Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Our Dying Languages


This article was published over two years ago and was heavily quoted by Mr Joseph Mwanamvekha, chaiperson of the Muhlako wa Ahlomwe launch on October 25. It is nice the Lomwes have acted. I have maintained the Lomwe spelling, not Lhomwe, to show that this article was done long before the Lomwes came to promote their languages.

They often shout their mantra, Angoni satha onse (the Ngoni still exist), in Chichewa because Ngoni is almost a culture without a language.

"Ngoni, for all practical purposes, is a dead language," says Pascal Kishindo, a professor of linguistics at Chancellor College.

The reasons are historical. The Ngoni left Zululand, among other reasons running away from Shaka Zulu’s wars, and moved to Malawi in two groups, on different routes, waging wars, conquering on the way and, finally, settled in Mzimba and Ntcheu.

The majority of the people who came to Malawi, therefore, were those captured during wars and not necessarily the original Ngoni. Only the royal clan and a few others could speak Ngoni in Malawi.
As a result, Ngoni was not an everyday language, it was not passed on to future generations and became a second or third language.

"When a language is not used everyday, it’s on its way out," says Kishindo.

Indeed Ngoni is out because only chants remain. These are recited by old people on important occasions like initiation and installation of chiefs.

Such old people are at Mpherembe in Mzimba and around Inkosi ya Makosi Gomani’s area in Ntcheu. Now there are efforts to revive the language.

The Mzimba Heritage Association is running Ngoni classes throughout Mzimba, so that Ngoni culture should not die because in the first place, a culture is carried by a language.

This initiative was approved by Inkosi ya Makosi M’mbelwa and government. South Africa donated textbooks for the exercise a couple of years ago.

One of the people involved is Aupson Ndabazake Thole, who works for Mzuzu Museum. He says one real challenge is that few Ngoni words still in use have been mixed up with Chitumbuka.

Perhaps Ngoni is not so much of a worry because something is happening to resurrect it from the dead. It is languages still in use like Chilomwe and Chitonga that should be guarded against gradual death.

The danger, says Bright Molande of English Department at Chancellor College, is that a person can speak a language without owning it. Such people do not live their languages.

A 1966 population census showed that Lomwe was the country’s second largest spoken language. Chichewa was number one, Yao came third with Tumbuka on fourth.

Some have, as in every census, doubted the accuracy of the statistics, saying the enumerators simply asked the tribe of the respondents and assumed they could speak the language of their tribe.

The real challenge is that while Tumbuka, for example, is spoken in Blantyre, Chilomwe, a language close to the commercial city, is rarely spoken there.

While Chiyao becomes a language for a bus to Mangochi and Chisena for a bus to Nsanje, Chilomwe is never heard on public transport to Mulanje. "It was very difficult to find people who speak Lomwe very freely at a market, for example," says Kishindo of his 1999 study on Chilomwe in Thyolo and Mulanje.

One sad observation, says Kishindo, is that it was old people who were interested while "the young folks were annoyed".

History is part of the explanation. The Lomwe were the latest people to come to Malawi. Some as late as 1910. They ran away from oppressive rule of the Portuguese in neighbouring Mozambique and picked up humble jobs in tea estates in Thyolo and Mulanje, including Phalombe.

"It would be hypocritical of me if I don’t accept this," says Ken Lipenga, an ardent speaker and researcher in Lomwe semantics.

As a result, some Lomwe shied away from their ethnic identity and were reluctant to speak their language.

"It’s not surprising, therefore, that there has been a language shift from Chilomwe to Chichewa," says Gregory Kamwendo in his contribution to A Democracy of Chameleons, a 2002 book on politics and culture in new Malawi.

Lipenga accepts the shift but says Chilomwe is not developing characteristics of a dying language.

"Lomwes speak other languages in order to communicate with people outside the tribe," says Lipenga, adding that among themselves in Phalombe, for example, they speak Chilomwe.

But he realises the need to pass on the language to future generations, first by giving children Lomwe names.
"My two children have Lomwe names," says Lipenga.

Perhaps, the worst setback to all languages in independent Malawi was the Malawi Congress Party’s 1968 convention which resolved that Chichewa be a national language. The introduction of one language was partly good for the sake of national unity.

The problem was the selfish manner in which first President Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda imposed his language on the nation.

Despite the nationalisation of Chichewa, Livingstonia Synod of the CCAP has been a custodian of Chitumbuka, for instance. The Synod uses Chitumbuka for worship.

This has helped the Tumbuka language to thrive. But the Synod is not a custodian of Tumbuka culture which is supposed to be carried by the language.

