Thursday, April 25, 2024

Botswana needs a museum of languages

Many museums in Africa are dominated by archaeologists and historians and lack dedicated units that study and collect the linguistic wealth of communities within which the museums are established. They collect art and artefacts – real objects of historical and cultural significance for display. There is a need to consider language as an important artefact and museums need to put structures in place to explore a documentation of different African languages. 

Like any artefact, language is a repository of a people’s culture and customs. What separates language from other museum artefacts is that it is a living entity – its words grow and some die. Much of African culture and customs find expression through the tapestry of various languages found in many communities. Languages are storages of intricate identities as well as indigenous knowledge systems of a people on plants, medicine, food, beliefs, values, customs and many more. They are the means through which a people’s culture and traditions and shared values are transmitted and preserved. In this paper we make a few suggestions of what museums can do to preserve languages – as languages preserve a history of a people.

Objects collected in museums give us a special kind of access to the past. They allow us to touch (within careful parameters usually) something that was used by people, and thus get a physical feel for their lives. We can learn about past societies’ values from what they kept, and what materials they made things from – or about the nature of their daily life from such simple things as cooking utensils and furniture. 

Museum artefacts bear marks of how they’ve been used, giving us access to ideas that may have been too fundamental to a person’s life ever to have been written down. For instance the wear and tear on books can show us how people read them, with some even showing the rust marks of the knife used to cut the pages in an era when text was printed on large sheets of paper which were folded the size of the finished book. A language museum can illuminate how a language emerges and how language preservation works. Language in museums may also give people a chance to reflect about questions around multilingualism, identity, and diversity, and about their own language skills. Language rooms in museums would be devoted to information, education, documentation and/or research about language of some kind or another. Language is a cultural, social or political issue as well as a linguistic one, and in this broader sense, language rooms in museums will also include institutions that deal with the written or spoken culture as their core theme. For the Setswana this will include some of the key formative areas in the development of Setswana. They would include the Kuruman Press under the leadership of Robert Moffat. They would document the processes that were adopted in the writing, translation and printing of the first Setswana Bible. Germany has several museums celebrating the history of the German language, its literary heroes and long tradition of book-printing and the written word. Languages in museums while helping us understand the past, they will help us to define the future. 

A language room will critically examine language use in the present day. Addressing this ever-shifting and intangible subject-matter poses a creative challenge. They aim to create exhibits that the visitors themselves can contribute to, engaging in dialogue and open-ended learning outcomes. Language rooms will present various aspects of the language, its development, its variants and its character in the modern context, so that visitors can understand that it is indeed a living, growing language that is constantly adapting itself to the modern world. 

The themes of the exhibitions may include: 

  • the history of our languages and literature and dialects, the language of the present, writing, language games, language awareness and the responsibility of the language use, local languages, reform and the life and work of different linguists and lexicographers (e.g. MLA Kgasa).
  • All Botswana languages and dialects could be collected both in written and spoken form. 
  • Songs and poems could be recorded around the country and played in the museum (e.g. Molema – dipina le maboko). 

The objective of the museum must be to create a living representation of the Botswana languages, where visitors may be surprised and educated by unusual and unfamiliar aspects of their own native language. It must highlight the important influences of cross-regional events on the lives of the population and pinpoint the existing interrelations between landscape forms and lifestyles. It should include the history and development of Setswana lexicography. Who were the major players in Setswana lexicography? What were their principal influences? What compilations and publications did they make? For instance, the development of English lexicography considered a dictionary as a historical monument.

“A Dictionary is an historical monument, the history of a nation contemplated from one point of view; and the wrong ways into which a language has wandered or been disposed to wander, may be nearly as instructive as the right ones in which it has traveled: as much as may be learned, or nearly as much from its failures as from its success, from its follies as from its wisdom.” (Richard Chenevix Trench, 1860:7)

A language museum will also expose visitors to the Setswana dialectal variation whose roots are principally historical. Bangwaketse call pounded meat loswao, a word that is used by Bangwato to refer to the two pronged stick that is used in pounding meat. Bangwato = seswaa (the thing that pounds). Bakgatla = tšhotlho (that which has been chewed). Bakwena (Sechele) = tshwaiwa (that which has been pounded). When sorghum is cooked alone, it is called lesasaoka by Bangwato and lehata by Bangwaketse. On the other hand, Bangwato use the word lehata to refer to a mixture of samp/maize and beans. The Bangwaketse and other tribes use the term dikgobe to refer to a mixture of samp/maize/sorghum and beans. Beans can be mixed with other foods to make unique dishes amongst the Batswana. When beans are mixed with letšhotlho (previously cooked and then dried maize) they are called dikgobe tsa letšhotlho by Bangwaketse and ntshwatshwa by Bangwato. The sour porridge amongst the Bangwaketse and Barolong is known as ting while Bangwato call it lešibišibi.

Botswana needs a museum wholly committed to documenting the richness of our languages and educating the citizens on the language wealth contained in our country.


Read this week's paper