All languages are equal


Desmond Dudwa Phiri has argued that if the Tumbukas want to preserve their language they should initiate action. He has further shifted the responsibility to Livingstonia Synod to preserve the language.

What action the Tumbukas should take to achieve that goal is unclear. Why the Livingstonia Synod should be singled out to preserve Tumbuka language as if other churches do not preach in Tumbuka is something that one cannot understand.

Preserving a language is not only the responsibility of the people who speak it, but, to a large extent, a deliberate government policy.

Malawi lacks a language policy that can guide the government on how other languages should be promoted and treated.

For example, the State broadcaster should have been opened up to all the ethnic groups to express themselves and not just Chichewa.

Besides, government should have been encouraging Malawians to use their mother language to communicate.

This is in line with Section 26 of the Constitution which says: “Every person shall have the right to use the language and to participate in the cultural life of his or her choice.”

Although the clause is vague, it is obviously referring to the right of everyone to use their mother language or language of their choice in public communication. But government has overlooked this important clause to promote Chichewa only. Why?

A government that is nondiscriminatory makes deliberate steps to promote all languages.

For example, the South African government promotes all the languages equally, including sign language, which is now recognised as part of language of communication.

All language groups are represented on the public broadcaster SABC (they have their own radio stations) and learners at both primary and high school are free to learn in their own language.

Since founding president Hastings Kamuzu Banda banned Tumbuka in 1969 on MBC, there has not been any political will to accord Tumbuka, spoken by millions, its rightful place in Malawi.

All successive political parties that have been in power post 1994—United Democratic Front (UDF), People’s Party (PP) and Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have failed to promote minority languages.

What we have seen is systematic suppression and discrimination of Tumbuka and other minority languages.

For how long should this continue?

Section 20 of the Constitution prohibits discrimination of persons in any form including language. The government should, therefore, be held accountable for discriminating Tumbuka and other minority languages in communication.

The Tumbukas and other minority groups have all the reason to demand that government take necessary steps to promote their languages. One such step is to have learners learn in their mother language in primary schools.  Citizens should be free to be who they are.

Unfortunately, the government has maintained the policy that learners in primary and secondary school should be learning Chichewa throughout Malawi at the expense of other languages.

This policy was introduced by Kamuzu to suppress Tumbuka and other languages. It should be discontinued in a democratic era.

All languages are equal regardless of whether they are spoken by the majority or not.

It is equally unfortunate that members of Parliament have not raised the issue of promoting all languages in Malawi in parliament.

The Tumbukas can fight to preserve their language, but if government closes space for that promotion it is a futile exercise.

Opening up MBC to diverse ethnic groups and changing the policy that says learners should learn in their own mother tongue will go a long way in preserving Tumbuka and other minority languages. The decision for such a radical change cannot come from the Tumbukas or Livingstonia Synod. It is the domain of Executive and Parliament! n


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