Home » Arts & Culture » When Shona Homework Removes Dignity

A distressed young mother recently posted a message on her Facebook page asking for help with her son’s Shona homework. To use her words, she said, “I can’t even understand this language. It doesn’t sound like the Shona I know. It should at least allow me to show my son that I am not hopeless, but

this Shona is kicking my backside!” When I looked at the Shona homework, which required synonyms of words, I really felt for the poor mother. The homework was a list of archaic Shona words that we no longer use. And yet, from my knowledge and experience as a storyteller and writer, the teaching of language is effective when anchored in the lives and experiences of the learners.

Archaism has been allowed to stay in the Shona language, but without adding value. When archaism is allowed to stay in a language, it makes people feel they have two types of Shona.

The unfriendly primary school type of Shona which asks mazita evana verwaivhi, mbeva, hwiza, inda etc, and the accessible Shona that is spoken every day.

Generally and naturally, people tend to prefer the Shona that they understand and which does not restrict them.

According to Wikipedia, “archaism in language refers to the use of a form of speech or writing that is no longer current, or that is current only within a few special contexts.”

Such a use of language does not help us and the children because in order to learn the language, they will need to have a Shona dictionary close by.

And even if they have a Shona dictionary, they will still struggle because most of the meanings are contextual and from a particular time, which is so different from the present.

Learning should be enjoyable and about things that are relevant.

Languages naturally respond to social change.

It is hopeless and uninspiring to teach Shona that is only found in old dictionaries. Even our lexicographers must revisit the 1959 Standard Shona Dictionary by Father Hannan, which was last revised 31 years ago.

If we are not careful, an unchanging school curriculum can make people develop negative attitudes towards their own languages.

And if that happens, it means the role of language as an identity marker and carrier of certain cultural values gets weakened. Shona, like other languages, is very rich.

But, the truth is that most Shona words, proverbs, idioms and riddles are no longer in use because of a number of factors. Some of the reasons for the discontinued use are the changing times and contexts. If you take proverbs for example, they capture or bring out knowledge, wisdom, culture, values, behaviour and lifestyle of people at a particular time.

But a lot of the Shona people’s lifestyles have significantly and drastically changed since the days of Mbuya Nehanda.

Our language situation can be best described using a proverb that says, “Kwave kusakara kwedowo, serisakadyiwa nyama.” (When the hide gets old, people forget that it was once new). During the days of nhembe (animal skins that covered the loins), this proverb never needed an explanation.

It was derived from an everyday item that almost everyone knew and understood. This proverb if suddenly hurled into the modern day context will surely kick butt because, the word dowo alone will not be understood by many.

People may perhaps know and understand its synonym dehwe.

The word dowo is found in Shona proverbs that are being studied in our school curriculum, but the word itself is no longer used in everyday language.

Because of that, when it is used to test a pupil’s knowledge of Shona, it will surely kick their backside because it has no resonance with their world.

Children may find its meaning in a dictionary, but as long as the word is not part of everyday language, it will soon be forgotten because we remember the words that we use regularly.

The Shona philosophy in the proverbs is indeed true.

That which flies will eventually and at some point perch (Chinobhururuka chinomhara). Kare haagare ari kare.

The old must pave way for the new, and even languages must adapt or they will die. What used to be pools have indeed become fords as the Shona proverb states in, “Aiva madziva, ava mazambuko.”

Our proverbs and idiomatic expressions were derived from objects and tools that were common traditionally.

As a result of urbanisation and convenience, people have since stopped using most traditional objects and tools.

So, when proverbs or idioms refer to objects or tools from old days, most adults and children will not know what is being talked about.

For example you have the proverbs, “Tsapata rukukwe, hazvienzane nekurara pasi,” and “Gengezha mukombe, hazvienzane nekunwira mudemhe.”

The word tsapata, gengezha and demhe have almost disappeared, while people no longer sleep on hukwe or drink from mukombe.

Another example is the idiomatic expression, “Kugarira guyo sembwa,” which cannot be easily translated, but instead is best explained.

Guyo is a grinding stone that people used to grind things like different kinds of grains. The most known use of the guyo was for grinding roasted peanuts into peanut butter.

So, what does a dog have to do with a grinding stone?

Why does it even sit and wait near the grinding stone?

A hungry dog would expectantly sit and wait by the grinding stone, hoping that it will get something to eat from there, but the nature of food that was processed on the grinding stone was unsuitable for consumption by a dog until it had been cooked.

And after grinding peanut butter, the women would clean the grinding stone, which means there was not even anything for the dog to lick.

Today people have abandoned the labour intensive guyo and are now using electric grinding mills.

This naturally means most children growing up will never see guyo nehuyo or a dog patiently waiting by the grinding stone.

If they see these objects, they will never understand how they worked.

What is therefore needed is for our local language syllabuses to not just have idioms, proverbs and archaic words which are not explained in a way that educates the children.

There is need for us to change the way we teach our languages, especially where there is archaism.

Problem-solving does not exist in isolation from the context, and expecting learners to understand words and meanings from a different world kicks butt for real.

Context opens the doors of understanding so that learners comprehend what they are learning. Ideally, what they learn must be linked to their everyday lives.

If we do not make bold decisions about the future of our languages, we will have a tragedy of magnitude proportions.

It is good to safeguard our languages to ensure they are not “corrupted,” but don’t we risk protecting until we end up with a fossilised dinosaur of a language? Not many people still speak and use archaic Shona.

It is a fact that the type of Shona that is found in school books is different from that which is in use in the real world. I believe it is important for our languages to reflect social change, but at the same time teaching the history of the language. Teaching the history of a language can be a separate subject that covers archaic words and their meanings, the meaning of proverbs and idioms with the aim of bringing about an understanding of traditional cultural values, thought, philosophy and lifestyle.

The study of the history of a language can possibly also cover the meaning of popular traditional songs like Nyama yekugocha, Chomutengure and others.

It will also teach riddles, storytelling and games so that children can understand and appreciate our knowledge systems from the past and be proud of their identity through language.

We should not “preserve” our languages to the extent of kicking the backside of parents and children into fear and discomfort.

We will have a situation where “Mwana anotsva dumbu, amai votsva kumusana.” What is important is for a language to do what it is supposed to do — to communicate.

Languages do not belong to the old folk, they are a gift to the future generations.

A Chinese poet put it this way, “If you are thinking a year ahead, sow seed. If you are thinking ten years ahead, plant a tree. If you are thinking one hundred years ahead, make people aware.”

Source : The Herald