Zimbabwe’s indigenous languages have much in common; one need only listen carefully to notice, for example, the number of Ndebele words that have been incorporated into shona, and vice versa.
It’s natural; two languages cannot exist close to each other without borrowing from each other.
Languages that “refused” to borrow from others are dead; Latin is one.
Zimbabwe has 16 officially recognized languages; and again, one only has to listen carefully to recognize the breakdown that has taken place between languages over the past 200 years.
But something had to happen along the way to stop this natural process.
Believe it or not, the advent of colonialism is what put an end to this process. The colonialists knew the unifying power of language. When the British colonized the lands between the Zambezi and the Limpopo, they found native populations at war with each other.
It was a time of great upheaval and the natives of this land were the weakest. To make a quick kill, the colonizers exploited these fights.
It was their way of doing things where they wanted control. They used a strategy called “divide and conquer”. It was the mainstay of their colonial policy when the British Empire was created.
Divide and conquer, according to historians, is “a policy that seeks to keep someone in a position of power by causing disagreements between people who might otherwise unite against them.”
To exploit India through imperial policies, the British ensured that various conflicts between Indians remained in play. In Nigeria from 1900 to 1960, differences between regions were frequently exploited and exaggerated.
The resulting tensions between Nigerian ethnic groups made it easier for the colonial authorities to consolidate their power in the region.
In Rhodesia it was the same. The British exploited the conflict between the Shona and the Ndebele; they actually accentuated it because they feared that unity between the two main indigenous groups would threaten their designs.
Such unity had manifested itself in devastating ways for the settlers during the first Chimurenga/Umvukela of 1896.
One way to destroy this unity was to destroy the commonalities between the languages so that people would hate each other.
Shona police have been deployed in Matabeleland provinces while Ndebele police have been deployed in Mashonaland provinces.
The result was a hatred of the other and of the language of the other. The tongue was then used as a weapon of control.
Today, Zimbabwe is caught in a time warp; he fails to get rid of this colonial heritage. But we are a nation; Zimbabweans should be able to speak each other’s language and use it as a unifying force.
Once we have done this, everyone will be able to appreciate the unity in diversity that creates strong nations.
School psychologists have proven that children who speak several languages learn faster than those who speak only one.
It is therefore necessary for the government to create a program that ensures that children master at least one indigenous language besides their own.
Interestingly, in Zimbabwe, once one speaks Shona and Ndebele, the other languages become very easy to learn as they are all very closely related, all being Bantu languages.
What a wonderful country it would be if every Zimbabwean could land anywhere in the country and converse in the language of that region! Only then can we call ourselves a nation. Language is the cement that binds nations together.
- Trevor Ncube is Chairman of Alpha Media Holdings and Nevanji Madanhire is Deputy Editor of Zimbabwe Independent.