Kamangeni Phiri Features Editor
THE practice in Zimbabwean schools of limiting the teaching of local languages to Isindebele and Shona only is now a thing of the past. Languages previously undermined by the school curriculum like Tonga, Venda, Kalanga and Nambya are now part of the 16 official languages in Zimbabwe under the new constitution.
Tonga and Kalanga are now examinable subjects at O-Level and Grade Seven respectively by the Zimbabwe Schools Examination Council (Zimsec).
Binga in Matabeleland North province is ahead of the pack as they had their first group of pupils sitting for the Zimsec Tonga Ordinary level examination this year.
Amos Muleya, 67, from Dongamusi village under Chief Sinakoma, is excited about the re-introduction of Tonga language in the school curriculum.
“We have been fighting for years to have our schools teach Tonga instead of Shona or Isindebele. Our language was sinking into oblivion. As you know language is culture. Through language, we preserve and promote our culture,” he said.
Binga primary schools started teaching Tonga five years ago.
Muleya is optimistic of the future for Binga District following the introduction of Tonga in local schools.
“I believe all development begins with a language because it is only through a language that effective communication can take place. This is the beginning of better things.
Our children were finding it difficult to grasp most of the concepts taught by their teachers owing to the language barrier. Now that we have our own children who actual sat for Tonga at “O” level it means we can have more Tonga teachers in the next few years,” said Muleya.
Muleya says the introduction of the teaching of Tonga in schools helps consolidate the local culture.
Chief Sinampande buttressed the importance of the mother languages in promoting culture.
He said: “We want Tonga in our schools because it’s our heritage. We grew up speaking the language. We know a lot about Ndebele and the Shona language through school because some of the words are almost similar to our own language but we need to promote our own language. We can’t let our language die. One does not need to be educated to understand Shona or Ndebele.
“Through interacting we are quick to grasp the language. But we need our children to be taught in their language so that we preserve our culture. Language is an embodiment of our culture.”
Chief Sinakoma warned authorities that they risk losing everything if they fail to hire competent Tonga teachers.
“We want teachers who understand Tonga in our schools. We have said this at meetings many times that some teachers have problems understanding our language. For example, a teacher with a Shona background at Dongamusi School was trying to give an instruction to a pupil who has never lived in a Shona speaking community.
The pupil, who could only speak Tonga could not understand the teacher and vice-versa. The situation was saved by a pupil in the class who grew up in a Shona speaking community who then acted as an interpreter. This, however, was after the teacher had already beaten the child for stubbornness,” he said.
Binga Rural District Council, the schools’ responsible authority, has adopted educational policies that resonate with the local community’s wishes.
The RDC last year banned the teaching of Ndebele in all its schools.
Councillors questioned at a full-council meeting in September last year why Binga district was teaching two local languages, Ndebele and Tonga while schools in areas such as Kamativi were teaching Nambya. Lupane schools taught Ndebele only, the councillors argued.
The local authority wants to promote and enhance an environment that is conducive to learning.
Joshua Muzamba, the Binga RDC Chief Executive Officer, said the district’s development could only be attained through a sound education system.
“One of the things that can help us attain that is to ensure the teaching of Tonga in schools. We are encouraging the teaching of an appropriate language, which language is dominating. We are encouraging the teaching of Tonga even at universities. It is encouraging that Great Zimbabwe is teaching Tonga already.
We have a social services department responsible for all our schools and clinics. It liaises with the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education to ensure the delivery of quality education in schools. It’s an advantage for a kid to be instructed in his or her mother language,” he said.
Muzamba wants Binga schools to take the teaching of Tonga up to A-Level.
It’s a gradual process, he says in a modest tone that belies his organisation’s grand ambition.
“The process has its own challenges. Schools lack adequate and appropriate Tonga literature and other learning materials. We encourage the writing of Tonga novels and poems because children can’t be doing the same set books every year. It’s a process. It may take us time to get the desired results but we will not tire or give up,” said Muzamba.
The District Education Officer for Binga, Edson Masungo, refused to endorse the banning of the teaching of Ndebele in Binga schools.
He instead chose to highlight the importance of teaching children in their mother language.
“The constitution is clear on the issue of language especially when teaching ECD and primary school children. We have areas in Binga like Lusulu, BMC area where we have a high concentration of Ndebele. Ndebele was actually written in this year’s Grade Seven examination. But we, as a ministry, are promoting the teaching of Tonga. Ninety percent of our schools teach Tonga. The first class to write Tonga was in 2011. In 2012 we had our First Tonga form one class. This year we had our first class writing O-Level Tonga,” said Masungo.
The DEO said schools had enough Tonga textbooks and literature, contrary to reports being made by people.
He said there was a committee set up specifically to write Tonga text books some years ago.
“We have the relevant literature. There are also some Tonga text books from Zambia. Local people who wrote the other books are competent as they did linguistics. Most of the books are published by ZPH and our Minister, Lazarus Dokora, commissioned the text books,” said Masungo.
Binga could already be reaping the rewards of introducing Tonga in their schools already as its pass rate is improving.
“Our pass rate is quite good. For both primary and secondary schools we register between 70 and 80 percent pass rate on average. The bulk of our teachers are trained and in high schools most of them have degrees. By next year all schools will have qualified teachers as we are receiving overwhelming responses to our advertised vacant posts,” he said.
Frank Mudimba, director of Basilwizi Trust, a community development organisation, dismissed individuals who want to bring back Ndebele in Binga schools as dreamers.
“There is excitement among pupils and leaders. There is this inertia in some people who want Ndebele, they don’t want change. It is a change that people will eventually accept. It’s not true we have many Ndebeles in Lusulu. There are only a few who settled there who are now trying to influence things.
“If there are people who are not comfortable with their children learning Tonga they can transfer them to schools that teach other languages outside the district,” said Mudimba.
Binga’s success story is hinged on team work and commitment.
The local text book writing committee works closely together with other “minority languages” committees through the Zimbabwe Indigenous Language Association (ZILPHA).
ZILPHA is a heterogeneous team that brings together languages with a similar “handicap”.
“The association brings together Tonga, Kalanga, Venda, Nambya, Sotho and Xhingani. There are still challenges in accessing resources, however. Allocation of Tonga text books from central government was not initially priotised. We are happy that government has been very supportive lately but we can’t continue relying on Zambian text books. There is a need to have books written by our own people. The Tonga in Zambia is different to that spoken in Zimbabwe. There is influence of tribes. For example we are influenced by Shona and Ndebele while our relatives in Zambia are influenced by languages like Bemba and Lozi,” said Mudimba.
Research has shown that children’s first language is the optimal language for literacy and learning throughout primary school.
Language can be a barrier that causes problems in the delivering of a lesson, language experts say.
A language expert, Nhlanhla Landa, encapsulated the importance of teaching a child in his/her mother language.
“Mother language is the language of children’s formative stage. Trying to teach Ndebele or Shona to a child whose mother language is Tonga or Kalanga is problematic in Zimbabwe. This is because Ndebele or Shona is a second language to them and the teaching in Zimbabwe schools does not take into cognisance that Ndebele and Shona are second languages.
Teachers should know that schools are not resources to teach either Shona or Ndebele as a second language. They are only resourced to teach these languages as first languages,” he said.
Landa said if schools in Binga insist on teaching Ndebele to Tonga pupils, they should first avail Ndebele to Tonga dictionaries.
He said teachers who speak either Shona or Ndebele as first languages are limited when teaching in areas where their languages are hardly spoken.
“Such teachers can’t fall back to mother language to drive a point home when teaching. It’s difficult or near impossible, to attain 100 percent competence in a second language,” said Dr Landa.