Tag: Zambia

How language connects us

When asked what my first language is, I often pause because it is not an easy answer. My first language was Chewa.  I spoke it like a native although I wasn’t one, but it has slowly faded away over time from non-use. I then learnt Bemba, English, Kaonde and Nyanja. At the time I didn’t realise that my experience as a child of foreign diplomats living in Malawi was quite unique. I had adopted the language spoken by my nanny, the cook, the driver and their children instead of English.

It was only at school where I came into contact with other children of diplomats that I was made aware of being different. Why didn’t I speak English? English came to me with time – I must’ve been 5 years old – and with it a whole new set of rules and airs. There were strict rules on enunciation and pronunciation, and it became very clear early on that this new language was considered superior to the languages I had spoken before.

I navigated my way through two worlds, speaking each language exclusively in different settings, but I always felt more at home with Chewa. This was likely because it was my first language but also because it connected me deeply to my family and earliest friends. The people I went home to allowed me to speak it without giving me stern looks or pinching their lips in distaste. Speaking it came without judgment.

The realities of the world we live in dictate that fluency in English and a handful of other European languages are required to be successful in our education systems and in the workplace. I can live with that, to a point, but it pains me to see indigenous languages falling by the wayside because they are not regarded as keys to success. I see evidence of this in Zambia where some parents explicitly tell their children that English is the only acceptable language in the home and then banish them from speaking anything else. This decision is made by parents whose own experiences taught them that “proper” English meant access to good jobs and advanced educational opportunities. The intent may be well-meaning but I’ve seen first-hand the alienation it brings when children are unable to communicate with peers or family members who are not fluent in English.

(Graphic: Cassandra Johnson)
(Graphic: Cassandra Johnson)

By speaking our languages we are doing more than stringing words together; we also learn about the underlying culture and influences. Honorific speech systems that exist in many Bantu languages are reflective of social structure, traditions and respect accorded to elders. These are intrinsic and complementary elements of culture and language. Furthermore, each language carries with it the history of the people who speak it and the areas it is spoken in.

Some of my fondest memories as a child are of those spent at my grandmother’s feet, slowly reading from her KiKaonde Bible and hymn book. In those hours she augmented my reading lessons by teaching me about my maternal family and sharing wisdom through proverbs. Proverbs are cultural treasure troves in any language; they reflect accumulated knowledge and wisdom from past generations. I’m always in awe of these proverbs because they reinforce the fact that my people had a history before missionaries and colonisers landed on our shores.

This Kaonde proverb encapsulates so well the lessons from my granny: “Fukafuka uja twabakulu talalala wajamo kubulwa.” (Kneeling, you eat with elders; keep standing, you learn nothing.)  It means: “You learn a lot from elders when you are humble but not when you’re rude.”

Wisdom is not exclusive to speakers of foreign languages which continue to enjoy unparalleled dominance. Much of our history remains unwritten and is stubbornly passed down orally, and there is so much to learn and safeguard.

There should be no shame assigned to those who speak indigenous languages. A break from the past is needed; rigid rules in schools that see children punished for speaking their mother tongues only reinforce negative messaging about the hierarchy of languages and assign value to what is considered perfect or acceptable – posh, lightly accented speech.

Language is a key component of our identity and through it we can express our unique worldviews. We should honour multiple language and cultural identities. If we lose our languages we lose a way of life, a way of thought and a means of expression.

Though I often take for granted my fluency in multiple languages, I have come to appreciate the inordinate gift I’ve been given. While language is only one marker of a person’s identity, I consider it to be my most important one. Language ties me to my people and my country, and most importantly allows me to communicate. I miss speaking Chewa. Whenever I can, I spend time practising it or listening to audio. I intend to recapture this language of my childhood and add it to my treasure trove.

Bwalya Chileya was born in the early 80s and raised in Malawi and Zambia. She holds a masters in business administration and works as a project manager. She reads and writes stories in her free time. Connect with her on Twitter

Zambia’s latest crackdown on gays

A gay couple in Zambia has been arrested after police were tipped off about their relationship by one of the men’s relatives, local media reported.

The crackdown comes weeks after a human rights activist was detained for publicly demanding that same sex relations be decriminalised.

