“If you know other languages but not your own, you’re enslaved. If you know your own language and others you’re empowered.”—Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 2017 public lecture
My editor, Edyth Kambalame, this week started a Twitter storm when she came to the defence of Malawi’s youngest parliamentarian, 24-year-old Fyness Magonjwa who has been at the centre of ridicule on social media.
Of the young parliamentarian, Kambalame said: “She beat all odds to become the youngest legislator in Parliament. She is young, brave and ambitious. She has undoubtedly inspired many girls not just in her constituency but nationwide. To vilify her for speaking ‘poor’ English is just being petty.”
Habiba Osman gave her weighted response by underscoring that the “tragic debate on Honourable Fyness, exposes some serious dysfunction in the education system. The issue is how do we also promote upscaling and reskilling to keep the pace with rapid technological and digital transformations needed for these millennial leaders?”
Another defender Maria Mhandire agreed with Osman: “These are my sentiments exactly. She is a product of our education system, which failed her. She rose up by sheer will to represent her people. We should be less critical and more in awe.
“She is not part of a marginalised minority. She represents the majority; approximately 70 percent plus of Malawi’s population, who barely survive our broken education system. I have witnessed Grade 7 learners who have a reading level of a Grade 2 or less. These come from classrooms where the student-teacher ratio is around 100 to 1!!”
In the Twitter feud, Wisdom Chimgwede was swift to accuse the media, advising that “the media in Malawi better ask our interviewees the language they would be comfortable with and do voice-overs later. Period”.
It was an interesting interjection from Levi Kabwato that inspired me.
“We say we are Malawians, we are proud of our country, heritage and tradition; but we still feel compelled to converse in English, even when it is not to our advantage, or as far as the parliamentarian, to the advantage of the people she represents.”
Kabwato took a leaf from literature’s laureate from East Africa, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, in his bit to stop Malawi from shaming the young parliamentarian for not speaking English well. The contribution is from a public lecture Ngugi gave in 2017, but still resonates well with our communication strategies.
Ngugi begins his lecture by saying that the “mother languages [have] become languages of shame and defeat; colonial languages became languages of glory and excellence”.
Ngugi laments that in Africa, we laugh at our fellow Africans who although they speak multiple African languages, they can’t speak any of the European languages or the coveted English language. Africans also love to revere Africans who speak multiple European languages. These are looked up to as being highly educated.
Ngugi underscores that the fear of African languages emanates from the perceived threat to a seat on the ‘Global’ table. Since “we’re told we need to be global, but we only get remnants from the so-called seat on the global table”.
With this plan to rise to the global table, Ngugi advances that the African languages were meant to die. But they haven’t. The irony of ironies on language is that when an African applies for a job or school in Europe or the US, and you do not speak English, chances are, you will not be hired. Why do we hire lecturers and other employees in Africa who don’t know African languages?
We need well-resourced language and literature bureaus that can make knowledge of African languages count, Ngugi said.
Back to our non-excellent English-speaking lawmaker, my advice is for the MP to take up lessons, employ a tutor and learn English. .
Another option would be for the parliamentarian to ask the reporter to conduct the interview and deliver statements in Parliament in a language the lawmakers feel most comfortable speaking. On this last point, concern must be expressed about who the lawmakers are talking to when they speak in interviews. If lawmakers make statements in the vein that they are speaking to their constituents, then speaking in Chichewa, Tumbuka, Yao, Sena or Tonga, would not be a problem; it’s a great communication tool.
Kabwato agreed with this premise and said the media houses could be conducting their interviews in any of the local languages.
Honourable, speak in the language of your voters.