The African Union (AU) has chosen Chichewa as one of the African languages to be developed. The decision to develop African languages comes after a decade of what is termed as “African Renaissance” in which the African Union member States have engaged themselves in a series of efforts to encounter the hegemonic position of foreign languages by ensuring that indigenous African languages are accorded appropriate attention and priority as tools of developing the African continent.
This decision followed the AU’s realisation and appreciation that African States cannot achieve meaningful development if most Africans are excluded from the development agenda through persistent use of imported and unfamiliar ex-colonial languages such as English, French, Portuguese, Arabic and Spanish, which are inaccessible to the illiterate. As such, the African States signed international language protocols in 2006, expressing their commitment to the ideals of the AU on the promotion and development of the African languages.
In order to implement this decision, the Heads of States and Governments met in Khartoum, Sudan in 2007 where they approved the creation of the African Academy of Languages (Acalan). Acalan is a specialised language institution of the AU. It is a Pan-African organ of the AU and whose headquarters are in Bamako, Mali. Its general secretary is Professor Sozinho Francisco Matsimbe.
Acalan made a thorough research on the African languages in all the African regions. They realised that there were about 40 vehicular cross-border languages (VCBLs). These are languages which are common and widely spoken in several countries. Some of the criteria used to select these VCBLs were the spread of the language in relevant countries, extent use of the language as lingua franca, and the level of cooperation of the countries in using the language.
However, for purposes of practicality and efficient management, Acalan proposed that they start with 12 VCBLs only in five African regions. North Africa has Arabe and Bergere; West Africa has Hausa, Mandenkan and Fulfulde; eastern Africa has Kiswahili, Somali and Malagasy; Central Africa has Lingala and Beti-fang; while southern Africa has Setswana and Chichewa/Cinyanja.
In 2009, the AU validated the Acalan proposal. Acalan was given 10-15 years to accomplish this task. Thereafter, Acalan established five language commissions, one for each VCBL. Some of the terms of reference for the language commissions were to harmonise differences in orthographic practices; and to facilitate the use of the language as working language in public domains such as education, government business, the Judiciary, the Legislature, science, and technology and commerce.
Chichewa/Cinyanja is one language as it has common origins. It met the criteria for VCBL because it is spoken in a number of countries in southern Africa. It is the lingua franca of the multilingual Malawi. In Mozambique, it is spoken in Tete and Niassa Provinces. In Zambia, it is spoken especially in Eastern Province and Lusaka. In Zimbabwe, it is regarded as the third most widely used local language after Shona and Ndebele. In South Africa, it is said to be one of the key African heritage languages. It is also spoken in some parts of Tanzania.
It is estimated that there are about 15 million Chichewa native speakers. However, it has penetrated into traditionally non-Chichewa speaking areas. As a result, over 20 million native and non-natives speak the language in southern Africa.
Acalan acknowledges that although languages do not have the same influence in a given context, there are no superior languages and no inferior languages, just as there are no superior peoples and no inferior peoples.
—The author is a senior lecturer at Mzuzu University writing in his personal capacity.