This is not to say that Chichewa is special in comparisons to all the dialects that are major lingua franca within our beautiful Malawi but it is the preferred language in use.
However, whatever argument one would pose, we need not have any excuse when our command of Chichewa is in terrible taste, especially when it took precedent of all other languages as seen fit in the wisdom of the first President the late Ngwazi Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda who made it our national language.
How President Banda suspended the teaching of all other languages from our education curricula when he himself could not string together a Chichewa sentence or utter any Chichewa word apart from shouting: Kwacha, Ufulu and Mtendere is something that bears thinking about, although a number of people don’t want to discuss it.
Strangely, they found it necessary to fuss over the second President Bakili Muluzi’s faltering command of the English language. The media had a field day when Muluzi declared during his inauguration speech that he was ‘confidence’ to deliver on ejukweshoni.
One could argue that Kamuzu never knew a vernacular language, yet I was made to look at another new perception when senior Chief Chikulamayembe ‘Gondwe ye Sawira’ told me that he used to communicate in Tumbuka during his audience with theformer head of state.
Well, the revelations from my Chief compelled me to believe that perhaps the Chewa speakers who had meetings with the Ngwazi were also conversing in Chewa and so were the Lomwe and the Sena et cetera.
In his words, Banda used to boast that he was an accomplished erudite because he had studied Latin and Greek, which he said he was fluent in as well. He condemned all who never knew these languages, often referring to them as being ‘uneducated’.
Perhaps Muluzi had charisma due to his jovial approach to issues as he was able to communicate to masses by relating himself with the grassroots by speaking their language. He did not only spend some effort in speaking Tumbuka when in the North but he would try Sena and Lomwe as well when he visited Nsanje and Mulanje respectively.
He was also able to easily deflect and even diffuse what could be seen as a provoking [in the Malawi political sense] question during press conferences.
If he was asked by The Chronicle reporter for example, to explain why government vehicles were carrying party followers, totally in contrast to early pledges to separate party from government business he would simply answer back: “iii amangwetu munakhala bwanji majelasi. Bwanji, galimoto ya Chroniclenso inanyamula nawo?” Laughter and end of story.
If the same question would be poised to the incumbent President Bingu wa Mutharika, it would only earn the reporter a vicious attack and rebuttal with the President threatening to easily bring the journalist down. The President would insinuate that the journalist was working for some elements that had sent him to ask what he perceived to be embarrassing questions. Mutharika would not use the vernacular to make light any embarrassment.
Kamuzu had an interpreter because he could not utter a complete Chichewa sentence apart from the oft-quoted ‘Aleke Banda wa Bodza’. Muluzi was perhaps the best if we are to judge ability based on how often Mutharika blunders when he opts to speak in the vernacular rather than English.
I do not know about Mutharika’s Lomwe but his Thyolo meetings can vouch that he is equally halting, as he cannot address his own people in the language as fluently and continuously as Muluzi used to do in Yao in Mangochi, Machinga and Zomba.
When Mutharika once went to a funeral, he referred to the gift he had made to the deceased as part of his message of condolences as ‘Mphoto’. Our Malawian cultural tradition demands that it is an ‘Offering’ of condolence, not as a ‘Prize’ as intimated by the Chewa word used by Mutharika.
And when someone who is supposed to be a Malawian, who has been raised up in the Southern or Central region refers to such donations as such, then something is terribly wrong with his Chichewa.
By the way, the meaning of Mphoto in English is ‘a prize’ and can you truly give a person a prize for losing their loved ones?
Of course, someone might argue that there is nothing wrong with not knowing much of the language because Muluzi, who spoke vernacular in an appealing command, misgoverned this country while Kamuzu in his ignorance of the language performed with unequalled success in as far as developing this country is concerned.
In addition, on the same note, Mutharika has started well in terms of improving the economy and initiating development projects despite his poor command of Chichewa and nothing is wrong with that.
No, I think everything is wrong with that. We have had rumour mongers demeaning the roots of our Kamuzu, calling him by the wild name of Richard Armstrong.
Who does not know that there is strong doubt that has been cast over the authenticity of Mutharika’s identity as a Malawian with some connecting his initial name, Webster Thom to some foreign country and identity?
Maybe it is time for us to be honest and recognise that as a nation we have many, many different identities speaking many different tongues. Should the lack of knowledge of Kamuzu’s Chichewa create opportunity for Malawians to question our right to be considered fully Malawian?
I understand that the Immigration Department is in the habit of holding interviews for passports in the Chichewa language. Is this really a prerequisite for citizenship?
One needs to go to a country like Nigeria to discover that it is English that is generally spoken and understood. There are so many local dialects that if this was used to discover one’s citizenship then many in that country would be deported to Cameroon, Ghana, and Benin and so on.
But then again, I think our leaders really need to be truly Malawians by living long enough in our midst and speaking a lingua that does not raise questions as such, or am I being political?