Once upon a time there were prolific writers in vernacular fiction in Malawi, but now all what is remaining are fond memories of that distant past. That time, literature in Malawian languages was celebrated through works of poetry, fiction, folktales and plays.
Writers such as Josiah Nthala, John W Gwengwe, Jolly Ntaba, Willy Zingani, Whytone Kamthunzi and others made names through writing Chichewa fiction books.
Some of their books were even selected by the Ministry of Education at the time to be studied in secondary schools at Junior Certificate (JC) and Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) levels. These books were, included Sikusinja ndi Gwenembe by John W Gwengwe, Mkwatibwi Wokhumudwa by Peter Litete and Nthondo by Josiah Nthala, while Koma Alamuwa by Edward Chimwaza, was an exciting book .
In the 1970s, some Malawians started publishing books in Malawian languages as Alfred Msadala, president for Book Publishers Associations of Malawi (Bpam), says. He says the initiative to start publishing fiction in vernacular languages started at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College as Malawi Writers Series.
“We had Popular Publications in Limbe, Blantyre by then who promoted Chichewa writing and then Dzuka Publishing Company brought Chichewa Series. Another publishing company that was there is Claim Mabuku,” recalls Msadala, himself a writer and literary critic.
The books that were published provided the much-needed knowledge about Malawian way of life and general knowledge in many things in addition to being a form of entertainment. Literature in local language is a powerful tool of preserving knowledge, even academic knowledge, as academics argue.
Dr. Winfred Mkochi, a lecturer in the Department of Languages and Linguistics at Chancellor College, argues that literature in local languages can add quality to education.
“There is a saying that literature is the best that man has done with language. Another important saying is that literature is life. It is for this reason that literature, especially in vernacular languages is crucial in our education system,” he says.
Despite this value that fiction in local language has, there are few books that have been published in the country from the early 1990s up to date.
Dr. Steve Sharra, an educationalist and a writer himself, says “that the slow death of literature in local languages has to do with the attention that the country places on English as opposed to local languages.”
Says Sharra: “The broader issue here concerning literature in Malawian languages is that of knowledge production and for what purpose. The dominance of English has changed the way we look at what is considered knowledge and why we produce it.
The slow death of literature in Malawian languages is symbolic of the state of knowledge production and dissemination in the country. It is also symbolic of the state of class relations in which elites now force English on everyone, even though more than 90 percent of Malawians do not use English.”
This is what Mike Sambalikagwa Mvona, president of Malawi Writers Union (Mawu), says that many people now feel discouraged to publish in local languages as they feel that there is no readership for such books. If a publishing company receives a manuscript of vernacular fiction, the chances are that it will be a school textbook.
“People think that if they publish in local languages nobody will read their work as English has been given prominence. What people are forgetting is that most people live in the villages and these people cannot read English,” says Mvona.
According to some book publishers in the country, they fail to publish vernacular fiction as there is no market. Even when Popular Publications were producing Chichewa fiction, “it was discovered the books were never sold. Only those who were bought were for teaching purposes. So the other publishers who looked for commercial returns stopped. Popular Publications just closed the company,” says Msadala.
In deciding to stop publishing in vernacular , the country is losing out, according to Mkochi. His argument is that Nelson Mandela said in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, that a vernacular language is much closer to the people’s hearts and it is a better tool for carrying and transmitting their culture.
“A person who has studied vernacular literature is thus best placed to serve our Malawian society, majority of whom cannot speak or understand English. It’s so embarrassing and disturbing when I listen to or see a Malawian struggling to communicate even simple issues in vernacular. It only shows that our education system does not prepare such graduates to serve our people. An education curriculum without vernacular literature, therefore, is almost useless for this country,” says Mkochi.
“The elites have done everything in their power to marginalise Malawian languages and to elevate the English language. It is how the elites entrench their power and dominate the 90 percent of Malawians who do not use English,” says Sharra. n