Opinion & Columnist

Nothing outspeaks the mother tongue

Prof Magosvongwe

Elliot Ziwira

Senior Writer

On Sunday February 21 Zimbabwe joined the rest of the world in celebrating International Mother Language Day under the theme; “Fostering multilingualism for inclusion in Education and society”.

The celebration came at a time when many languages are dying due to technological advancements, and an increasingly globalised village, with at least 43 percent of the 6 000 tongues spoken across the world facing extinction.

Due to colonialism education systems globally people rely mainly on a few hundred languages, which disadvantage 40 percent of the world’s population that neither speaks nor understands them. 


The Information Revolution has further threatened thousands of languages as the digital world only makes use of less than a hundred.

The subtle nature of colonialism and its attendant efforts to destroy cultural ethos through destruction of shrines, and all that which made colonised people tick, created individuals who hated themselves more than they did their colonisers.

Colonised people lost their languages, which they were made to believe to be the source of their backwardness. In essence, therefore, they lost their identity, self-pride and dignity.

Language carries a people’s culture, and culture is the backbone of societal aspirations. Loss of language equates to loss of culture, and ultimately loss of confidence, as everything that the colonised should be cherishing is reduced to “a quintessence of evil” (Fanon, 1967).

Fanon maintains that the best way to destroy a people is to rob them of their confidence.

It is norm for the formerly colonised, particularly Africans, to boast eloquence in alien languages, like English, French, Spanish, German and Portuguese, without realising how much they have lost in terms of tangibles and intangibles of heritage.

They invest a lot of resources towards their children’s acquisition of the said languages, and the cultures that come along with such folly. It is lost on them that the first human right to inherit is one’s mother tongue. 

The death of language leads to loss of indigenous knowledge systems, which are an inheritance. As more and more people migrate from their countries of birth to the Diaspora, the rout is complete.

Reportedly, a language dies every fortnight and takes with it a whole cultural and intellectual heritage. Such a loss cannot be ignored. Naturally, when language suffers, culture becomes the biggest loser. Some languages and cultures may never be redeemed as they collapse under the guise of industrialisation and progress.

For global citizens to live in harmony, there is a greater need for linguistic diversity that puts more emphasis on multicultural education through promotion of mother tongues.


It is against this background that the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), proclaimed International Mother Language Day in November 1999. The proclamation was embraced by the UN General Assembly in its resolution A/RES/56/262 of 2002.

According to the sociologist Emile Durkheim, culture is the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.

All that can only be expressed through language, with each community, nation, region, gender, social and corporate inclination taken on board.

In the book “Zimbabwean Literature in African Languages: Crossing Language Boundaries” (2012) Emmanuel M. Chiwome and Zifikile Mguni explore the liberating nature of language in its expression of a people’s way of life and the preservation of beliefs.

They argue that the use of indigenous languages is the first step in decolonising the mindsets of Africans.

This is so because “language embodies and is a vehicle of expressing cultural values” (Chinweuzu, et al, 1982:7).

Cultural beliefs obtaining in African folklore, riddles, idioms and proverbs can only be appropriately enunciated through indigenous languages. Language is a powerful vehicle in the conveyance of a people’s mores in their original form.

Foreign languages fall short in ferrying a people’s mores and values from one generation to another through folklore.

They falter in articulating the gist of realities prevailing in communities and societies at any given time.

Colonialism and hegemony brought linguistic challenges on the African landscape. Cognisant of the oppressive nature of colonial language, Kenyan philosopher-writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o vowed to stick to his native Gikuyu to hoist his country’s flag above the colonial banner, as a starting point in the liberation of his people.


The same rationale obtains in the book “Ngatisimuke: Nhapitapi yenhorimbo” published by Zimbabwe Women Writers in 2004. Edited by Ruby Magosvongwe, Keresia Chateuka, Bernadette Deve and Memory Chirere, the anthology explores the pivotal role that language plays in the preservation of a people’s culture and identity.

Contributors to the collection are Ruby Magosvongwe, Colette Mutangadura, Virginia Phiri, Chiedza Musengezi, Maureen Mayaranyika, Gloria Musi Katerere, Pelda Hove, Keresia Chateuka and Zandile Makahamadze, among others.

Ruby Magosvongwe’s poem “Dama Rangu Ndiwe” illustrates the shortcomings that come with expressing communal or national realities in a foreign language.

A professor in the then department of English at the University of Zimbabwe and current chair of the Zimbabwe Media Commission, Magosvongwe weaves the intricacies of identity, heritage, self-pride and dignity that come with one’s appreciation of one’s mother tongue using the refrain “dama rangu ndiwe.”

In the poem, a mother implores her child to desist from getting carried away by the illusory beauty of the world as she/he remains the custodian of his/her people’s identity, mores and values as enshrined in their language.

She admonishes: “Paumire ipapo,

Paugere ipapo, Paunyerere ipapo,

Dama rangu ndiwe . . .