It’s clear, therefore, that people, owners of a culture, can promote a culture through its language. That’s what the Lomwe and other tribes have to do.

Yet promoting a language requires a lot of political will and a number fanatics to despise all ridicule.
The first political will in recent years was the introduction of several languages on MBC Radio One. But this is not enough.

Still there are signs of hope. The suggested instruction of junior primary school pupils in the vernacular may help, confirms Alfred Mtenje, professor of linguistics at Chancellor College.

But Malawi has over 10 languages and it’s not yet known which ones will be used from the list of local languages which include Chichewa, Chiyao, Chitumbuka, Chisena, Chilomwe, Chingonde, Chinyakyusa, Chilambya, Chindali, Chisuku, Chinyika, Chitonga, Chisenga, Chingoni, Chimambwe and many more.
Some of these languages are spoken by a few hundreds of people and may not be a medium of instruction.

But for those that are on the danger of disappearing, there is need for a programme to collect information from old people because once they die it’s like a library has caught fire, books destroyed.

Any preservation of a language, however, should come from the people themselves because the Lomwe distinctiveness, for example, is very interesting to a linguist like Mtenje.

But his feeling is that the Lomwe themselves should be interested in their culture and tradition— folktales, rituals and initiation. A language, as we say, is a carrier of a culture. Therefore, to live a language is to live a culture.

The instruction of junior pupils in mother tongues is perhaps a good, but bumpy starting point. Our children, and all of us, should not only speak but live our languages to preserve our cultures.

This means Lomwe people should not only dance tchopa but should also sing Chilomwe songs. Likewise, Yao and their manganje, Ngoni and beni and so on.

When we live our languages we shall use them daily, pass them on to future generations and make them preferable to others.

That’s what all tribes in Malawi should be doing.

Monday, October 13, 2008

End of All Things

The song is short: three minutes, 50 seconds. In fact, the song is too sweet to end.

Nelly Furtado is a musician who has seen all sides of life and she was right to ask the question: All good things, why do they come to an end? All good things: from love to wealth to life. But her song, though good, comes to an end as well. Of course you can replay, but it still comes to an end; you replay (again) but it still comes to an end.

A bottle of the sweetest drink comes to an end. It may be refilled but the taste may not the be same, not because the chemical make-up of the drink has changed, but because the circumstances of drinking are no longer the same. A good whistle is inspiring, but soon you get tired and cannot whistle any more. You try again, but you can’t whistle the way you did, the way it was—not as sweet.

Why do good things come to an end? Furtado is right to ask this question. But it is not good things only that come to and end. Bad things end as well and this is where we appreciate that it is good for things—good and bad—to come to an end.

The war in Mozambique was bad. In fact, there was something wrong in the way Portugal handed over power in its colonies because both Mozambique and Angola went into war soon after independence.
Malawi hosted about a million refugees from Mozambique. They settled in Balaka, Ntcheu, Dedza, Mulanje and other districts.

Hundreds of them married in Malawi and settled. Thousands returned to their country at the end of the war. But forests were depleted to create space for the refugees. The pain of the mercy to keep Mozambican refugees is still felt in Malawi. The pain of war in Mozambique is still prevalent not only in Mozambique but in the region.

Some have speculated that the first guns used in armed robbery in Malawi were from Mozambique. Others have gone to the extent of saying Mozambicans did not help matters as regards HIV prevalence.
Now that the war is over, Mozambique has picked up the pieces and its economy is bigger than that of Malawi in most senses. Mozambique feeds us when there is food shortage here.

Imagine the war in Mozambique did not come to an end. There would have been a war in Mozambique, chaos in Zimbabwe and the whole region would have been disaster.

So, it was nice the war came to an end. In fact, it is nice things—all things, good and bad—have an end for without one, the world would have been a bad place.

This is a world surviving one end of things. The sun does not move, it does not rise, it does not set, but the world talks about sunrise and sunset because one, nature has made this possible and, two, it is good that a day comes and ends to pave way for night and darkness: a sense of variety and forward moving.

One life has to come to an end for another to start. The death of one is the birth of another. The world needs some space for new borns.

Yet we mourn those who went before us. Malawi has never had anyone close to the late Du Chisiza jr, actor, playwright, producer and manager. Malawi is missing the skills of musicians like Deus and Bright Nkhata, Grey Ntila; players like Dixon Mbetewa, Harry Waya, and Frank Sinalo. We miss their skills, their talent. Kalimba and Makasu bands remain the best combination Malawi has ever had.

