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.