Keeping Tonga Language Alive

by Tichaona Zindoga / The Herald / allAfrica    19 January 2012

Last year, a major milestone was achieved for minority languages in general and Tonga in particular, when the latter was officially tested at Grade Seven for the first time. The response was resounding, especially in Chief Mola's area in Kariba swhere schools recorded good passes with some achieving 100 percent pass rates in the subject. As Tonga language and culture are synonymous with the Zambezi River that borders Zimbabwe and Zambia, the riverine Chief Mola's area in the northwest of Zimbabwe is one of the bastions of Tonga language and culture. Gokwe North, Binga, Hwange and other districts are other centres of Tonga culture.


Chief Mola is one of 18 chiefs that were displaced on both sides of the river when Lake Kariba was being constructed in the 1950s.

The displacement of the Tonga people then was both physical and symbolic.

While they lost their ancestral lands - and river - they were also forgotten in terms of development, which has led to near synonymy between Tonga people and underdevelopment.

Their language and culture were also marginalised in a country where two native languages - Shona and Ndebele - are regarded as "national" and Tonga children have to be taught in those languages.

In fact, since the first school in the area in 1924 Tonga was never taught in schools until 2005.

Now all that has changed, and a renaissance of the language is well afoot.

A recent visit by The Herald showed this reawakening.

On one hand this is championed by the chief himself, Champion Rare, and on another a nascent group of young educated people.

Chief Mola believes there is a heritage to be preserved in the Tonga language, and a treasure to bequeath for posterity.

"The language is important for the sake of future generations. It also preserves our culture," Chief Mola said in an interview at his homestead, six kilometres from the shores of the mighty Zambezi River.

"Since 1924 when the first school was built we never learnt the language in schools and Ndebele was proposed once as substitute.

"We were happy when Tonga was introduced in 2005. We are also thankful for the work that has seen some Tonga books being published," he said.

Silveira House, in conjunction with interest groups such as Basilwizi (People of the Great River) Trust and other organisations undertook a project of translation and the development of a Tonga curriculum and literature.

With the curriculum and books in place, there remains one challenge.

"The biggest problem is that we do not have enough of our children who have gone to teachers' colleges or other higher learning institutions," laments Chief Mola.

"The teachers we have here are from Hurungwe and some from as far as Mutare and Masvingo.

"We are appealing to Government to prioritise the training of Tonga teachers for this area," he said.

The situation, he explained, was such that pupils in primary schools were being taught not in their mother language and some teachers from outside the region were not interested in learning the language.

Teachers here are predominantly Shona-speaking.

What makes this situation worse is that some mothers in the area cannot speak Shona, a trait they naturally pass onto their children who then get lost when they are instructed and taught in Shona and English.

The saving grace has been untrained teachers from the area who have been deployed to teach Grades 1-3.

However, if temporary teachers are not accommodated by Government, there risks being a huge gap and a slap in the face of the Tonga language.

Chief Mola emphasises that there be locals who become qualified teachers, a big challenge presently because the educated ones are few.

Chief Mola is not motivated by a sinister agenda in promoting the cause of the Tonga language and culture.

He said: "We are not tribalists but we wish our language to be recognised and respected. Shonas are many here but we want our children to be taught in their language."

He said he advocated for the same in contributing to the envisaged new constitution.

On the other hand, he has taken it upon himself to try to stamp out alien cultures such as "gure" that had threatened to set in.

Some Tonga people, having worked in farms in Hurungwe have adopted gure and want to practise or be buried according to that custom.

Chief Mola says he has, however, put his foot down and fines those who practise gure in his area because their rituals, which also involve nakedness, adult initiation among others, revolt Tonga traditions.

He said: "We have our own dances such as Nyere and our traditional songs. We told police to arrest people who practised gure here."

He fines the offenders two goats.

Teachers who come from other parts of the country insult Tonga sensibilities because of their dress and manners and Chief Mola has also expressed revulsion at this, though he has not scored any victories.

Meanwhile, the youth represent the best hope for the Tonga language - and they are stepping up to the plate.

Twenty-nine-year-old Stephen Murota, acting head at Malembeja Primary School, a satellite of Negande Primary, hopes to make a mark on the rise of the Tonga language.

Murota has teamed up with Dickson Siamanyiwa, Lovemore Mawere, America Mpofu, Berita Siachakanzwa and Government Chimbila to produce material that can be used in the learning of Tonga.

The group has the support of Chief Mola.

He explained: "We want to record traditional stories, lives and lifestyle and customs of Tonga people. We look at the general history, compile poems and short stories."

The group, which also translates English texts, has produced three manuscripts - one for the general history of Tonga people, another for poems and the other of short stories.

Murota and his group was hunting for a publisher and there is one on the wings while veteran educationist and author Stephen Chifunyise has reportedly given them a sympathetic nod.

"We are also trying to establish a Tonga art gallery and hoping to take up training in schools," added Murota.

For his dream to flourish, certain challenges have to be overcome.

With only school exercise books, the group has no proper database for its work and requires a computer - and an electricity generator - to store its work.

The group also requires technical advice from experts in education.

Communication here is almost non-existent and Murota has to walk 21km to Siakobvu Business Centre for a phone call.

But he will persevere for the cause of the mother language.

"Since the language has been recently introduced in schools, it has been shown to be a viable and recognised language not apart from others," he said.

This is a view shared by Muzamba Jahana, a teacher at Negande Primary School.

The 31-year-old is as passionate as he is impressive.

He represents the less appreciated side of Tonga people, namely that of being educated - like everyone else.

Jahana attained a Diploma in Education (Primary) in Gwanda and is setting sights on furthering his education.

"We have graduates and other professionals here," he stated dispelling the common myth that nothing good can ever come out of Binga.

A writer of his own manuscripts, and a Grade 5 Pupils and Revision books which he hopes will be adopted, Jahana is clear on the role of language in society.

He said: "Language is the basic tool which lays the foundation of formal learning.

"Tonga is our L1 (first language) and if we introduce Tonga concepts first it will be very easy for the acquisition of knowledge in any discipline because you will have provoked his eagerness to learn. You have to move from the known to the unknown."

He continued: "Language spells the lives of any ethnic group and lays the foundation for respect, acceptance, understanding and even interaction with other societies."

He said undermining Tonga, far from doing injustice to it, also deprives other societies of a chance to learn about the Tonga people and humanity in general.

Jahana says for Tonga to flourish, its learning must be promoted, it must be recognised at all levels, and Tonga arts and music must be accepted.

There is also need for cultural exchanges and Tonga should be taught side by side with other languages.

The media, said Jahana, should also promote Tonga. He wished there could be an exclusive Tonga radio station.

Government is supportive of Tonga languages, like other minorities, and has since instructed that there be culture centres.

There are officers responsible for that at various levels at the Ministry of Education, Sport Arts and Culture.

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