Is there Unity in our languages?

Dating back from 1987, Zimbabwe’s Unity Day celebrates the coming together of the country’s two political parties (Zanu PF and PF Zapu) into a mega political force. Almost 30 years on and 22 December is now a public holiday with all the rituals and fanfare synonymous with Zimbabwean national events -cue obligatory national holiday theme song:

Unity Day is a political occasion.  However, this is not a political post.  Rather, it’s about another aspect that’s not often publicised but is nevertheless crucial to discourse on Zimbabwean current affairs. The Shona/Ndebele language struggle is one that many Zimbabweans face and have to deal with.  Shona is the language of power in the country’s landscape.  It’s possible to go your whole life without learning Ndebele – to be honest, there isn’t a drive or push that encourages people to learn the language.  However, the reality for those not born into the Shona language group is different.  Two young Zimbabwean adults share their personal experiences of negotiating their language identity in a country where one language is treated as superior to others.

What are they saying?

By Makabongwe Ngulube.

“I laugh so hard when I remember the first day of preschool. My parents, in all their goodness, forgot to mention that I did not speak Shona. I went to Ascot Garden nursery school in Harare at the age of 4. I remember during our first playtime one of the kids shouting ‘Iwe huya, huya kuno!’ (Hey you come here!) I just stared blankly. If it were not for how pushy kids get I would have just stood there. One of them ran to me and just dragged me to the sand pit. I was still wondering what they were saying as we threw around sand making castles. I soon learnt that ‘huya’ meant ‘come’ and thus began my journey to learning Shona in addition to the English and Ndebele I knew.

I must say, though I was confused back then, I am very grateful that I am multi-lingual. Throughout primary school I had very helpful next door neighbors who helped me with my homework. In grade seven I had a Zezuru Shona teacher who made sure I passed that ZIMSEC grade 7 final. I wanted to drop Shona for high school and my mom told me, ‘it is part of your heritage and since you are not in Bulawayo to write Ndebele, you need something that shows your heritage and language is one of those things.’

It is a great feeling to have a piece of paper that says I wrote Shona at O Level and I got a C – way better than some of my Shona friends. I have a point of reference. My experience growing up Ndebele and learning Shona has allowed me to transcend between both cultures. Staying in Harare may have estranged me a little from my extended family but I am very well able to hold a good Ndebele conversation. I value my knowledge of the two and more than anything, I understood that learning both was to my advantage especially in a country where being Ndebele could be a curse. I think learning the different languages is the first step in eliminating the discrimination that minority tribes face in Zimbabwe.”

The power struggle between Zimbabwe’s two main languages is just a chapter in the story of language dynamics in our country.  The addition of minority groups to our list of official languages (jumping from four to 16 official languages) was mocked and ridiculed by many. “We are not South Africa,” most people argued. However, ignoring smaller less powerful languages doesn’t mean that they will simply disappear. In fact, it could breed resentment.

The Shona/Ndebele Dichotomy

By Mholiwethu Nyathi

“Just like most African countries, Zimbabwe has multiple languages: Chewa, Chibarwe, English, Kalanga, Koisan, Nambya, Ndau, Ndebele, Shangani, Shona, Sign Language, Sotho, Tonga, Tswana, Venda and Xhosa. The most widely used are English ,Shona and Ndebele. The interactions between the two main languages, Ndebele and Shona, is quite complicated and this is mostly because of the rocky relations between the two ethnic groups. The majority speaks the Shona language while a minority speaks Ndebele.

Though the constitution recognizes other languages as official languages the  governmental policies and the Zimbabwean attitude towards other languages other than Shona portrays a different attitude towards the minority languages. I am Ndebele by birth and was born in Bulawayo. I have spent all my life living in Bulawayo and as a result was brought up in a Ndebele setting. However I still have the ability to hear and understand the Shona language fully and I can have a decent conversation in Shona. This is typical of most Zimbabwean citizens who are not Shona by birth but can converse in Shona.

In my own experience I have noted that most  Shona people learn other minority languages cause they want to while most people learn Shona out of necessity. The correct attitude of the government towards minority languages is firstly found in House Parliament itself. While one would expect the government to have a translator to help facilitate proper communication between members of parliament this is not case. In the parliament the languages spoken are mostly Shona and English. Some members don’t take into account that some members of the parliament can’t understand Shona, and when they address the parliament with their own language they are shot down. This clearly goes to show the real attitude they have towards other languages: while they expect every parliament member to learn  Shona they themselves are not wiling to take time and learn minority languages. Furthermore, in most governmental offices citizens are expected to converse or address their problems in Shona. These expectations are found even in Matebeleland which is a predominately Ndebele area. This goes to shows a lack of respect towards the Ndebele and other minority languages in Zimbabwe.

The problem is also in the schooling system. In the years before former Minister David Coltart started a  program which  involved the printing of textbooks in the Tonga language, most pupils in the Binga region were either taught in Ndebele or Shona at a lower grade. This was problematic as it promotes the death of the Tonga language at a primary level. Though the state recognizes the presence of other languages Shona remains the dominant language. In my opinion this attitude towards other languages stems from the sense of entitlement which most Shona people have of Zimbabwe. According to them Zimbabwe belongs to Shona people only and thus they have no obligation to learn other minority languages but the minority groups have an obligation to learn Shona.

It has really become a case of adapt to survive for most people because if you can’t converse in Shona you won’t be able to enjoy full governmental services. This kind of attitude has a negative impact on Ndebele and Shona relations because as soon as the Ndebele feel as though their language is not respected, they take it as disrespect to the whole tribe and that could fuel hatred. After so many years of independence one would expect these language problems to have been solved so as to further facilitate national unity but that’s not the case. We still have incidents where minority languages are not being respected and recognized .Firstly we still have a national passport which spells basic ndebele words like  ‘akuvunyelwa’ as  ‘akuvhunyelwa’ and ‘epejini’ instead of  ‘ephjini’. One would expect such mistakes to have been sorted out on the new passports but the government still hasn’t done much about it. We also still have companies like Chicken Slice and Econet using the wrong Ndebele grammar in their advertisements.”

Not everyone will share these opinions and sentiments. Some people don’t see language as an issue. Others might feel that such conversations do more harm than good. However it can’t be denied that the scales in Zimbabwe’s language system aren’t equally balanced.  So as 22 December 2015 marks the 28th anniversary of the Unity Accords, it’s time to question whether this unity has extended to the many language groups that colour our country’s landscape.

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