Tuesday update #2: isiZulu newspaper Isolezwe, a South African success story

Launched in 2002 in its paper edition and in 2004 online, Isolezwe is a leading South African daily newspaper in isiZulu. The site is targeting both isiZulu speakers in search of news in their language (potentially over 11 million people) and learners of the language seeking reading material.

Known for using a more popular form of isiZulu than its competitor Ilanga, Isolezwe is meant to appeal to the Zulu speakers of today who live in an increasingly urbanised, modern environment. Here is former editor Thulani Mbatha’s take on his readership:

Our readers have always known they were Zulu, we’ve just managed to cater for the modernising Zulu. Someone who may go back home to the rural areas to slaughter a cow to the amadlozi [ancestors], but is as equally comfortable taking his family out for dinner and a movie in a shopping mall.

The isiZulu newspaper is a publishing phenomenon in South Africa, registering no less than 112 648 single-copy sales in the second quarter of 2012 and showing very promising growth. Isolezwe’s success is attributed to its tabloid format distilling a heady mix of entertainment, local football, but also issues related to religious belief, feel-good success stories and … very little politics!

The clout of the newspaper is such that stories penned by Isolezwe music chronicler Charles Khuzwayo are said to have contributed to the reconciliation of two maskandi artists who were embroiled in a conflict. In October this year, Khuzwayo won the Best Journalist award in the print category at the South African Traditional Music Awards (SATMAs).

All this augurs well for the development and the spread of isiZulu which is the mother tongue of 22.7 % of the South African population according to the 2011 census (pdf). But what of the other eight official indigenous languages of South Africa? The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) offers news and various programs in all official languages, with radio stations being the most dynamic in promoting even minority, non official languages.

However, English dominates almost all spheres of communication, despite being spoken natively by only 8 % of South Africans. According to The Economist:

Not only is [English] the medium of business, finance, science and the internet, but also of government, education, broadcasting, the press, advertising, street signs, consumer products and the music industry. For such things Afrikaans is also occasionally used, especially in the Western Cape province, but almost never an African tongue. The country’s Zulu-speaking president, Jacob Zuma, makes all his speeches in English. Parliamentary debates are in English. Even the instructions on bottles of prescription drugs come only in English or Afrikaans.

In a South Africa witnessing the decline of its African languages, Isolezwe’s popularity is a sign that there is still a strong potential for isiZulu media.


We conclude this second Tuesday update in music, with late maskandi artist Bhekumuzi Luthuli :

More on South Africa’s languages on BBC Radio 4: Our language in your hands with anthropologist and linguist Dr Mark Turin

The politics of language: the silent masses are not silent at all

In an opinion piece published on All Africa’s website, Dominic Mensah bemoaned the utter contempt in which Ghanaians who are not proficient in English are held when it comes to political participation. Due to language barriers, 80% of the population is effectively prevented from engaging in the decision processes that directly affect them, he argues:

If the various presidential debates are carried out with the goal of helping the Ghanaian electorate make reasonable and content-based decision on the election day, mustn’t we ask why we insist on doing this in language [English] that the majority of Ghanaians don’t understand and those who claim to do, have limited command of. Or do we expect our various media houses to do their own interpretations of what they think the candidates said and didn’t say for the masses?

This disregard by politicians for the reality on the ground is unfortunately commonplace in many other African countries. As Lori Thicke of Translators Without Borders explained on her blog earlier this year  ‘a vast majority of people in Africa are not proficient the national language of the country where they reside’, often the language of the former colonizers and the language of public discourse. This in turn results in the entrenchment of privileges, with a well-informed English/French/Portuguese-speaking elite on the one hand, and all the other citizens on the other hand. Mensah’s grandmother, who does not understand English well enough to follow the televised debate, is indeed being treated like a second-class citizen, along with millions of other Ghanaians.

A linguistic fault line that runs deep

This linguistic rift should not be downplayed. Ghanaians, Kenyans or Nigerians who do not master ‘standard’ English know very well where the power lies. The language is deliberately wielded as an instrument of domination.

Often though, the excluded people – who are the majority – do not remain passive when confronted with this overwhelming presence of the ‘metro-language’ in the public sphere. One of the strategies employed to reconquer the public space is to start writing in indigenous languages, as advocated by author Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Another reaction has been the forging of their own linguistic codes in an attempt to reclaim a sense of agency. In Language Policy in Kenya: Negotiation with Hegemony (pdf), Wendo Nabea describes this phenomenon at play in Kenya with the development of Sheng:

In the light of this, one can deduce how societal members who subscribe to the standard norms, and in this case, English and Kiswahili denigrate variants like Sheng, while Sheng users are at home defying the standard. This defiance can be seen in a broader context as a protest to hegemony, especially considering that a language like English remains the reserve of the elite as has already been stated.

