There is a heavy assault on some tribal languages in Malawi. It is the case almost always. Some languages are used to represent low class and backward thinking. How dangerous is this trend?
The cartoon in one weekly, last year, looked innocent, meant to entertain.
It depicted Dziwe la Nkhalamba at the foot of Mulanje Mountain. A boy was fishing, saying he was tired with green vegetables and wanted to eat fish. As he held the fishing line, waiting for a catch, a ghost, bright like the rising sun, appeared from the pool.
It spoke in Lomwe tongue and the boy was terrified. He did not have the energy to run away. What was the cartoon’s message?
The surface meaning was nothing really, just to make people laugh that someone who wanted to eat fish ended up being so frightened that he forgot all the desire for fish yet was held by some magic power that he could not run away.
But the deeper thought is something different. The ghost did not speak in Lomwe tongue by accident. The areas around Mulanje Boma up to Likhubula and Chambe on the mountain are occupied by the Mang’anja people. So, why did the spirit speak in Lomwe?
Perhaps because the pool is in Mulanje where, as some people believe, Lomwe was supposed be spoken. Yet this is not enough. The main reason is that the Lomwe are—for whatever reason—people associated with magic.
This is partly the reason magicians practising in Balaka, Blantyre and Nsanje, even in the Central region, have addresses that show they are from Mulanje. Such herbalists are all over in the country. They think the Mulanje-address makes them powerful and, maybe, people tend to believe herbalists from Mulanje as being effective.
That cartoonist did not originate the idea of associating Lomwe with magic. It was not a reality he constructed. He simply reflected it. But by doing so, he kind of confirmed it as right, which was wrong to come from an artist.
But it is not cartoonists only who portray Lomwe as a language associated with magic. Actors from big and small, old and new drama groups, are in the trap, too.
A lomwe accent is used to represent a village folk not yet conversant with urban life, someone not in-the-know, or, to be blunt, an ignorant person. A person who comes to town and fails to use a flask, a kettle, a pressing iron or a toilet will have a Lomwe accent.
That makes people laugh as he or she shouts ‘hayi, handikadziwa’ or ‘hamunandiuze’. It is, in a way, portrayed like a language of ignorance.
Even in radio plays, Lomwe accent is used in not so good roles. One radio series has an actor who plays the grandmother role and to emphasise her old age, especially to sound like one without teeth, she uses Lomwe accent.
She has been doing this for years and that is what makes her an actress. Not only that, often she is not knowledgeable and what she says does not seem to carry weight to other actors. The script writer and the producer have listened to this all this time and they find it fine, just part of drama.
Yet these plays are meant to communicate some important messages on health and development, for example. How do messages get across to the Lomwe when their language is used negatively? This is a question not yet answered.
It does not need a whole year’s research. Just spend an hour listening to the radio on any day—there are a number of radio plays nowadays—and you will catch actors assaulting languages in a way that will frighten you.
Sena, too, is a language under assault in drama. It is a language for house-servants. It is also a tongue for the rural folks who does not yet understand town life. There is one actor who has consistently used Sena accent in all his roles as houseboy. The drama group uses him as a house boy but the main role is stage organiser. He does that as a servant making a house which turns to be the stage. Throughout the years, he has been making fun of Sena by mimicking the Sena.
The point to make is that these actors speak like any other Malawian but when it comes to acting they adopt Lomwe or Sena accent.
Yao is a victim as well. Consider this. A company is promoting its products and services through a competition and to do that it hires two actors who have to show that the services of the company are even for the rural, not-so-educated people.
One of the actors speaks like a Yao from Mangochi, saying he was cycling to Blantyre to claim his prize. The other actor, who speaks like any Malawians would do, seems to laugh at the idea that his friend is cycling to Blantyre. If they were in and from Mangochi, why didn’t both of them speak the Yao accent so as not to show one language as backward?
It is clear that some languages have been misused in arts to represent backwardness, ignorance and a bit of lack of civilisation. It is so rooted in arts, especially drama, that a watchman or anyone doing menial work acts with a Yao, Sena or Lomwe accent.
Just take an afternoon to any theatre and watch how actors and actresses will assault some of the country’s languages. The actors who represent the languages as backward take the blame.
But the radios that air the plays share the blame too. So too the print media, newspapers and magazines that carry cartoons depicting some languages as inferior.
This is at a time when some of our languages are dying. Lomwe, for example, is spoken in Phalombe and the Chinyama-Mbiza belt of Mulanje. Speakers are old people. Young ones are not that interested, sometimes. If this assault continues, 50 years from now, countable people shall be speaking Lomwe.
The assault is something we hear and know about but pretend it does not exist so long it suits our desire to make money out of art and our quest for entertainment.
But it is not too late to change. In fact, change for the better is never too late to be ignored. Now that Centre for Language Studies has organised a language conference, it might be great to discuss this assault on languages and be in the forefront to help artists reverse the trend for the sake of our languages before another cartoonist chooses Lomwe as a language of a ghost.