Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Mother tongues, racialized belief systems, and self-destruction

Yesterday, February 21, was International Mother Language Day. The day was proclaimed as such by UNESCO in 1999, and was first observed in 2000. In Malawi, The Nation newspaper used the occasion to seek the views of a number of educational authorities on the government's forthcoming policy for lower primary school students to learn in the local language of the area they live in. The news report from The Nation, and the reactions to the report on the Malawi internet listserv Nyasanet, both demonstrate the difficulty of the issue, and the passion it raises amongst not only Malawians, but in diverse societies all over the world. At the bottom of the issue is the question of the role languages play in the efforts to understand local and global problems, a debate that has attracted an enormous amount of attention in scholarly books, journals and conferences. Outside the academy, however, the debate is dominated by views that betray the hierarchical lenses of race and class through which people see the world, and declare which side of the divide they are on. To put it shortly, most Malawian elites use the opportunity of such debates to declare their allegiance with the triumphant white, middle-to-upper-class, EuroAmerican view of the world.

Talking to The Nation newspaper, the secretary general of the Teachers Union of Malawi (TUM), Lucien Chikadza, singles out three reasons why the policy for Malawian children in lower primary levels to learn in local languages is not advisable. First, "Malawi does not have a specific language", he says. Second, the policy would entail the transferring of teachers based on areas where they come from, which could lead to unequal distribution of teachers. Third, says Mr. Chikadza, Chichewa "has a shallow vocabulary to reflect actual meanings of words and terms in English." For George Jobe, communications director for the Creative Centre for Community Mobilization (CRECCOM), despite a survey indicating the suitability of the policy, the policy poses what he calls "transition" problems if Standard 4 children will suddenly have to begin learning in English as late as Standard 5. The director of the Inspectorate in the ministry of education, Matilda Kabuye, says in the urban areas English will be sandwiched with a local language early on, while in the rural areas the sandwiching will begin in Standard 3 to prepare students for Standard 5.

On Nyasanet, one view has been that Tanzanians regret their Swahili policy when they end up struggling with English once they are outside their country, according to Bona Mkandawire, a Malawian living in Canada. Mkandawire points out that the policy would also mess up children who move from one part of Malawi speaking one language, to another speaking a different language. Timothy Nundwe, another Malawian, has been outright brunt, asking who needs mother tongues in "these modern days." He points out that most well-to-do Malawians send their children to private schools due to the poor standards in the public schools. Writes Nundwe: "This is a lunatic policy. These policies work in countries like TZ or Kenya where everyone else speaks swahili but in malawi where my mum in Hewe struggles to communicate with his [sic] workers in Chichewa and then now they want to introduce vernacular languages."

There's no doubt that this is an important debate to have, at the national level. However I have always been of the opinion that there's a communication gap amongst three groups of Malawians: Malawian linguists and language researchers, Malawian elites, and the general Malawian public. Linguists and researchers in Malawi and all over the world have consistently, over several decades, found that local languages are the best medium for education. All the rich, industrialized countries of the world teach their children using their local languages. This makes it possible for children to participate in their own learning, and to develop intellectual depth and conceptual breadth with what they are learning. This intellectual depth and conceptual breadth easily translates into innovation and creativity in society, opening up new possibilities for local and global solutions to problems.

In formerly colonized countries like Malawi, where the languages of instruction have remained the inherited ones from the European colonizers, the consequences of colonial educational policies manifest themselves in the elitism that divides our societies. All the major institutions of national importance are dominated by the tiny minority elite who speak English, and the rest of the population, upwards of 90 percent in Malawi, are blamed, ignored, ridiculed, and pushed out of the national development process. An illustration of this is the dominance of English in government, in parlimanent, in the daily and weekly newspapers, and in the education system itself.

There is an underlying racial and class belief system at work here, leading to excuses like those expressed by Mr. Chikadza that Chichewa has a shallow vocabulary not suited to educational practice, and by Mr. Jobe that introducing English at a later stage could deter the acquisition of the language. Both Mr. Chikadza and Mr. Jobe have valid points concerning the problems of teacher distribution, and the need to produce new learning materials in various languages. However Chichewa and Tumbuka are spoken widely enough in parts of Malawi that we would not need to develop materials in more than four languages. The revival of the other languages would be done through other civil society programs.

The ministry's suggestion to sandwich English with local languages needs a bolder step that considers full bilingualism in which children use BOTH English and a local language from Standard 1 onwards. Such a bilingual program, continued up to Standard 8, through secondary school and into the university, would serve the purpose that well-to-do Malawian parents want, the early acquisition of English. It would also serve the purpose of demonstrating the depth and capacity for complexity and sophistication that all language systems are endowed with. (For more on how this would work, see Benson, 2005. Malawian language researchers, including Dr. Hartford Mchazime, Henry Chilora and others have done extensive research on these issues).