Conversely, as speaking fluent English is seen as a sign of upward social mobility, some people are ready to sacrifice a lot so that their children learn the more prestigious language and end up denigrating their own in the process. Perhaps the next generation can become real participants in their own country, so the reasoning goes.

Promoting regional lingua francas

Much like the debate on African languages in school, there is no easy remedy because a given country can be fragmented into dozens, if not hundreds, of different language groups. The politics behind the choice of a lingua franca is explosive, hence the often-observed status quo in favour of the language of the former colonial power.

In Ghana’s case, Twi serves as a de facto lingua franca even though it is subject to some controversy. It was suggested by Dominic Mensah as a more inclusive medium for conveying political messages, since it is understood by a vast majority of the population. An alternative idea was formulated in armarn55 ‘s comment:

A balanced suggestion would be to have interperators [sic] to ensure that the message of the debate gets to as many Ghanaians as possible.

Whatever the solution arrived at, there is an urgent need to bridge the communication gap, lest searing conflicts end up undermining nation-building and ultimately, peace. The silent masses are not silent at all: they just don’t speak the same language as the elite.

Tuesday update #1. Why is Swahili so underdeveloped in Uganda?

On 4th December, ‘The world in words’ podcast touched on some very interesting topics under the title ‘A comeback for Africa’s homegrown languages?‘. Two news items particularly drew my attention:

  • Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni pointing out the neglect indigenous languages have suffered and engaging Ugandans to promote their mother tongues. He also contends that Swahili isn’t rich enough a language to serve as an African lingua franca!
  • The recurring debate on language policy, especially pertaining to access to information for the majority of citizens. The example put forward was that of Ghana, where politicians debate in English, which is effectively a minority language as most Ghanians are not proficient English speakers.

These issues and a few more are presented in the following podcast:

While I shall take this opportunity to revive the debate on access to information in the Saturday post, I’d like to attempt an answer to one of the pending questions in the pod (11’32): ‘Why was Kenya able to preserve the status of Swahili when it became independant, in a way that was different from Uganda?

Given the high status enjoyed by Swahili in Kenya and a fortiori in Tanzania, I think the question should be turned around to read: ‘Why has Uganda not been able to retain the status of Swahili like her East African neighbours have?

I will cite two main reasons for this: the emotional baggage carried by Swahili in Ugandans’ minds and the competition with Luganda and English.

Other powerful lingua francas exist in Uganda

When I traveled in Uganda, I did meet a couple of people who could communicate in Swahili, some who were native speakers and at the other end of the spectrum, others who only had a rudimentary knowledge of the language.  Some still, were returnees from exile in Kenya where they had naturally picked up Swahili.

However, the majority of people I talked to could not communicate at all in Swahili, so that English ended up being my best chance of getting by. Like in Kenya, it has unsurprisingly become the lingua franca of the educated. Ugandans from different parts of the country and different linguistic backgrounds naturally converse in English, especially in Kampala.

Wobulenzi market, central Uganda.

Wobulenzi market, central Uganda.

The reason for the language situation I experienced is that I was traveling in a region – central Uganda – where Luganda is used as a popular lingua franca, not Swahili. Luganda is the language of the Baganda on whose traditional lands the capital Kampala is situated. Despite its controversial status especially in the West and the North, Luganda does enjoy some prestige.

Several popular newspapers and magazines are published in Luganda. On TV, the news is broadcast in English, Luganda and Swahili. There is some interest in developing Swahili, as evidenced by a daily TV programme teaching adults basic conversational Swahili.

This effort seems to remain somewhat marginal though, in the face of an existing lingua franca covering, not all, but a significant part of the Ugandan territory – including the administrative centre of power, Kampala.

An emotional stigma attached to Swahili

The other reason for the reluctance to adopt Swahili as a national lingua franca is the perception of the language in Uganda.  During Idi Amin’s regime, Swahili was the language used by the brutal military and it is still associated with crooks, thugs and the violence of the dictatorship. This stigma greatly impedes the development of Swahili in Uganda. As Joas Kajiage points out in the Tanzanian newspaper The Citizen:

As a result, many Ugandans loathe the language and hardly bother to learn it. Some of the most familiar Kiswahili words among Ugandans, according to Mr Kategaya, are commanding words used by the robbers such as fungua – open – and toka – get out.