Why did their life come to an end? We ask the question because we miss them. The compensation is that memories about them soothe souls. Beyond that, we celebrate the passing of criminals. We also take end of life moments seriously.

In the final analysis, knowledge on this side of paradise is like that: we can’t understand everything; not now, but then, on the other side of paradise, we shall understand.

My plain view is that Nelly Furtado’s song and question "Why do good things come to an end?" is good and understandable it lacks depth. End of things is part of life and something the world has to live with because forever is too long to be enjoyed in this state.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Digesting UDF Brains

The UDF is a party in the news. This week the Malawi Law Society spoke on the party’s presidential candidate and the risks that his candidature brings. I spoke spoke with UDF director of research Humphrey Mvula.

Me: So many voices but it seems the UDF is listening to itself, only.

Mvula: I disagree that the UDF is listening to its own voice only.

Me: That is what we are seeing?

Mvula: That is a wrong vision. The national conference elected Muluzi as its candidate for 2009. He was elected by representatives from all constituencies. People exercised their democratic right. Beyond that, the national executive committee has carried out adequate consultations in Malawi and abroad: QCs and others have been consulted. What comes out clearly is that there is no law that bars Muluzi from standing. The cardinal point is that he has been elected by the 2000 delegates from all over Malawi.

Me: True. The UDF is, so far, the only party to hold a convention prior to next year’s elections. But that was just an illusion because there was no level playing field. Muluzi had been campaigning for over a year. Should we be attributing that choice to people?

Mvula: I disagree with you. The convention had been cancelled several times over two years and anyone who was interested in standing for the UDF presidency had adequate time to sell himself to the electorate. Additionally, anyone who wants the presidency in any party must have long range planning done two or three years go. You should be able to distinguish Muluzi and the chairman of the party [from] Muluzi as the presidential candidate.

Me: How do we distinguish? They are one. Muluzi as national chairman, as presidential candidate, as financier of the party—these are one?

Mvula: No, no, no! They are not. That is a perception!

Me: And perceptions are more important than reality. In fact, perceptions reflect reality.

Mvula: In politics, leaders can be synonymous with party structures and command. This happens in the political industry. A leader becomes a persona of a party. Muluzi was able to market himself and the party did not bar anyone from showing interest or marketing themselves.

Me: But there must be something strong in UDF that stopped people like Friday Jumbe and Brown Mpinganjira from contesting because Muluzi was contesting.

Mvula: The strongest factor that stopped them was their conscious, and their respect for the elderly in African setting. Possibly personal understanding that we have been mentored by this same person, shall we be able to oust him? But beyond that, it is people that vote. For you to contest, you must have a body of people who can vote for you. Astute leaders assess themselves and decide whether to contest or not.

Me: Law, yes. There might be no law that stops Muluzi but morally, he is supposed to retire and let others in UDF run the affairs of the party.

Mvula: I don’t agree with you on that point. All over examples abound of people who have come back.

Me: But are these examples good enough to follow?

Mvula: In Pakistan, Spain and Italy, Israel. The issue of allowing a good leader to come back should not be attached to morality. There is nothing immoral about Muluzi coming back into the party. As long as people in UDF say this is the best candidate in this contest, it may not be correct for us to stop.

Another factor is that if President Bingu wa Mutharika was still in the UDF today, there would have been no talk of Muluzi now. Mutharika did not just dump UDF, he did two dangerous things. He denied the UDF the honour of supporting and electing a successful President. He also short-circuited the party’s succession plan. Some of the people in the succession plan were taken to the new party, meaning that the UDF has suffered a huge gap.

Me: But there are still more of you in UDF?

Mvula: No. Leaders are not picked from the street. They are developed, nurtured and become leaders, everywhere, in any industry. This is the story that you are not telling on behalf of UDF. It is a party that has suffered a succession crisis.

Me: But it was self-made.

Mvula: It was not self-made.

Me: The UDF did not create a conducive climate for the President. There was Fast Track, there was all this jabbing. How would a person stay?

Mvula: I don’t want to go into that because it involves a President who is in another party. It is not true that the UDF did not create an environment good enough for Mutharika. It is not true that anyone wanted to take away the honour of the President. The party was convinced and confident that within the first 10 years, we were to consolidate democracy and next [years] the economy. So the choice [of Mutharika] was in that sense.

Me: I am glad you say that because when we study new democracies the first decade or so is for democracy consolidation and the later years for economic growth. The tragedy is that the UDF candidate is campaigning on the consolidation of democracy when we are in a phase that emphasises on the creation of wealth because it is rich people who can demand freedoms.

Mvula: We have never campaigned on the premise of consolidating democracy.

