Mind your language – smudging indigenous identity in speech

“If your language is being erased, gather all the words you know; you have; and write them. Write with them. Write in them; and publish.”

Nayyirah Waheed

Tuesday 16 June 2015 marked the 25th annual celebration of the day of the African child, a day honouring the children who participated in the Soweto Uprising of 1976. A series of protests led by high school students in Soweto challenging the introduction of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction in local schools, the Soweto Uprising soon turned violent and hundreds of children’s lives were lost. The uprising became a pivotal moment in the liberation struggle of South Africa, and the bravery of these children, of whom so many sacrificed their young lives, has been celebrated and remembered every year since. While South Africa still struggles with the transformation of their education system- the #RhodesMustFall protests being a prime example, Botswana not only struggles with an antiquated, Eurocentric education system; but one that doesn’t allow children who don’t speak Setswana to be taught in their home languages, or at least to take them as a second language subject in school.

I, for example, am Kalanga; my people are a huge tribe from mainly the North East (and some Central parts) of the country. Despite the fact that we are easily one of the biggest tribes in the country, Kalanga is not a medium of instruction or even offered as a subject in schools in the North East, a Kalanga district. When I started my formal education I spoke Kalanga, enough English and barely any Setswana. Even though I was enrolled at a private (what we call English medium) school I was told I had to learn more Setswana and take it as a subject in school. It was a harrowing ordeal; I had never felt any more foreign; I had an impatient teacher and having to read a language I could barely speak, laden with the accent of my home language, was embarrassing. My tongue didn’t know how to manoeuvre itself to create these unfamiliar words as effortlessly as it did with Kalanga. It felt like I had a new, stupid tongue; in a new stupid mouth. I remember my Setswana teacher advising my parents, who at the time primarily spoke to me in Kalanga, to start addressing me in Setswana at home to make me more comfortable speaking it. Eventually, I got a good enough grip of the language that it didn’t affect my grades or progression.

Five years later when I landed a job as a presenter on a children’s program on the national broadcaster, Botswana Television, I was told again that my Setswana wasn’t good enough. My producers, much kinder than my first Setswana teacher, also encouraged my parents to speak to me in Setswana at home. At this point I became aware of my country’s lackadaisical attitude towards preserving non-Setswana languages, and it made me resentful; I did not understand how the national broadcaster for a country with several spoken languages wouldn’t allow me to speak my own, especially when there were three other presenters available to speak Setswana. Another thing that often happens, in a phenomenon called subtractive bilingualism, when a child is made to learn a new language is they often start to lose the one they were raised speaking. As I tried to compromise with my new tongue, I started to lose my mother tongue. I was losing not only the comforting group attachment that came from speaking my own language with my family; I was grappling with the loss of my whole identity.

Neither classroom nor homeland is a place for a child to feel out of touch with their own identity or culture. Furthermore, children taught in a language other than their indigenous one are statistically more likely to struggle with reading comprehension and achieve lower school grades than they otherwise would. As countries such as Tanzania are overhauling their school systems and making local languages the main medium of instruction instead of English, we too need to rectify our own postcolonial hangover, as well as a history of Tswana overrule that subordinated many groups and to this day has not showed any remorse by allowing them to be able to learn their own languages in school. It is important to look into introducing a Pan-Africanist education system that amongst other things preserves and empowers ALL of our indigenous languages.

The media too, is complicit in allowing the erasure of non-Setswana languages. For example, how many books can you readily find in Botswana in an indigenous language that isn’t Setswana? You’d be lucky to find any. Ironically, in a 2014 conference on African languages and Literature held in Botswana a Professor Sheila Mmusi made a brilliant case about indigenous languages in the media; arguing that the mass media, more than anything has the potential to preserve and promote the development of African languages. In spite of her brilliant sentiments, today we still live in a country that seems to be apathetic to non-Setswana speaking scholars and/or citizens. If language, such an integral part of any nation’s identity, is not a concern of our education system or our media, how can we really claim to have a proud and composite national identity?