I have written on a topic with the above heading before. But this was about 15 to 20 years ago. Some of the people who are commenting on this topic now may not have read my earlier contributions for a variety of reasons.
There is some misunderstanding about the roles of national and smaller languages. This is evidenced by someone who recently complained about a representative of the Livingstonia Synod’s use of the Tumbuka language in a prayer at a national gathering, instead of Chichewa. If young people know the history of Malawi, they would be less abusive when criticising the Livingstonia Synod. The mother church of this synod was the Free Church of Scotland which gave Nyasaland or Malawi such prominent personalities as Levi Mumba, Hanock Msokera Phiri, Clements Kadalie, Rose Chibambo, Dunduzu Chisiza, Chief Mwase (Samuel) and above all, Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda.
Livingstonia Mission has never been against a national language or lingua franca or any other Malawian language. Go to the National Archives in Zomba and ask for copies of a newspaper Vyaro na Vyaro which Livingstonia Mission used to publish in the 1921s and early 1930s. Though most pages were written in Tumbuka or English, you will also come across pages in Chinyanja for the benefit of schools in Kasungu which Livingstonia later handed to the Dutch Reformed Church.
The people of the North have never resented the existence of a lingua franca so long as they were allowed to learn and sing in their own tongues. The necessity of a lingua franca has been acknowledged right from the end of World War I.
In 1928, the late Isaac Katongo, a member of the Muwamba clan of Nkhata Bay and a distinguished politician in the pre-Kamuzu days delivered a lecture at Fort Hare College after completing a short course he had been attending. The lecture concerned Nyasaland and its people. He told the audience that the principal language spoken in Nyasaland was Chinyanja, and those smaller languages were Yao, Tumbuka, Tonga, Swahili and Zulu, which he said was spoken by Ngoni people. He was referring to the Ngoni of Mzimba, most of whom were bilingual at that time, unlike today when they only speak Chitumbuka. This lecture was published in the Livingstonia newspaper Vyaro na Vyaro.
At about that same time, Clements Kadalie, leader of the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) of South Africa was in London. He met two English women surnamed Warner. They had been to Malawi to do some studies, probably anthropological or missionary. Upon learning that Kadalie’s original home was Nkhata Bay in Nyasaland, they started speaking in Chinyanja. In his autobiography, Kadalie says he enjoyed having to speak in Chinyanja right in the centre of London.
When I joined the Tanganyika Civil Service in 1955, I was attached to an Indian senior clerk. He asked me from what part of Tanganyika I came. I said I was from Nyasaland. He greeted me: “Aha, moni, muli bwanji?” (Good morning, how are you?). I asked him if he had been to Nyasaland.
He said he had learned to greet in Chinyanja in India where he was a paymaster attached to the first Battalion (Nyasaland) of the King’s African Rifles (KAR). What do we make out of this? That for nearly a century it has been accepted that the people of Malawi have a common language, Chinyanja, was referred to as lingua franca, not national language because as a colony, naturally Nyasaland was not a nation.
As a lingua franca, Chinyanja was accommodating and inclusive. The Tumbuka language was officially accepted as a lingua franca for the Northern province. Similar recognition was not given to Chiyao and Chilomwe though perhaps they were spoken by more people because most Yaos and Lomwes were bilingual. They lived in the same geographical parts as the Nyanja or Mang’anja and went to the same schools. When speaking Chinyanja, their accents were just like those of the Mang’anja.
In various organs where Chinyanja was used, some space was reserved for Chitumbuka such as in official newspapers like Msimbi, Nkhani za Nyasaland, the Central Broadcasting Station, MBC, Malawi News and so on.
There was no language in Malawi known officially as Chichewa until 1968 when the nation learned that on recommendation of an MCP sub-committee chaired by Mr Qabaniso Chibambo, the president had declared that Chichewa was the national language, and no other language should be used at the MBC, Malawi News or any official document.
To be continued…