this case, therefore, a survey or fact-finding process should be done on Sociolinguistic or technical realities. Finding out if indeed as of today 90 percent of the population is excluded from the deliberations and also finding out if indeed over 80 percent of Malawians are able to speak and understand Chichewa as of today.

One may ask as to why the above raised point is necessary. What we must not forget is the fact that in Malawi we have over 16 languages though some are dying with time. The elevation of Chichewa to national and official language in 1968 was a political move.

Malawi being multi-ethnic and multilingual as it is, some people did not receive this without emotions. They continued to use their local languages in different spheres of life. Therefore, those advancing the argument for this change and those who may make such decisions should be mindful that language is a potentially sensitive issue to handle and should be handled with care if we are to achieve national unity. Such decisions should serve Malawi as a whole and should achieve linguistic justice.

Secondly, those making such a decision should know that sooner or later different sectors in Malawi will need to follow suit. These are sectors like education and the Judiciary to mention but a few. Definitely this cannot be done without any costs. We need to handle it with care. This will also affect people’s proficiency in English and result in a decline in English competencies and end up undermining the teaching of English in schools.

We also have to remember that the current language policy puts the two languages, Chichewa and English at par as they are both official languages. The only difference is that English has been attached some prominence all along because it has always been regarded as the proverbial window to the world and technological advancement.

Let us assume these calls have come to pass, how many people in Malawi have access to radios, televisions and other gadgets where they can follow parliamentary proceedings? According to the Integrated Household Survey of 2016/17 about 51.5 percent of Malawians live below poverty line. They survive on less-than-a-dollar a day. Can such people afford to buy a radio? Not more than 15 percent are connected to the electricity grid; can they afford to buy cells to follow parliamentary proceedings? Only 16 percent of the 18 million have access to ICT gadgets so by saying most people will be accommodated if we change the parliamentary language to Chichewa are we being sincere?

For those calling on Parliament to adopt this as soon as possible, are they sure we are ready with parliamentary vocabulary or terminology? Chichewa is well developed in terms of orthography, grammar and diction but before taking such a policy aboard, we have to think of terms that are used in Parliament.

We should remember issues surrounding the budget that comes year in and out, some bills from different sectors and some common terms used in Parliament most often. With the vocabulary we have now, will it not be too much of borrowing from English hence defeating the purpose of accommodating many by using Chichewa? This area requires a lot of resources in terms of time to do research, finances, materials and human resources as well.

Another thing which we should not forget in making such a crucial decision is that part of our budget is donor aided. Going through the 2018/19 budget document an observation was made that 16 percent of the budget was supported by donors. These donors need to follow what is being deliberated in the August House.

If we adopt Chichewa, what happens to them? Isn’t it necessary to accommodate them as well? As we push for this it is necessary to think about them as it is not only budgetary support but also off-budget support that they give us, as such they also need to follow as to how we are running the projects. On the budget and the bills, I was also thinking on how bulky the documents can be considering that Chichewa uses a lot of words as compared to English when expressing same concepts.

One of the reasons for the calls is that some of our MPs are struggling with English. Have you ever thought that some people struggle with Chichewa as well? What happens to such people if Chichewa is taken as official parliamentary language? Because legally, section 51 (1) b will definitely change where there is ‘English’ to be ‘Chichewa’.

Will that happen so soon as some want it to? I remember in the DPP-led government we had one minister who used to head key ministries most often and at one time he happened to be an MP but could not speak Chichewa, most of his interviews were done in English. What happens to such people if things turn out to be as we are imagining them?

Having presented my case above, I feel this may not see light of the day so soon. The question that may rise now is; as a nation what can we do to ensure that though English is being used in parliament we do not alienate many? One of my suggestions is by ensuring that community radio stations are able to send their reporters to the August House.

These reporters will be following the proceedings and can later report in the community’s local language so that people ably follow what transpired at Parliament.

Secondly, all along we have had a programme, “Za kunyumba ya Malamulo” on the national broadcaster, MBC which has been informing us on what transpired at Parliament every day whenever Parliament is in session. I feel other broadcasters who have wider coverage like Zodiak, Times, MIJ and others can emulate this. In as much as we appreciate that some of these broadcasting stations cover live the parliamentary proceedings but the problem is the language used in parliament.

In a nutshell, the calls that we change official parliamentary language to Chichewa are genuine and most of the arguments hold. However, this has a long way to see light of the day as there a lot of grey areas that need to be looked into. Let the debate rage on!

*Peter Kamzimbi Jr is a Master of Arts in Applied Linguistics student at Chancellor College of the University of Malawi.

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