Nakulabye classroom, Uganda

Nakulabye classroom, Uganda

Despite these hurdles, things are changing rapidly. Swahili is seen as a means of integration into the East African Community and will be made a compulsory subject in Ugandan primary schools as of 2013. This move does not come without challenges including a shortage of teaching materials and a lack of qualified Swahili teachers in the country, which might create opportunities for their Tanzanian and Kenyan counterparts.

The debate is far from over…

Further reading:

The retrospective development of Uganda’s educational language policy: successes and challenges (pdf) by Phillip Oketcho

Background: In the excellent podcast ‘The world in words’, Patrick Cox (@patricox) takes a humorous look at language-related issues and information tidbits. I highly recommend listening to his programme to pepper your week with some fun facts about language 🙂

Featured images AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works by Simon Bradwell and AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike by wordloaf

What place for African languages in schools?

I have thought a lot about the place indigenous languages should occupy in the education systems in Africa. The answer is of course not going to be straightforward nor uniform across the continent but it is worth giving it some thought.
I had the privilege to study in my own native language, French, and from a very young age, I was made aware that this was indeed a chance not everybody was given. Here is what Abdulaye Bah from Guinea (Konakry) went through:

In primary school during the colonial era, it was forbidden to speak one’s mother tongue. In Pita, Guinea, where I attended primary school, as soon as we had grasped a certain level of French, if the teacher heard one of the children speaking his language in the morning, he would hand him what was known as the token. The first child then had to hand it to someone he had caught doing the same. At the end of the school day, the teacher would ask the first kid he had given the token to, who was the second student to get it and this person would in turn name the next, this until the last student who was supposed to have the token. The teacher would thus identify all those who had spoken their mother tongue. He would then split us into two groups and order us to slap each other. If one of us was a bit reluctant, the teacher would take over by slapping the child who was considered too soft.

[original post in French by Abdulaye Bah, translation by Marie-Laure Le Guen]

My grand-parents told me the very same story (among other humiliations) about their school days in a remote village of north-western France in the 1930s where Breton was the then dominant language but classes were carried out entirely in French.

This type of ‘educational’ methods unfortunately didn’t disappear after African countries gained independence, as testified by Mohamed’s school experiences in Kenya in the 1990s:

I was in this boarding school where you got caned and/or wore a dunce sign for speaking anything other than English 6days>>
>>>or Swahili the remaining day. And a primary school at that.
They fancied themselves to be a posh ‘English’ sch of sorts. Too bad it was in the Dickens mold.


[On Facebook]
Like I mentioned on Twitter, my boarding school (primary) barred us from speaking anything other than English 6 days/week and Swahili the other day (the latter aimed at ‘preserving our national language’) and students who deviated from the above wore a dunce sign and/or were spanked at the end of the day.

Other schools had an emphasis on English too, though they were not as strict. Speaking vernacular languages was heavily frowned upon, viewed as ‘backwards’ and divisive.

In Nigeria, the situation does not seem to differ much according to @baroka:

Yes, there were penalties. This was in primary school. Most private schools have negative attitude to native language use.
Corporal punishment. Sometimes, little fines.

As I was talking to a number of people in my circles, some surprising and rather encouraging testimonies came up, which again pointed to the fact that the reality is far from uniform from one school to the next:

Edna from Kenya[sent to me on Facebook]
-) my school mates had an open minded approach we loved Gujarati being in a predominantly Indian school we were exposed to that we had to say a prayer every friday in Gujarati


@fowora there were no rules abt langs at recess and many spoke their native lang. Attitude determined at home tho

Many governments have encouraged the teaching of indigenous languages to some level, some going as far as offering an African language as the medium of instruction in the first years of primary school.

The case for teaching indigenous languages in school, especially using them as the medium of instruction, does however raise some concerns. For instance, which language is appropriate in a linguistically diverse area? And what of students who come from a different background and have to catch up with the local programme?

Rosemary from Nigeria tells us how her cousins were disadvantaged in school when they returned from the UK without a sufficient knowledge of Yoruba:

My Yoruba cousins left UK for Bauchi, where all pry sch learning was done in Hausa till year 3/4 so my cousin skipped 3yrs

A lot of these very complex questions are left voluntarily open. I would love to hear from you, the readers, and know what your ideal language policy would be like and how you think we can improve attitudes towards African languages in school.