KIRUMBA, DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO — The bar in Kirumba, a village in eastern DRC, is filled with young people. In the riot of noise, they order drinks and food. At tables, their conversations spin from topic to topic — insecurity in the region, unemployment and other daily life issues.
The young people all belong to the Nande tribe, but few speak Kinande, their mother tongue. Instead, they use Kiswahili, with a bit of French and Lingala — all spoken throughout DRC — thrown in. Anyone who dares speak in Kinande is labeled, derisively, a “villager.”
Like youths throughout DRC, these young people face a stark choice: to honor their heritage by speaking their tribal language or to use more common tongues as they embrace what they say is a complex world that calls them to broaden their sense of self.
The Nande are one of the country’s 250 tribes, and are among the largest in eastern DRC. Most live in North Kivu province, in the territories of Beni and Lubero, a vast, verdant region known for its social tensions and ongoing political violence.
For decades, nearly everyone in North Kivu spoke Kinande at home, at community gatherings, and at public meetings. Traditionally, the Nande have passed along their culture mainly through language: proverbs, tales and riddles.
In recent times, that has all changed.
Merveille Kavira Luneghe, GPJ DRC
Schools in Lubero territory stopped teaching Kinande about 20 years ago, says Kambere Kiripi, director of academics at the Kilalo Institute, a high school in Kirumba. Today, depending on the grade level and subject matter, they may learn French, English, Latin and Kiswahili.
“This will lead to the disappearance of our unique native language,” Kiripi says.
And without skills in their mother tongue, Nande children “are drifting away from their cultural identity and tribal heritage,” says Kitsongo Wambeho King, president of the Kyaghanda Yira organization, which oversees Nande culture in the Lubero territory.
The Nande aren’t alone. This is a worldwide challenge with profound implications, according to a 2016 UNESCO report. Around the globe, “large numbers of children are taught and take tests in languages that they do not speak at home, hindering the early acquisition of critically important reading and writing skills.”
Last year, a United Nations special rapporteur for minority issues called the lack of education in a student’s mother tongue a human rights issue. The U.N. reports that worldwide, people speak about 6,000 languages.
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In his report, Fernand de Varennes, the special rapporteur, said children who don’t learn in their mother tongue risk poorer results in school, “and end up later in life with the lowest paying jobs and highest unemployment rates.”
He adds that “children from indigenous or minority background will have better academic results and will stay in school longer when they are taught in a language with which they are most familiar — usually their own.”
Kambale Wasamuviri, a teacher at the Institut Supérieur Pédagogique de Kirumba (ISP Kirumba) who specializes in African and foreign languages, says 90% of his students can’t speak Kinande. And those who do, typically read or write only a few words.
Student Mwamba Kabuyaya says he hasn’t learned to read books or poems in Kinande, his native language. Kabuyaya, who is in the eighth grade, says he’s unaware of once-popular proverbs that exhort children to obey their parents, or the one that urges hard work: “Help yourself and the sky will help you.”
Ready with an ever-present smile, Kabuyaya ditched Kinande altogether two years ago after visiting Rutshuru, a territory about 75 kilometers (46 miles) from Kirumba. In Rutshuru, the Nande are a minority, so people speak only Kiswahili. For the two weeks in Rutshuru, he found himself in a world where Kinande seemed to have no place, he says. And he has never turned back.
“Of course, Kinande is my mother tongue,” he says. “However, as the world is evolving, as a young person, speaking Kinande is low class.”
Louange Kanyere Halisi, who is in her second year at the Kilalo Institute, speaks Kinande only with her parents. The rest of the time she uses Kiswahili.
“When I speak Kinande, the other young people say that I’m old-fashioned,” says Halisi, 20. “And the non-Nande students say that I am tribal-oriented.”
Parents find themselves as the primary torchbearers of Kinande. Jorime Makuta, 45, tried to teach her six children the language, but she gave up because as they studied and played with children who spoke Kiswahili, they abandoned their mother tongue. The more she spoke Kinande, the less they understood.
Now the default language in the home is Kiswahili.
“All my children speak Kiswahili,” Makuta says. “When I speak to them in Kinande, they say they don’t understand. So I find myself obliged to speak to them in Kiswahili. Little by little, there is risk of losing certain cultural values.”