Me: The UDF candidate is campaigning on that premise?

Mvula: No, no, no. The issue of democractisation, rule of law, human rights, power to the people, are enshrined in the Constitution. Whatever happens in a democracy should have a human face. What is happening today is dangerous. Section 65, the failure to hold local government elections—these are examples that we are rolling back to what we fought against. The leader who is coming in 2009 must safeguard the Constitution. Our manifesto never talks about one item. What you are doing is picking one item.

Me: Why is your candidate talking about democracy only?

Mvula: We have not rolled out our campaign. We will be doing that very soon and that is when you will see what we will do on agriculture, economy and other areas.

Me: It looks like people are still not sure and are looking back to UDF to correct the candidature of Muluzi. The party may be creating a crisis if Muluzi is refused to contest. If that happens, it will be a national tragedy. Why not prevent this now and be sure of the future?

Mvula: If you listen carefully and analsye these voices, how many of them are neutral? Our political competitors have talked about risks which we don’t see. What is it that in the current Constitution or PPE [Presidential and Parliamentary Elections Act] that stops Muluzi? I don’t see it.

Me: What if those who have authority to interpret the law say Muluzi cannot stand?

Mvula: I cannot say what we will do. But, obviously, I don’t think those who have authority, in this case the Electoral Commission, can come and say he cannot stand because they are not going to bring new laws. The laws that exist today allow Muluzi to stand. The mischief is that people are dragging Section 83 into this issue. The qualifications of a candidate are not in Section 83.

Me: The spirit of the constitutional conference was that a person should serve a maximum of two consecutive terms and retire and you were there, you know this. Why are you not abiding by the spirit of the Constitution?

Mvula: If the spirit was not translated into the Constitution, it is not the fault of anyone. All the spirit should have done was to remove the word consecutive. If they had done so, then that spirit would have been actualised into action.

Me: So the UDF is taking advantage of the loophole?

Mvula: It is not taking advantage. It is only complying. It has not been repealed. If there is somebody who feels nasty about it, they should demand that it be repealed. As long as it is not repealed, the issue of consecutive is simple English. This is about a sitting President. Why are we mesmerising ourselves? The best I can say is that there are individuals who are peddling a campaign against the strong candidate.

Me: How strong is Muluzi because his decade was not a period that people may wish to come back?

Mvula: I don’t agree with you.

Me: There was a lot of violence.

Mvula: You said the first 10 years are for stabilising democracy. By and large we had a lot of achievements, honestly.

Me: Why should I trust your judgment on the assessment of Muluzi because if you move to another party today, you will be talking different things?

Mvula: Judge me by ability to do what I do. Democracy brought a good Constitution but the Penal Code was old. But here was a leader who did not want to use a Penal Code that was from a one party system. That was from the personality of Muluzi. In terms of Muluzi as an individual, he would be a much much better President than anyone that will be contesting.

In terms of the economy, we inherited empty coffers but we achieved the first debt cancellation in 2000. We achieved and you were there marching with all Malawians. This happened in the UDF era and has never been attributed to the UDF.

Me: Assuming we have two candidates here, Muluzi and Mutharika, I know you will vote for Muluzi. But why should people vote for Muluzi and not Mutharika.

Mvula: This is a difficult question.

Me: But I need an answer.

Mvula: I would compare them in four [areas]. Four years within a democracy and being part of planning that process, and 10 years from a dictatorship, there have been few happenings now. Apart from macroeconomic fundamentals, individuals are poorer than they were. The value of the wage is no longer of any value. Delivery of services is poor. There are more blackouts than when the economy was wavering.

In terms of governance, the kind of Constitution we have is too democratic. It allows power to the people in form of councilors. That we have not had these in four years is serious. The third one is the way leadership is played. In a democracy leaders are servants, not masters.

Finally, adding value to our raw materials. Why should we sell our tobacco as raw materials. The adding of value should be able to bring more money. I can go on and on and on but I am the first to agree that there has been macroeconomic gains that have not translated into microeconomic, the downstream operations. The other thing is our adoption of structural adjustment programmes has been without coping mechanism in terms of people being fired if we are closing a company.

Me: Why is it that people become wiser once they are in opposition and they see what they didn’t see when in power?

Mvula: I don’t think that is correct?

Me: It is. If you were in power you would not be talking of coping mechanism and all that.

Mvula: No, no, no.

Me: You would be defending the system.

Mvula: No! Take it from me. Record this and put it in the newspaper. If I am part of a power system, I will always talk about what I am talking about.

Me: Are you sure?

I am saying record it for the sake of posterity.