Paradigm Shift On Minority Languages a Welcome Move

By Steven Mpofu, 11 May 2012

A major paradigm shift is set to begin in Zimbabwe to end the marginalisation of indigenous languages, other than Shona and Ndebele, by elevating them from a Cinderella status to which white settlers first relocated them when colonising this country.

The colonial administration divided Africans into the Ndebele and Shona linguistic groups, giving rise to Matabeleland and Mashonaland -- names that subsume that all other linguistic groups are Ndebeles and Shonas respectively.

As a result an anomalous notion was promoted and perpetuated in the minds of foreigners that the nation of Zimbabwe is made up of only Shonas and Ndebeles.

But colonial administrators chose Shona and Ndebeles as means by which white racist regimes controlled and oppressed the blacks.

However, plans are now at an advanced stage for the University of Zimbabwe, which started teaching Shona and Ndebele in 1960, to deconstruct that monumental, divisive colonial plot with a linguistic renaissance that will see the study of Tonga being introduced during the course of this year, according to Dr Itai Muwati who chairs the Department of African Languages and Literature at UZ.

Altogether about 16 indigenous African languages -- Tonga, Nambya, Kalanga, Sotho, Venda, and Shangaan among others have been identified in Zimbabwe, but only Shona and Ndebele have enjoyed prominence by being studied at university level.

Dr Muwati said this week that his department had made a deliberate decision to expand and manoeuvre its intellectual presence beyond these two national languages, Shona and Ndebele. Work has already started on Tonga and plans are now at an advanced stage to introduce Tonga at UZ this year.

Another minority language, Venda, is already being studied at the Great Zimbabwe University in Masvingo with assistance from South African universities. According to Dr Muwati, Tonga has been prioritised because a lot of work has been done by the Tonga Language and Culture Committee (Tolaco).

"The study of Tonga and other hitherto neglected languages is a fundamental issue that cannot be papered over," Dr Muwati said.

"It is about us as Zimbabweans. It is about expressing our collective national identity by recognising all the demographic categories. This is also about extricating ourselves from the linguistic chaos in which the coloniser plunged us and the rest of Africa. Colonial policies engendered a lopsided linguistic experience that led and still continues to ferment the marginalisation of other linguistic groups apart from Shona and Ndebele."

Dr Muwati pointed out that universities were strategic entry points to these languages. But for universities to remain relevant to their communities, they should not remain dwarfed by colonialist policies that promoted the superimposition of a few languages over others.

"The academy, particularly those departments that teach African languages must now endeavour to democratise their spaces so that they can begin to accommodate more offerings. The elevation of a language to university level was invariably an elevation of the community that speaks the language," Dr Muwati said.

It enhances their self-worth and dignity as citizens, he added. "This is why we have found it judicious to engage on this very critical exercise." For a long time, Tonga, spoken by a large number of people in Zimbabwe, has been marginalised, as have been other so-called minority languages.

The exact number of Tonga speaking people in Zimbabwe has not been established because according to the Tonga people themselves, they have been undercounted in successive censuses because of "a misconception" that the Tonga are found only in Binga district when they are, in fact, also found in places such as the Kariba Dam area.

Consequently the Tonga people have been made to study Shona and Ndebele -- a clear violation of their language rights, which are basic human rights enshrined in the Zimbabwean constitution, Dr Muwati noted. Like the Tonga, other "minority" linguistic groups are also marginalised as they must learn Shona and Ndebele as their mother tongues. Dr Muwati said his department would start teaching Tonga as a way of correcting the neglect of African languages in Zimbabwe.

"In doing this, we have entered into strategic partnerships with regional universities, such as Universities in Zambia, that already teach Tonga," Dr Muwati stated. "We are hosting a symposium in June 2012 to be held in Binga. This symposium brings together the Tonga community and academics from within and outside Zimbabwe to deliberate on fundamental issues on Tonga."

Similar get-togethers between Zimbabwe and other universities elsewhere in Sadc which teach African languages spoken in Zimbabwe might also be necessary in helping local varsities also introduce the study of indigenous languages now in virtual obscurity.

This suggests the formation of communities representing minority languages and cultures, like Tolaco to prepare the way for the study of the marginalised mother tongues. There have been suggestions to promote minority languages by having these recorded in books, for instance, to immortalise them.

For instance, work is known to be under way on translating books written in other languages into Nambya, also a Bantu language spoken in the Hwange area of Matabeleland North province.

But the translators reportedly are aided by a non-governmental organisation which is foreign and whose "vision" apparently does not coincide with the vision of the translators who are said to wish for a Zimbabwean government appointed group to direct the translators with funding provided by the State.

Mr Felix Moyo, a publisher based in Bulawayo, has also suggested the setting up of museums in areas where neglected languages are spoken by locals.

Objects of daily use, their names, and motifs on some of them inscribed in their mother tongue, would help promote the marginalised languages.

But decolonising the Zimbabwean mind appears another important step in democratising neglected African languages in this country. Some people in Matabeleland have been heard glibly saying all linguistic groups in the region are Ndebele.

This kind of thinking lends credence to the colonial designation of different linguistic groups under two language categories of Shona and Ndebele. There is also an imperative and urgent need to decolonise the regional place names Mashonaland, Matabeleland and Manicaland.

Some people have recently suggested names similar to those previously proposed by this pen in these columns, to be in accordance with geographical locations of various provinces and without denoting any presence of a linguistic, or tribal, grouping in the area.

Like the Midlands province, a name with no tribal connotation whatsoever, other provinces might be named after their geographical positions they occupy in the land -- northern, southern, central, western, eastern, etc, for instance. Such provincial names would psychologically make all linguistic groups in the country feel equal citizens of the Zimbabwean state.

This pen hopes that locating the marginalisation of some linguistic groups in Zimbabwe in racist colonial policies, as the UZ has done in this article, will put to rest once and for all a morbid misconception fired by palpable ignorance that the black Government of this country was responsible for the neglect of minority languages.