James Mwape (20) and Philip Mubiana (21), from the northern town of Kapiri Mposhi, are understood to have been living together for some time, according to Zambia News and Information Services (Zanis).

Standwell Lungu, police chief in Zambia’s central province, was quoted as saying: “The two have been charged with the offence of sodomy or having sex against the order of nature contrary to the laws of Zambia.

“The relatives are the ones that reported the matter to the police.”

Police claimed that Mubiana played the role of “wife” in the relationship and had been seen dressed in women’s clothes. The case mirrors that of a gay couple in Malawi who in 2009 were jailed and ridiculed before receiving a presidential pardon.

On Tuesday, Zanis reported that the men had been rearrested and denied bail after “they were found in the act again” and would face further charges.

Lungu said medical tests proved that the men had sex. “We have revoked police bond and rearrested the two men for again engaging in the act which they were arrested on in the first place. They will remain in custody until they appear in court … We have given them more counts.”

The couple are due to appear in court on Wednesday.

Last month, activist Paul Kasonkomona was arrested minutes after a live TV appearance in which he said homosexuality should no longer be outlawed.

Prominent Zambian gay rights activist Paul Kasonkomona leaves the Lusaka magistrate court on April 11 2013, where he pleaded not guilty to charges of promoting homosexuality, after appearing live on television to argue for his cause. The 38-year-old activist was arrested in the capital on April 7, minutes after he appeared on a live TV show where he openly advocated for gay rights. (AFP)
Paul Kasonkomona leaves the Lusaka magistrate court on April 11 2013, where he pleaded not guilty to charges of promoting homosexuality, after appearing live on television to argue for his cause. The 38-year-old activist was arrested in the capital on April 7, minutes after he appeared on a live TV show where he openly advocated for gay rights. (AFP)

In a recent interview with the Guardian, Zambian Vice-President Guy Scott defended the police action. “The problem with this guy going on television was that we had to do something because if we had done absolutely nothing we would have got a bollocking from all these evangelical churches plus damn idiots,” he said. “On the other hand, we didn’t want to give him a particularly hard ride.”

Scott made clear that gay rights is not a priority in Zambia. “I think you’ve got so much cleaning up to do of killings and defilements and this and that, it’s almost self indulgent to think, ‘Well, why don’t we sit here and talk about gay rights?'”

But Scott’s claim that Zambia has a policy of “live and let live” appears to have been challenged by the latest arrests. It was also contradicted by Chishimba Kambwili, the youth and sport minister, who recently told a radio programme: “We don’t want Zambia’s children to be taught any vice. We will not tolerate homosexuality. Those who want to promote homosexuality in Zambia are wasting their time. If anything, we are planning to stiffen laws against homosexuality.”

Homosexuality is illegal in 37 African countries. In Zambia 98% of the population disapprove of homosexual behaviour, according to a 2010 survey, and newspaper headlines such as “cage homos” are commonplace.

David Smith for the Guardian Africa Network

A girl, 2 cats and a rocket

Afronauts, based on a true story, is an alternative retelling of the 1960s space race. Science teacher Edward Makuka Nkoloso has established a National Space Academy of Science, Space Research, and Astronomical Research in an old farmhouse outside of Lusaka. As America prepares to send Apollo 11 to the moon, he leads a ragtag group of exiles in the Zambian desert who are trying to beat America to the same destination. Their mission is to get 17-year-old Matha (who is pregnant) and two cats there first. There’s only one problem: the afronauts disappear without a trace.

The Zambian space odyssey inspired Spanish photojournalist Cristina de Middel‘s award-winning photo book, The Afronauts. Watch a slideshow of her images here.

Now filmmaker Frances Bodomo will bring Nkoloso and his team to our screens with her short film. It’s partly funded by a film grant and she created a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to cover production costs. More than $12 000 has been pledged. Her previous short film Boneshaker, starring Quvenzhané Wallis, premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

Supermodel and actress Diandra Forrest (you can see her in Kanye West’s music video, Power) will be playing Matha and prolific actress/director Yolonda Ross (HBO’s Treme, Yelling to the Sky and her own film Breaking Night) will star as Auntie Sunday.


AFRONAUTS TEASER from Frances Bodomo on Vimeo.