Such a sustained, long-term and thorough bilingual program would not only revive local languages, it would also promote knowledge production and dissemination, which would allow ordinary Malawians to contribute to the revival of the country's progress, at no cost to the acquisition of English language skills.

What needs to be overcome is the self-defeatist notion that African languages are innate and unchanging. English did not start out as the dominant language of the world. It achieved that status only in the last three hundred or so years, before which it too was considered shallow, and subservient to other languages. But English has been an open language, devouring words and terms from other languages and enriching itself. We Malawians are very good at wanting to learn from rich, industrialized countries. But we learn the wrong things by, instead of emulating how the rich and industrialized countries teach their children in their own languages, we teach our children in the languages of our former colonial masters. Instead of trusting and investing in our languages to revitalize our societies, we kill our languages and shut out 90 percent of our society by privileging foreign knowledge, and destroying our local knowledge.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Malawian cuisine, cosmopolitanism, and mental colonization

When Alexander Hotels Limited launched their 'Malawi Night' event at the Shire Highlands Hotel in Blantyre on Friday, January 27, the earliest news reports on the occasion focused on the late arrival of the Minister of Information and Tourism, Hon. Patricia Kaliati, rather than on the issue of why the menus in Malawian hotels and restaurants look more British than Malawian. The Nation newspaper titled its report "Kaliati delays Malawi night," giving details of how the minister, who was guest of honor, kept patrons waiting for two hours, and how she later went table to table apologizing. Only towards the very end of the article does the reporter, Edward Nyirenda, describe the traditional Malawian foods that were on the menu.

Four days later, the Friday February 4 edition of the newspaper published Edward Nyirenda's feature article providing more details on what for me was the more important news of the night. Titled "A pure magic that was Malawi night," Nyirenda puts the event in a more elaborate perspective, starting with how the idea of a Malawi night came about, providing views of some of the Malawians who patronized the event, ending with how successful the event was.

For me, news of the event came when just the week before I had mentioned to a friend that the extent to which most of us Malawians are still mentally colonized can be seen in the stark differences between the foods we eat at home and the foods we serve in our restaurants and hotels. In our homes, we eat foods such as nsima, beans, mfutso, masamba otendera, nsomba, among many others, while in our hotels and restaurants we serve mostly rice, beef, chicken, spaghetti, and other foods mainly guided by Western tourist tastes. Alisa Makawa, the managing director for Alexander Hotels Limited, noticed this discrepancy, which triggered her mind into motion, leading to the Malawi Night.

Most of the patrons quoted in the report spoke about how wonderful the food tasted, and how the Malawian traditional music in the background made the occasion even more graceful and meaningful.

On the Malawi Internet discussion listservs Nyasanet and Malawitalk, the news was all about the minister's late arrival, and not one posting made mention of the significance of the event in the context of Malawian identity and heritage. To give credit to the two listservs, the topic of tourism has dominated discussion since the event, homing in to critical questions of how a British historian and researcher of Malawi, David Stuart-Mogg, ended up owning a skull of Mlozi, described by some historians as a 19th century half-caste Arab slave trader who ruled the area now known as Karonga, on the northern end of Lake Malawi. Mr. Stuart-Mogg himself made the revelation of his prized possession in a posting to both Nyasanet and Malawitalk on August 18, 2005, but nobody paid attention, until Bright Malopa raised the issue yesterday in the current Tourism debate.

Several Malawians are asking Mr. Mogg to explain how he ended up with the skull, issues that I would like to address in another posting. For now my main point is to congratulate Ms. Alisa Makawa and her Alexander Hotels Ltd for bringing up the idea of a Malawi Night and successfully pulling it off, putting onto the national agenda the question of how our tendency to copy everything Western inhibits our capacity to come up with original ideas in solving some of our problems.

I am talking about issues of Malawian identity and heritage here with the full understanding of the idea that no culture is pure, and that to view cultures in that way is to be narrow-minded and unaware of the influences cultures have on each other. This happens to be the message in Kwame Anthony Appiah's new book titled Cosmopolitanism: Ethic in a World of Strangers. While I agree with Professor Appiah's argument about the importance of recognizing what he calls the "contamination" that makes no culture pure, I also agree with those who have pointed out to the brilliant philosopher that the reality of globalization is such that rich and powerful nations and their multinational corporations bulldoze their will and way onto weaker nations, an idea that Professor Appiah does not appear to have been addressed in his book. Nor does he seem to have addressed the issue of how it is in fact Western societies with their insistence on the terms “Western,” “free world,” “universal,” etc, that need a lesson on what a cosmopolitan world we live in.

The recognition of how Malawian restaurants and hotels tend to offer Western menus and little traditional Malawian foods is a necessary step in understanding why Professor Appiah's idea of cosmopolitanism, while excellent, needs to be taken in context, and with caution