Education, language and culture

Source: Education, language and culture – The Zimbabwe Independent August 9, 2019


This is the sixth installment in a serialised document containing submissions made by chiefs from Matabeleland and Midlands provinces to President Emmerson Mnangagwa on the occasion of his meeting with them at the State House in Bulawayo on June 28, 2019.


Your Excellency, universal access to quality education remains a serious challenge. Key challenges in the provinces are:
(a) the huge distance between schools (this poses a serious threat to the quality of education and the wellbeing of the girl child);
(b) exorbitant and unaffordable schools fees;
(c) inadequate teaching staff;
(d) shortage of libraries and laboratories;
(e) inadequate classrooms;
(f) extremely poor housing for teaching staff;
(g) extreme and absolutely senseless shortage of Ndebele, Xhosa, Kalanga, Tshivenda, Nambya, Tshwao (Khoisan), Shangane, Sotho, Tonga, Tswana, Chewa, and Sign Language teaching staff and materials like text books;
(h) inadequate tertiary institutions, including law schools and teachers training colleges, and
(i) acute shortage of learning and teaching material across the board, but most importantly of Mathematics and Science subjects.

We are having a situation where at Early Childhood Development (ECD) infants are being taught by people who cannot speak their mother tongue. This is totally unacceptable. The purpose of ECD is to give children a proper head start in education. But this can only be so if such education is imparted in a way that helps the child rather than impede their future.
Writing about learning in mother tongue being beneficial to ECD pupils, features writer of The Herald newspaper Talent Gore aptly put it: “Teaching in a language that learners do not speak makes both learning and teaching of young children extremely difficult particularly when the language of instruction is also foreign to the teacher.”
This view is substantiated by The Global Partnership on Education which has observed that: “Globally, there are 50-75 million ‘marginalised’ children who are not enrolled in school. Children whose primary language is not the language of instruction in school are more likely to drop out of school or fail in early grades. Research has shown that children’s first language is the optimal language for literacy and learning throughout primary school.”
There is also plenty of literature from Unesco and other international organisations correctly extolling the virtues of mother tongue instruction, especially at ECD level.
Why then does government fail this simple, but important assignment? Why deploy teachers who cannot speak the primary language of the child to teach at primary school level when there are people who speak the child’s primary language who can do the job? This takes a disturbing turn when one considers the fact that these teachers are not just teaching at primary school level, but they are meant to teach children the local language that they as teachers cannot even speak. Is there a sinister and obnoxious motive or is this innocent incompetence on the part of officials? Whatever the reason, this deployment must stop.
Section 27 of the constitution provides that the state must take all practical measures to promote free and compulsory education and take measures to ensure that girls are afforded the same opportunities as boys to obtain education at all levels.
As chiefs, we desire to see universal access to education. No one, not even the poorest of the poor, should be left behind.
The future of the country depends on our ability not only to pull every person out of illiteracy but most importantly in up-skilling all persons with all the necessary skills for them to be productive as workers and employment creators.
We are deeply concerned about the high failure and school dropout rates in Matabeleland. A lot of schools are getting zero passes in Grade 7, O-level and A-level and no serious improvement has been noted in years. Invariably, it is the local vernacular languages that have the highest failure rate. You find some children passing Maths, Science, English, General Paper, but failing the local language dismally. This is also true at the high school level. Something is not right here.

In addition to shortage of teaching staff and learning material and long distance to school, the other reason is the linguistic gap between the teacher and the child. Even before we conduct further investigations into this, several global studies have revealed that because of poor mother tongue instruction, by the time children complete their primary school education they have acquired devastating and virtually irreversible learning and cognitive deficiencies.
Those who are taught by teachers who proficiently speak and write a child’s primary language have a head start compared with those who are not. Children in our region are at a serious disadvantage. The schools that are meant to give them advantages have become places that undermine the child’s future.
Writing for the International Teacher Magazine, educationist and researcher Carolyn Savage summed up a universally held position when she said that: “Research indicates that having a strong mother tongue foundation leads to much better understanding of the curriculum as well as more positive attitude towards school, so it’s vital that children maintain their first language when they begin schooling in a different language … (w)hen children develop their mother tongue, they are simultaneously fostering a whole host of other essential skills, such as critical thinking and literacy skills.”
We therefore ask government to:
l ensure more schools are built so as to reduce the distance between schools;
l reduce the cost of educating our children by reducing school fees and levies;
l every school has adequate teaching staff and material and classrooms, including for Mathematics and Science subjects;
l provide financial and material support for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics subjects education at high school and tertiary education levels;
l ensure every school has adequate and well-equipped libraries and laboratories;
l more tertiary institutions, including teacher training colleges, are built in deserving areas;
l a law school in Lupane State University or National University of Science and Technology;
l ensure full mother language instruction;
l strictly ensure that no teacher who cannot speak and write the local child language properly and with sufficient proficiency teaches at primary school;
l ensure better housing and working conditions for rural teachers;
l ensure affordable school fees and that orphans and vulnerable children who are disadvantaged by reason of poverty or lack of income attend school free of charge; and
l establish a commission of inquiry into the pathetic performance of schools and high failure rate in our region and why in particular there is such poor performance when it comes to local vernacular languages.

