Our children are daily bombarded with foreign methodologies of achieving basic literacy and numeracy. A popular alphabet chart has ‘A for Apple’ and similar phrases.
While this may make sense to the children that grow up in town, it remains double Dutch to the rural pupils, many of who have never heard of, much less seen, an apple. An apple is an exotic fruit. Although we buy apples in our supermarkets or from street vendors, they are imported from outside the country and therefore are not part our culture.
Learners grasp new material fast if they can relate to the subject matter. Those who have studied education know that the best approach to teaching new things is to work from the known to the unknown. It is, therefore, a big challenger to the rural learner to be confronted with two unknowns in ‘A for Apple’. A is not known, and neither is apple. Why not ‘A for Aunt’?
The Bible was translated into Chichewa in the 1920s, the work reaching its finality in 1923. The translation work was championed by a South African missionary called William Murray. The translation team that Murray assembled had the sense to use images of things that locals could understand. “Your sins will become as white as snow” was translated into “Machimo anu adzayera ngati matalala.” We do not get snow in this part of the world so the nearest word the translators used was matalala which is hailstorm. The locals could relate to hailstorm because they saw it every year but had never seen snow in their lives.
The Bible translators, however, goofed a little in their translation of the commandment that forbade the coveting of a neghbour’s “cow or donkey”. The Chichewa translation was “usasalilire ng’ombe yamnzako kapena bulu wake”. When the commandment was first read at Mvera, some people shook their heads and said “uchita usililira bulu? Ndiponi ng’ombeyo” (There is no senses in coveting a donkey, but a cow is okay).
The commandments were first received by the Israelites who had developed a civilisation that valued donkeys as beasts of burden. To own a donkey was equivalent to owning an articulated truck in today’s terms. This value was lost on the Mvera peasants beause many of them never used donkeys for that or any other purpose. In fact donkeys were a nuisance to those who practised Gulewamkulu because they (the donkeys) would graze on the Gulewamkulu regalia whenever an opportunity arose.
Using foreign symbols or analogies does not always convey the intended lesson(s). Learning foreign history will widen pupils’ horizons but it should not be done at the expense of local history.
Before the pupils are taught Mungo Park or Vasco da Gama or Christopher Columbus they must learn about and appreciate Msyamboza and Zwangendaba Jele and Makewana. In the course of learning local history pupils can, funds permitting go on a tour to Msinja or Kaphirimtiwa or other places of historical interest in the vicinity of a school. Alternatively people from these places can be brought in to address the pupils
A colleague of mine once lamented the learning about grasshoppers by our pupils because it has no bearing on the learners’ ability to earn money. Frankly, I have no problems with grasshoppers being taught in schools.
Our pupils learn basic anatomy from such simple creatures. Some of them go on to appreciate more complex human anatomy. They become health workers and help us when we visit hospitals.
What I would have problems with is if instead of a grasshopper our pupils were expected to learn about prawns. Whereas they can catch grasshoppers in the backyard of their schools it would be a big challenge for them to get hold of prawns because they do not occur here. I remember once learning about a foreign animal called llama. This was before anybody had told me about the ‘big five’ found in our national parks. There is probably nothing wrong bout studying foreign animals but a study of the local setting should precede any study of foreign creatures, in my view. We need to search within first before we venture without.
There is much ignorance about things local in this country. People know more about the ancestors of the English people than they do about their own ancestors. Not many people can explain why some people are called Phiris or Bandas, for example.
We need to develop the interest to know our roots and our environment before we take on foreign things. We will find out, I am sure, that indigenous knowledge is not as flawed as we may have imagined.n