A Chichewa board was established in Malawi to teach the nation real Chichewa. While accorded recognition to the manner people spoke in the Central Region, certain words used in the Southern Region were condemned as bad Chichewa.
Where they had been used in school, readers or textbooks, they had to be replaced by Chichewa words. No more was a girl to be called mtsikana but msungwana, not wache (his or hers) but wake, not mwaswera bwanji but mwatandala bwanji, not mabanja but maanja, not azimai (ladies) but amai.
I wished the change of name had been from Chinyanja to ChiMalawi, not to Chichewa. Normally, a national language bears a national name, not a tribal name. When you call the language Chichewa, you say the language belongs to the Chewa. When you call it ChiMalawi, you imply that it now belongs to all Malawians even if it began as a tribal one. ChiMalawi was to recognise both Chinyanja and Chichewa as correct and would readily accommodate terms found in other languages like Chiyao and Chitumbuka which would now be referred to as dialects in ChiMalawi.
I did not put forward these views at the time it was announced that Chichewa had become a national language. It was a lese-majesty to disagree with the president those days.
When I made this suggestion following the introduction of freedom after 1994, hardly anybody wrote to agree or disagree with me. Since then, I have given up hoping that ‘mau akulu akoma akagonela’ will apply to my suggestion perhaps long after I am no longer around.
Even though Kamuzu Banda banned the use of Chitumbuka on the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC), he made some concession at the pre-independence day National Day of Worship. Sermons were preached in English and Chichewa. No one can pretend that the thousands of women who filled the hall wearing party uniforms understood the sermon in Chichewa. The Muslim clergy chanted prayers partly in Arabic and partly in Chichewa. Just how many people understood what he said in Arabic, I do not know. But nobody condemned the Sheikh for doing so.
Hymns were sung in English, Chichewa, Chitumbuka and Singoni (Zulu). Many people loved Ngoni tunes, judging from the fervour with which they sung. Certainly Kamuzu enjoyed singing Dumisani uYehova (Praise Jehova).
One hymn popular in all the CCAP Synods which in Chichewa says ‘Ndi zipatsozo, tidzabwera tonse’ (Bring in the sheaves), Dr Banda sang all its five verses in Chitumbuka. His recording was wired during the last Kamuzu Day. Where did they get the idea that only Chichewa as a national language should be used at prayers or any other public forum?
During the past 20 years that I often called at a statutory corporation for service, among those who served me were two ladies, Chinyanja or Chichewa speaking. They are Southerners. About 10 years ago, I ceased to see them at the counter and I thought they were working in the back offices. But four or five years ago, I suddenly saw one coming forward to greet me. In what language? Chitumbuka. Last year another one also came back from Mzuzu where they had been posted. This one, with her broad smile, hardly greets me in Chichewa. She enjoys speaking Chitumbuka and she does it with a good accent.
In 1994, with the advent of the multi-party era, a conference was held at what used to be called Kwacha Conference Centre. One of those who attended was a Yao chief. After the conference, Chief K called at my office to discuss with me the views in my next article. We spoke in both Chichewa and English. As he was bidding me farewell I said ‘Asiyene chilambi’ (owners of the country). He jumped up and shook my hands vigorously.
He said: “You know the language!” .
He was as pleased to hear me utter a phrase in Chiyao as I get pleased when the ladies at the statutory corporation greet me in Chitumbuka. But what do I do myself? Watch me when I meet someone with a Ngonde name I say ‘Uli mkafu’ and I smile when he says ‘yuyumwe’ and when I meet a Yao I say ‘Ali uli’ and he says ‘kwali ajetu’.
To my Lomwe friend it is ‘moseliwa’ and I get ‘kwali nyawanu’. My regret is that I have never lived in a community where Ngonde, Yao or Lomwe is the only language I hear spoken otherwise I would have learned them in depth.
We can build a happy nation only if we respect each other’s culture and language. To say it is other people who should learn my language, I am too important to learn theirs is arrogance and unfriendliness.
The Unesco has a programme that supports the preservation of minority language, the world over. Some of us are grateful to former president Muluzi for not only restoring Chitumbuka on MBC, but also for having Chiyao, Chitonga, Chisena and Chitonga. To suppress a language is to oppress those who speak it, an infringement of their natural rights.
The most influential book, the Bible, was written in a small desert language called Hebrew.