It is in very few instances that I write to shower accolades on a politician. Perhaps I should do that more frequently. It may just spread positivity and love around the world. I am however aware that I write in a competitive atmosphere where some out of jealousy would react with mild disgust to this article – not because what I write here is negative – on the contrary, precisely because it is positive.
On Saturday, February 23rd 2013, I attended the National languages day in Ghanzi. I must confess I was blown away by the love and warmth of the people of Ghanzi. I have never been to a place with so many people who love to dance; whether it is polka music or the shuffling feet of the Khoisan. In the happy-meter; the people of Ghanzi definitely score highly – from the young to the very old – they love to dance; they are the true happy people.
I am getting distracted by the jolly nature of the Ghanzians. I must return to Tona ya Banana, Metshameko le Ngwao, Motlotlegi Rre Kgathi. In his speech it was clear to me that he clearly understands the power of language both as a potentially building force as well as a potentially destructive entity. He warned politicians to desist from using the language question as a divisive tool. He was spot on and his message must be emphasized consistently. For the past two years I have observed with much worry how some on the opposition side have seized on the language matter to fan hatred and mistrust between tribal groups. These utterances have largely been opportunistic to try and confuse those who are not in the know. Strangely, some of these utterances have been from people whose cultural organizations enjoy government support and funding for the development of their minority languages. Instead of these persons opening up to their members and the public of their government support and meetings they have with government ministers, they instead pretend to be on the margins of the society. They then turn around and claim to be Ralph Ellison’s invisible men; the forgotten ones. This perhaps explains in part why the Honourable Minister Kgathi informed those in attendance of the cultural groups they work with and support periodically. In his speech he also warned against those who wish to fan tribal wars and hatred, citing the catastrophic consequences of such acts as dramatized in the murderous relations between the Hutus and Tutsis of Rwanda.
Honourable Kgathi attacked the idea espoused by some that developments fail to reach certain areas because inhabitants of such areas speak certain languages. He explained that government developments are not tied to linguistic competence of language groups, but may be impeded by matters such as poor road networks and budgetary constraints.
It is also increasingly clear that lest the native speakers of local languages take responsibility for the development and promotion of their languages there will be little progress in such languages. We must remember that the first persons to try and document many local languages were missionaries and travellers. Even now amongst the Naro speaking communities there are the Visser, Dutch missionaries who are doing incredible work to document and develop the Naro language. Some of the missionaries and travellers who helped in the development and documentation of our languages had very minimum education compared to many local university graduates who have fairly advanced training. However, some missionaries such as Moffat went ahead to learn Setswana to the point that they were able to translate the English Bible into Setswana. Now, if expatriates can demonstrate such commitment to a local language such as Setswana; how much more should we who speak indigenous languages do to demonstrate our commitment to our languages? Currently, there are individuals with PhDs in Setswana, Sekalaka, Sekgalagadi and a few Khoisan languages. There are many with Masters degrees in various local languages. Shouldn’t we expect those with more education to demonstrate much research? I am aware that this is not the case. Sometimes those with little, produce more, while those with much sometimes produce less. Native speakers of various languages, whether with linguistic training or not, must commit themselves to the development and promotion of their languages. They must start work on dictionaries, grammars, word lists, lists and definitions/explanations of idioms and proverbs of their languages; they must put together a collection of animals and plants found where they live. With so much technology, they must use digital cameras, audio and video recorders to record and document their languages. The approach to local languages should be developmental and not militant and confrontational. In a Kennedysky way, the question certainly shouldn’t be: “What is the government doing for my language?” The question should be: “What am I doing for my language?” Mokoduwe go tsosiwa o o itekang. I am aware government is an easy target on languages matters. The government is so large that he is easy to hit. I am not arguing that government is without blame. However, the fact that government has some weaknesses regarding the language question, doesn’t absolve native speakers of such languages from active involvement in the development of their own languages. The National Languages Day should remind us of our responsibility towards our languages. While much work can go into the documentation of indigenous languages, great focus must go into using the languages in social contexts such as weddings, funerals, every day usage, in the media, parliament, courts of law and such places.
To Minister Shaw Kgathi, we must deliver unqualified commendation for the excellent work he is doing in attracting attention to the plight of local languages.