The story of Naughty, Knotty and Naught tells of three rats known by everyone, even though no one knew where they lived. Their black shiny droppings always gave a sign that they had somehow been around. Although mostly unwelcome, when the rats visited families, they would get an extraordinary opportunity to hear people’s hopes, fears and vulnerabilities. One day, they decided to do something extraordinary; they visited Professor Pheko, who was known everywhere for his writings. The unexpected visitors found Professor Pheko contemplating and struggling to find an English expression to use in an essay on loneliness. “You are empty, but so are the words you write”, said Naughty as they stepped on the computer key board, to the Professor’s shock! The other rats were more blunt; “on your fingertips and the tip of your tongue lies something” said Naught and Knotty concluded the visit by offering a suggestion; “Maybe start writing in your mother tongue?
The importance of writing in mother tongue is a sentiment shared by Rhodes University’s Part-time Creative Writing Lecturer, Mthunzikazi Mbunguwana who recently published her book of imibongo; Unam Wena, ngesiXhosa. Appropriately, she raises a pertinent question by asking “we are complaining that our languages are dying, but what are we doing about it?” This question may resonate with many, whose languages have been systematically marginalized through means such as education and governance that privileges English, French or Portuguese as the main medium for communicating core information regarding everything from health to business, in Africa.
In our educational context in South Africa, Covid 19 and the arrival of Pepper (the world’s first humanoid educational robot) adds an interesting dimension in that key information that needs to be communicated to young people may be lost. While cognisant of the unrelenting efforts to privilege English language, English and Theatre major student Zanele Tlali asserts that children should be “’equipped’ to ‘be fit’ enough to speak English; however this should not come at the expense of our mother tongues.” In his seminal book decolonizing the mind, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o contends that “language, any language, has a dual character: it is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture.” ASSITEJ SA Board member and Playwright Omphile Molusi agrees and adds that “language records who we are and defines aspects of who we are”.
ASSITEJ SA explored recently in a new production, Theta/Talk/Praat, the ways that a non-home language can alienate young people who are living under its tyranny. It was clear in the responses to this play that being forced to work in another language, another culture, can be alienating to the psyche.
While September is designated the heritage month in South Africa, globally, it is a month that casts the spotlight on suicide. According to The Depression Project, suicide is the 10th biggest cause of death in the world, with isolation and being burdened, being two leading factors. Given Tlali’s argument and the diverse cultures in South Africa, I ponder deeply about the practicalities of her argument, especially because she adds that “it is narrow minded to think that English is the only language that can capture and portray the richness of Africa and the diaspora.” I wonder if there could be a way where the power of named languages could be undermined, in favour of creative languages.
2021 Standard Bank young artist for theatre winner Thando Doni asserts that his isiXhosa theatre piece had “no is, no and, and no was” and that through his work, he would like people who speak their mother tongue to be welcome. Perhaps this resonates with what wa Thiong’o calls a ceaseless need to illuminate and champion the need to decenter ideologies and attitudes that marginalize. Perhaps this calls for a new reading on discourses about languages. Either way, young people deserve better, and must read better, lest adults and their environments create a lonely and alienating space which they fear to enter.
– Lalu Mokuku is the chairperson of ASSITEJ South Africa and Executive Member of ASSITEJ International. She recently co-wrote Tshedi Ngwana with Sibongile Fisher, a 100% Sesotho book for tweens. Her new book for toddlers Bohlale, Bokako le Bonolo has been translated into IsiXhosa, Afrikaans and English.