Language and culture

Your Excellency, the constitution says traditional leaders are the custodians of the culture, customs, traditions, practices and languages of their communities. While this is so, traditional leaders cannot succeed in this constitutional obligation unless departments and agencies of state live up to their constitutional obligations as well. Government is failing very much in this respect.
A post-colonial government must speak my language, but this is not the case in almost all instances at local level. Virtually all state employees across all departments don’t speak the local language. It is not uncommon in Matabeleland to find government offices, including police stations that do not have a single person who speaks the local language. Had these employees been bringing in specialised skills it would have been understandable.

However, even workers doing office cleaning and on guard duties cannot speak the local languages. This widening linguistic barrier between local communities and government employees meant to serve them is unacceptable. It urgently requires your attention, Your Excellency. We can’t have local languages recognised in the constitution only to be killed by government employee deployment. All languages are precious and must be preserved, protected and promoted and there is no better way of ensuring this than ensuring government speaks all languages.

Your Excellency, a nation is made stronger by the celebration of its diversity in terms of language, culture and identities rather than trying to build a nation on the mould of one dominant tribal identity. We believe that the survival and prosperity of all languages, cultures, customs, practices and traditional institutions is critical for peace, development and prosperity of our nation. For this to happen, all of us, and especially government departments and civil servants, need to play an activity role in creating the correct environment.
There is, however, a gap that currently exists between these employees and the local communities they are meant to serve.

Unless one can speak the language of the employee, then they will not receive proper service, and in some instances elderly people are turned away and refused services on the basis that the employee does not understand the local language and services are only provided to those who are able to converse in the employee’s language.

Your Excellency, such behaviours perpetuate the hurts and pains, rather than heal the wounds of our people and is in contravention of Section 6 of the constitution which provides that all state institutions and agencies of government at every level must ensure that all officially recognised languages are treated equitably and that in their work these institutions and agencies must take into account the language preferences of the people affected by governmental measures and communication.
It is truly disturbing that we have situations where patients in hospitals and suspects in police stations cannot communicate with the service provider, which happens to be public institutions and agencies, resulting in them receiving poor or no service at all. Patients end up being treated of a completely different thing from the one that would have been the reason of their going to a health centre. Suspects end up signing warned and cautioned statements or admitting guilt just because of communication breakdown. In the first instance, death is the result, and in the second one the suspect is condemned to injustices.

To address this problem we propose the following interventions:
a) Government must ensure that teachers, nurses, Agritex officers, police officers and all other state employees that have to frequently interact with the public are all fully proficient in the local language. For example, there must be Tonga-speaking police officers in all police stations in Tonga-speaking areas.

The same should be the case with Tswana, Sotho, Venda etc. It must not happen that a person going to any police station or any government office for that matter in their area fails to find a person who can speak their language. Government offices should be manned speakers of the predominant local language.

b) Unless it is impossible to get a local person with the requisite skill, priority should always be given to qualified locals; unskilled labour should not be imported and should be strictly reserved for locals. Even these skilled personnel must be required to learn the local language of the communities they are deployed to before they are deployed.
c) Teaching at primary schools should be reserved only for locals who are 100% proficient in the local language. Language teachers at all levels of education should also be people who are thoroughly proficient in the language.
d) It should be made mandatory that upon deployment, all employees be oriented to the local culture, customs and practices.
e) Government must institute refresher training on the need to be sensitive to local customs and cultures.
f) Consider amending the Act or constitution to allow for greater recognition of cultural particularities like is the case with the South African Traditional Leaders Act.
g) The same approach proposed here for public institutions and agencies should apply to private companies.

For the avoidance of any confusion and doubt, this submission is not meant to say only speakers of the local language should be found in government offices, but rather that local language speakers should be the primary actors and service providers there.
The proposals are affirmative not discriminatory in nature. Even if they were viewed as being discriminatory this kind of positive discrimination is justifiable in our constitutional architecture that seeks to promote justice and distribute equal opportunities throughout the country.

By allowing each ethnic grouping room to practice their cultures and customs fully, it allows each group to feel included and part of the nation as opposed to perceptions of marginalisation.
Government should facilitate the revival and preservation of traditional institutions as each culture sees fit. Many critical traditional institutions and chieftainships were destroyed by colonial settlers and there can be no justification of why we are still unable to reverse what was done by those who sought to destroy our African cultural identity.

To be continued next week