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Kiswahili, Language Oppression In Botswana And Our Cultural Identity

We often think of language as a means to an end, simplistically understanding it as a system of conventional spoken, signed, or written symbols by which human beings, as members of a social group and participants express themselves.

Language is so much more than we give it credit for. It is inseverable from culture. Language usually points us to a specific people. You can therefore not understand a culture without accessing a language. Language is the expression of culture, fostering identity and solidarity.

 It is the vehicle by which culture and its traditions as well as shared values may be conveyed and preserved. Culture is a strong part of people’s lives. It influences their views, values, humour, hopes, loyalties, worries and fears. At the heart of culture is how we do things. Invariably, culture defines us. It is in accordance to culture that our quality of life, and our vitality can be measured. Culture is what sets us apart. We must take cognisance of the importance and even the value of “uniqueness” as cultural capital.

Understanding culture helps us anticipate the possible reactions of a society or a people, in a given situation. It therefore dictates how a people can be influenced and led. Culture affects language, and language affects thought. They are inseperable for the reason that language encodes culture, providing a means through which culture is shared and passed from one generation to the next. Language and culture are legacy. A recognition of the depths of our history. Some scholars observe that language came first and culture followed. This means as our language increases in complexity, so do our cultures as we are able to convey our ideas with greater depth. The removal of language distabilises culture and uproots identity, beliefs and thinking.

The conversation on language oppression is not a novel one. It is one which naturally follows colonialism, coloniality and the erasure of the minority languages. The language of “major” vs “minority” tribes is one which is known to us in Botswana, from the historical Constitutional provisions as supported by the Bogosi Act’s predecessor, the Chieftainship Act. The Chieftainship Act provided that the Tswana speaking tribes are the “eight major tribes”, relegating all other tribes to marginalisation.

The Bogosi Act, although it was meant to rectify this, reinforces it by providing that the previously recognised tribes (eight major tribes), will by default be recognised, whereas all other tribes, for recognition, have to apply to the Minister of Local Government and Rural Development. Directly linked to this recognition is the 1972 Education Policy, which provides that the language to be used in schools will be English and Setswana. All other languages – all other mother-tongues – shall not be used in schools, for purposes of facilitating education.

This is quite reminiscent of apartheid South Africa when Afrikaans was used as a form of domination, coherently with other

forms of oppression. It is also evocative of the “elimination of the native” when Europeans moved into the land now known as the United States of America, finding an indigenous people, and introducing an education system which would invariably erase their culture, as a way to dominate the society. It is not different from the history of the forgotten generation in Australia.

The biggest problem we have is not the introduction of KiSwahili announced by the President when mourning Magufuli.

The problem is that when those from minority tribes weigh in on the public discourse of the introduction of other languages, suggesting that minority languages be introduced at schools and in our public lives, the response from the privileged tribes is that this is undesirable as we are working towards being part of a unified global community which speaks one language. The suggestion is that the introduction of languages such as Seyeyi, Sembukushu, Sesubiya, Seherero, Sekalaka amongst others, would effectively be regressive of this effort towards being part of the global community. Now although there is obvious importance in being part of a global community, it does not have to bring with it the further oppression of marginalised tribes in Botswana. That would be a grave repetition of historical mistakes by our government, as it would effectively further silence the non-Tswana speaking tribes, and completely remove our uniqueness from history.

Language is also a means to manipulate history and to control a people. We have already failed to rectify the errors of the Seretse Khama legacy which paints us all with the brush of “Tswana”, concealing the vast diversity of our identities, thoughts, cultures, ethnicities and tribes. No, not concealing…erasing us. As a result of this history, the poorest members of our society are from the marginalised tribes. The colonisation of all other tribes by the Tswana language by way of language imperialism, where Tswana was systematically imposed on all other people, is evidence of the entrenched coloniality of power. The sooner we recognise this, acknowledge the privilege of those whose mother-tongue is Tswana and those who pass as Tswana speaking, the sooner we can embrace all othered tribes, accord them recognition and start towards impactful transformation of how we think about language and culture. Botswana has so much more to offer the world.

We have so much more and we are so much bigger than just this one face. Our uniqueness is in how vastly different we are. And we are vastly capable of embracing KiSwahili and our own languages as well. Let’s give ourselves more credit. Our cultural identity lies in us seeing ourselves as valuable.

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