Sukulwenkosi Dube-Matutu, Head of Matabeleland South Office
There are more than 7,000 living languages in the world, but UNESCO predicts that more than half will be extinct by the end of the century.
IsiJahunda could be one of the languages as the language is now only spoken by the dwindling old people in Gwanda district.
Zimbabwe was home to thousands of proud Jahunda-speaking natives before the arrival of white settlers in the 1800s. For this Jahunda ethnic group, the language meant a lot to them, it was a heritage, an identity and a source of pride. Today, their language is in danger of extinction and Jahunda’s identity and heritage is disappearing from the face of the earth as there are only a few people who speak the language left in Gwanda district.
Residents of Gwanda district are known as amaJahunda due to a community of isiJahunda speaking people who settled in Gwanda and surrounding resettlements.
IsiJahunda, a language which has similarities with Shona, Kalanga and Venda languages, was the popular language in areas such as Nsimbi, Dobhoda, Mtandawenema, Nkulangugwe, Gwalanyemba, Switja, Mawana, Makobana, Zhukwi, Shabenyama, Paye and Bedza. The demise of isiJahunda dates back to the 1800s when the tribe merged with other ethnic groups resulting in the dilution of the language. The arrival of the whites made matters worse.
Saturday Chronicle visited some of the communities in Gwanda where it met IsiJahunda speaking elders who can be found in Garanyemba, Ntephe, Ntalale, Silonga, Halisupi, Zhokwe and Samloti.
Ephraim Ncube (77) from Nsimbi village said he was born in Makungubo, a resettlement area. In 1951, they were transferred to the village of Nsimbi when he was six years old. Prior to their resettlement, her family mainly spoke IsiJahunda.
“Our parents and grandparents still spoke IsiJahunda even after we moved to the Nsimbi area. Whenever they spoke to each other, they spoke in isiJahunda.
“When our grandparents died, talking about isiJahunda within the farm decreased, although our parents still do it, but with a mixture of isiNdebele.
“When our parents died, isiNdebele became our main language although we knew isiJahunda. Before being relocated, the IsiJahunda speaking people were led by Chief Senondo, who today is known as Chief Nhlamba,” he said.
Ephraim is convinced that the displacement of the Jahunda community is the main reason for isiJahunda’s death.
“We have mountains and rivers that had isiJahunda names but they have been changed. For example, the Garanyemba region was originally known as Shibwenyemba, which means a stone that looks like a soybean. Sengezane area was originally known as Shangezi, Tuli river was known as Tukwi, Shashe area was known as Shayashe, Lubolahuto mountain was known as Lukonahuto, meaning the hill that overpowered the baboon,” Ephraim said.
Phineas Matshaya (68) from Garanyemba region said the death of their elders led to the decline of the Jahunda language. He said that only old people could speak the language, and the more they continued to die, the more the language diminished.
Matshaya said his age mates were young when the Jahunda community was resettled and they were never able to use the language as their primary language. He said most of them married Suthu or Ndebele speaking women which further crushed isiJahunda.
Nsimbi village chief Misheck Ncube (72) said he sometimes meets other IsiJahunda speakers at neighborhood meetings. He said whenever they got together, they immediately started speaking isiJahunda. Misheck said if there had been books written in isiJahunda it would have helped preserve the language.
“The reason why, as IsiJahunda-speaking elders, we cannot pass the language on to our children is because it escapes us as well. We have been exposed to other languages for a very long time which have surpassed IsiJahunda. In my case, whenever I speak isiJahunda, I end up mixing it with Shona because I stayed in Harare for a long time. The two languages are similar, which drives me to mix them,” he said.
Misheck said they felt like they were losing their identity as they watched their language diminish. He said that some people do not know the history of the Jahunda community and they even exist. Misheck said today that everyone staying in Gwanda town is referred to as Jahunda but does not know the language.
He said that if the language had been taught in schools, it could have been preserved and even passed on to future generations.
“It is important to preserve culture and heritage, but unfortunately our identity as a Jahunda community is diminishing. In the next 20 years there may only be a handful of people speaking IsiJahunda and in the next 30 years our language will be non-existent. By then, people who will be called AmaJahunda will just be people who stay in Gwanda without knowing the language or its history,” he said.
Oliver Ncube (68) said it was difficult for them to maintain their language as they were taught isiNdebele in school. She said their children were also learning isiNdebele, which made it even more difficult.
David Moyo (83) from Ntephe region said the name Jahunda was once used to refer to a place where the Jahunda community used to gather for meetings near a rock in what is now known as Timber Farm. He said the name later spread and was used to refer to the whole community and their language was named after their meeting place.
Moyo said the whites came later and changed the name of the place from Jahunda to Gwanda. He said while isiJahunda sounded similar to other languages, there was a distinct difference.
“If I remember correctly, there was never a day when I heard my grandparents and great-grandparents speaking in a language other than IsiJahunda when they talked to each other. They would move on to isiNdebele when someone else joins the conversation,” he said.
Renowned historian and author, Pathisa Nyathi said that he traced the Jahunda community back to 1825. He said that they were settled in what is now called Gwanda town and its environs and that in 1825 , the Babirwa people joined them.
He said that the Ndebele speaking community then migrated and also settled in Gwanda.
Nyathi, who is from the Babirwa clan, said IsiJahunda has a similar dialect to Kalanga, Venda, Shona, Lilima, Talawundi and Nyayi. He said the mixing of Babirwa and the Jahunda community led to intermarriage and the onset of language death.
“The IsiJahunda language is disappearing because it has been dominated by other languages. The Babirwa settled in Gwanda in 1825 and found the Jahunda community there, meaning they had settled before that time. The arrival of the Babirwa during the migration period affected the IsiJahunda language.
Their community has been diluted and other languages have dominated theirs. If you look at the place names in Gwanda you will realize that some have isiJahunda names others indicate isiBirwa and others isiNdebele.
“In schools, the language taught is isiNdebele, which has further weakened isiJahunda. When the whites took control of the land and these ethnic groups were moved further away, other languages remained strong but IsiJahunda continued to fade,” he said.