BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE — Sheets of animal hide hang on the otherwise bare walls of this dimly lit room. A wooden plate filled with burning herbs is placed in front of the procession of neatly lined candles, along with a bowl of water. Sitting in the room are Nancy Khumalo and her aunt, Thokozani Khumalo.
Almost instinctively, Thokozani Khumalo wraps a piece of loose fabric around the waist of her niece, who is wearing blue jeans and a red T-shirt, because she believes it’s disrespectful to approach the altar dressed in non-traditional wear.
Everything here needs to be pure; everything must be sacred. After all, this isn’t an ordinary day. Today, Nancy Khumalo, a 25-year-old Zimbabwean nurse who grew up in the United Kingdom, is trying to communicate with her dead ancestors for the first time to seek answers to urgent questions about her life.
But this isn’t going to be easy, not because of the complicated nature of these rituals in general, but because Nancy Khumalo, like many in her generation of Zimbabweans, has lost touch with the first prerequisite for the ritual of connecting to her ancestors — the language to speak with them.
Though Zimbabwe is one of the countries in southern Africa with a diverse language landscape, several of its indigenous languages — along with roughly half of the world’s 6,000 or 7,000 languages — are hanging by a thread. Losing a language is more than just losing a few codes for communication. Here, language acts as a cultural glue to hold together a community, its unique ways of life, its intangible heritage and its collective memory.
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And so, the slow decay of these languages is worrying a younger generation in the country that fears they won’t ever know their roots. For Nancy Khumalo, not knowing her indigenous language Ndebele means struggling to make sense of her own identity at an age when she wants to better understand herself.
“During rituals and traditional practices, knowing their original languages plays an important part in connecting with the ancestors,” says Khumbulani Nhali, who works to preserve the tradition of the Kalanga tribe. “It is believed your ancestors are able to easily identify you when you connect using their indigenous language.”
The importance of language is not seen only in traditional rituals and practices. Because most indigenous cultures transmit knowledge orally, spoken languages become a repository of information. With the loss of these languages, the names, uses and preparations of medicines, for example, or the methods of farming, fishing, hunting or even survival become collateral damage.
In Zimbabwe, 16 official languages are spoken and recognized in the country’s constitution. English is the official language for business and commerce; Shona and Ndebele are major indigenous languages.
In pre-colonial Africa, language was used to identify with a community’s way of life. For most children in Zimbabwe, the first language is the one spoken at home, often an indigenous language, that then becomes part of their identity. But cultural analysts say the country’s colonial past, globalization and the spread of migrants’ languages all contribute to a sense of language loss and a detachment from the larger Zimbabwean identity.
Senete Majowani, tour guide and educator at the Kore Kore Cultural Village, an artificially created space in Zimbabwe’s Mashonaland West that aims to preserve the culture of the Kore-Kore tribe, says migration of people in search of better opportunities has led to a situation where there are barely any elders left behind to impart cultural traditions. “The absence of the elderly as cultural custodians in families,” he says has led to “the dilution of dialects,” together with the “superior status” ascribed to the English language.
Methuseli Zulu, a 23-year-old chemical engineering student in Bulawayo, says his family speaks Ndebele at home, but he prefers to speak English to his siblings. Mellisa Muleya, 23, says while her parents speak Tonga because they are from Binga, a district in the province of Matabeleland North, she knows only how to greet in the language. As she grew up in Bulawayo in southwest Zimbabwe, she spoke Ndebele like everyone else there.
Those concerned with the future of languages in the country say the mix of languages is a dormant crisis waiting to explode. What these youngsters speak is not exactly a language, Nhali says, but a cocktail they pick right from “the street pot. It is a mixed bag of foreign dialects and local indigenous languages, giving a cocktail of confusion that can be seen in the confused personalities of most young people.”
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In 2017, the government for the first time introduced examinations in minority languages taught in schools, through the Zimbabwe School Examinations Council. Tonga, Nambya, Venda and Chewa are several languages tested in schools.
Asked about the government’s role in promoting and preserving indigenous languages, Taungana Blessing Ndoro, the director of communications and advocacy for the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, says, “We’re teaching in indigenous languages from [early childhood development] to grade two.”
Omphile Marupi, a Sotho tribe member who is a radio producer and presenter, says Zimbabwe’s education system has ignored the versatility and importance of indigenous languages in the curriculum.
“Our languages have been confined to the village and not taken to the laboratory to develop with other languages as seen with Chinese, Japanese and Mandarin,” he says. “While it is proper to embrace English, indigenous languages should be given space in the academia to sprout.”
When asked about this alleged neglect of indigenous languages, Ndoro didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Inside this sacred room, speaking in English, Nancy Khumalo apologizes to her ancestors while her aunt simultaneously interprets her words. Both exit the space with a hope that the spirits understand the intent behind the initiation and guide Nancy Khumalo to the answers she is seeking.