Inhodzerwaiko idzodzo, 

Kufana mai kunga kurima,

Kufana kwakabva mombe,

Kufana vaimedzerwa zvavo rute,

Ukavaona unovaziva?

Vanobvunza vanokanuka nerwako rukono

Usafe zvako wakazvinyengera.”

She calls on her child to remain true to herself/himself as the custodian and epitome of all that she symbolises as a mother, or the Motherland.

She intimates:

“Dama rangu ndiwe

Ndiwe mbirimi yangu.

Ndiwe mhizha yangu.

Ndiwe mboorera yandakatushura.

Ndiwe mboni yangu.

Dama rangu ndiwe.” 

Because language carries, idioms, riddles and proverbs pertaining to a particular people, it is difficult to express profound feelings in an alien language. No matter how good a translator may be, the language of the coloniser cannot adequately enunciate the realities underscored in the original form.

However, because of shared meanings indigenous languages can easily carry messages across African societies.

As translated into Nambya by Bengani Ncube, the cited lines in Magosvongwe’s poem read:

“Pomile pakalepo,

Paugele pakalepo,

Paulonyalala pakalepo,

Idama lyangu ndiwi . . . 

Kutojana kulichini yoko,

Kutojana kunofana nokulima,

Kutojana nokwakava ingombe,

Kufanana naabo bakabedonelelwa inthe,

Ungobabona unobaziba?

Banobhuza bechenama nozwawuli,

Usufe wazuchengeja.”

The mother drives her point home:

“Idama lyangu ndiwi,

Ndiwi imphuwo yangu,

Ndiwi imhizha yangu,

Ndiwi mhiwa undakatombula,

Ndiwi izhisho lyangu,

Idama lyangu ndiwi.”

Such is the beauty of mother languages. Such also is the beauty of a shared identity and vision. However, even though meanings can be shared, there are some aspects that may not be adequately captured through translation from one indigenous language to another.

Institutionalisation of how reality can be perceived through a particular language impedes freedom of expression.

Therefore, as “truth’s defence” artistes should be the voices of the voiceless. And for them to be able to do so, they should be conversant in the mother tongues used in the communities they care to speak for.

An education system that gives prominence to foreign languages at the expense of indigenous ones encumbers development, social cohesion and linguistic diversity. In a way such a system is more destructive than constructive.

Furthermore, colonisation and technological advancements subjected African traditions to immense pressure.

The Tonga people, for example, had their own songs, proverbs, idioms and folklores which were directly linked to the Zambezi Valley their cherished ancestral abode before the Kariba Dam flooded their area.

Their resentment of the dislocation from the life-source they had known for generations, cannot be fully articulated in any other language besides their own.

Decades on, their association with the river basin as captured in their folkloric songs and folklore remains painfully embedded in their hearts. For their story of the golden times to be carried to future generations, without them feeling robbed, there is a need to return to the source through language — Tonga.

The Chingwizi community in the Mwenezi District, who were displaced when the Tugwi-Mukosi Dam flooded its banks in February 2014, would never feel satisfactorily recompensed as long as a return to their ancestral land is not part of the package. 

Their feelings can only be captured through their own language and not any other.

Similarly, no matter how much compensation they may get, and how many books and newspaper stories are written about their loss, Cyclone Idai victims remain poorer if their cultural bastions, including the graves of their loved ones, are not revived through use of  their own languages. It is in language that a people’s realities are mirrored.

By recognising the existence of 16 official languages (Ndebele, Shona, Tonga, Chewa, Nambya, Shangani, Venda and sign language among them), the Constitution of Zimbabwe is apt in preserving local languages. 

To that end, the Zimbabwe Media Commission and other institutions are mandated to encourage the use and development of indigenous languages.

The Zimbabwean education system emphasises the use of local languages for instruction to learners from Grade One up to Grade Four.

However, a lot still needs to be done both in training of teachers in indigenous languages at tertiary institutions, and  changing learners’ mindsets from an early age.

A mother language-based education system may be effective if the issue of indigenous knowledge forms is enforced in primary school, where it is inculcated in

young minds that nothing outspeaks the mother tongue.

They should be inspired to safeguard their homeland through preservation of their heritage–language; no matter what the world throws at them.

Young people should draw inspiration from Oliver “Tuku” Mtukudzi, who, knowing that nothing beats a mother’s love, proudly resolves in song:

“Mandiona kusviba mati kuwora

Kundiona kusviba mati kuwora imi

Vandiona kusviba vati kuwora

Kundiona kusviba hunzi kuwora

Kwangu vakomana mavirima imi

Ndoenda kwangu varume mavirima imi

Kufunga Dande vakomana mavirima imi…

Ndafunga Dande vakomana ndafunga


Kufunga Dande varume ndafunga kwedu”

(“Dzoka Uyamwe”).