Mar 25, 2011

One-way ticket out

I would like to visit my former schools in Malawi and Zambia, and ask the administrations why speaking vernacular on campus is a punishable offence.  I remember being baffled by the edict as a child. Why was speaking my mother tongue only permissible at home. I posed the question to my grandfather at the time, and he responded that it was to ensure that I learned to speak English properly and could therefore attend prestigious universities when I was older. At five, that answer was good enough; I was already being groomed with the expectation that university attendance was a right of passage.
However, once the rebellious teen years set in, my friends and I took to speaking vernacular at any opportunity we could snatch and what joy I got from this illicit activity. We were caught a few times, and I distinctly remember getting a tongue lashing from the 8th grade French teacher for speaking Bemba in class. His rage only made my rebellion worse. Why was he, a Bemba man, demanding I not speak the language on the school premises?
As much as I can agree with my grandfather’s point, I believe this rule is part of the larger system that teaches Africans to embrace Western culture and languages above our own. From the language of instruction to the subject matter taught and the school uniform designs, all of it is modelled after the ‘superior’ British system. Our eager minds are taught that the British way is the best way (if not the only way) from the day we enter nursery school and start reciting “insy-winsy spider” to the day we receive our GCE diplomas. Our native culture is pretty much hobbled at the starting line. No wonder my grandmother from Kasempa always expressed horror at her English speaking grandkids trying to teach her to speak ‘correctly’ – glad we lost that battle.
This is not to say that our government didn’t try to stave off the fierce competition. We had some required curriculum that educated us on the history of our people(s) – Homo-habilis, Bantu-Botatwe, the Mwenemutapa Kingdom and the Great Zimbabwe civilisation, etc. Finally, we could see that Africa’s history didn’t begin with Cecil John Rhodes’ incursion into the Dark Continent.
Sadly, it wasn’t enough. The system is so entrenched with the messaging that “western culture is the ultimate” many consider our time at home as ‘paying dues’ until those good grades unlock university entrance abroad along with the requisite visa. This is also aided by the laziness of our government to establish reputable institutions of higher learning that meet the domestic demand, and that can compete if not internationally, then at least regionally.
I am certain the curriculum hasn’t changed drastically from when our parents went through it, but what’s different is our environment. Our parents had the expectation that they would use their skills to build the country. Even when they left for studies abroad, most went with the knowledge that they would return, and they often did. Now, when people leave it’s with the expectation that they’re gone for good. I know of people who’ve been met with baffled looks when they do return – “you mean to tell us, you FAILED and had to come back?”
I can sit here and blame the popular culture and the legacy of colonialism that extol the virtues of western life above all, but that would be an unbalanced argument. I cannot ignore our own demented low self esteem and the missed opportunities to make things better for ourselves. It’s a vicious symbiotic relationship. We need to get back what we have lost – the passion and zeal to battle it out and make our home a place of refuge and success.

2 comments:

Beautifully said MissBwalya!

You're making me nolstalgic...I so vividly remember learning about Homo-habilis, bantu-botatwe, the Luba-Lunda kingdom etc. Even though I had always imagined myself going 'further' I never thought I would be here...in Australia, and the thought of going back home for good plaguing me once in a while like a sore thumb. I keep saying to myself, 'if only there was something tangible to make me not even think twice about returning' But that's just my personal justification.

Having been in Lusaka a few weeks back, I know my justification is not far off the grid. Nothing is easy there, at least not for me and my family. But nonetheless, that is home and somehow I need to do my part in making it work for mine and future generations.

Like you, my heart breaks at our inherited low self-esteem as a people and all the missed opportunities. But the buck has to stop somewhere. Even if it's changing our perspectives one person at a time. We need that kind of revolution.

Sunshine, you're exactly right. While things are difficult we need to change our perspectives one person at a time. Without it, we're doomed!

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