Tribal languages are given a new lease of life

August 29, 2003

Sheldon G. Weeks describes a literacy programme for minority languages in Botswana.

Twenty-six languages are spoken in Botswana, but before the country's independence in 1966 the British colonial power used just five to communicate with the people of the then Bechuanaland: English, Afrikaans, Otjiherero, Ikalanga and Setswana. At independence English was enshrined in the constitution as the national language, with Setswana as the second language. The two-language policy was justified on the grounds of the need to build a united nation.

As a result, all educational and adult literacy programmes are provided only in Setswana and English. Even government and private radio stations can broadcast only in these languages. As a consequence, no messages related to HIV/Aids may be broadcast in a language that a large proportion of the 1.8 million people of Botswana can understand.

A national literacy survey carried out by the Central Statistics Office surveyed the use of only Setswana and English (in spite of many of the staff coming from communities speaking minority languages). Speakers of minority languages have been denied the right to access information in their vernacular. Minority languages are marginalised and Setswana has become eroded to the point where it is now taught in the first two years in schools. In pre-schools only English and Setswana are used, and children from communities with a minority language do not learn to read and write in their mother tongue.

The poor standard of education achieved in the western and northern part of the country (where the majority of non-Setswana speakers live) can be attributed to this cultural hegemony. Even in the national literacy programme only Setswana was used, again negating local knowledge and resources in many areas. This has been done despite the common knowledge that it is better for people to learn to read and write in their mother tongue and then transfer these skills to literacy in other languages.

Language discrimination has also taken a political form. The Tswana chiefs were recognised as the only rightful ex officio members of the House of Chiefs, excluding participation from all other language groups. Since 1998 there has been a backlash against this, and parliament has relaxed the two-language policy. However, the successful implementation of the recognition of minority languages is another matter.

In 1996 a workshop was held at the University of Botswana to help develop an orthography for the Shiyeyi language. The department of African languages at the university also helped with the construction of a Shiyeyi grammar.

Two years later, the adult education department at the university launched a project to promote adult literacy in two of the minority languages - Shiyeyi in the northwest, with perhaps 80,000 speakers, and Ikalanga in the northeast, with 600,000 speakers. The department received a grant from Unesco and the Lutheran Bible Translators to develop approaches and materials for adult literacy in these two vernaculars.

The department worked through two local non-government organisations - the Kamanakao Association in Maun and the Society for the Promotion of the Ikalanga Language in Francistown - both with the objective of maintaining the language and the culture of its peoples.

In the first and second phases, material writers were trained and literacy material was produced. Between 1998 and 2001 seven workshops were held on Shiyeyi, beginning with village-based needs assessments. The same process has been followed for Ikalanga, and research in Ikalanga-speaking villages has revealed massive support for the literacy programme.

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