In fulfillment of an electoral pledge made in 2019, the Botswana Democratic Party government will be introducing 12 indigenous languages at primary school in January 2022. The languages are Shiyeyi, ThiMbukushu, Ikalanga, Shekgalagari, Chiikuhane (Subiya), IsiNdebele, Afrikaans, Naro, Khoekhoegowab, ChiShona, Otjiherero and Sign Language. Naro is the only Bushman language on that list and missing from that list is Ju/’hoan, a Khoisan language spoken by the Ju/’hoansi.
“Ju/’hoan is widely spoken across the North West District and Gantsi, its orthography is very well-developed and is taught as a subject in Namibia,” says Dahm Xixae, a Ju/’hoansi cultural rights activist who expressed the same sentiment last month when a team comprised of officers from the Ministry of Basic Education and lecturers from the University of Botswana visited the Okavango region to “consult” residents on the Draft Languages Policy for Education.
Indeed, the Ju/’hoansi are peerless in terms of the amount of scholarship that has gone into their culture. Such scholarship has entailed studying and developing orthography for their language, Ju/’hoan.
Naro is mostly spoken in Gantsi District and a majority of its speakers work on commercial farms. The development of the language’s orthography began in the 1980s when some Naro people wrote songs and other materials using basic, self-preferred written systems. Subsequent to that, the Dutch Reformed Church in D’Kar started the Naro Language Project whose main objectives were to describe Naro, teach the people to read and write it as well as to translate the Bible into the language. Naro has 10 dialects and there is academic debate about the eleventh.
According to a 2004 estimate, there were 14 000 Naro speakers in Botswana.
Xixae says that if the number of speakers was a factor, there are far more Ju/’hoan speakers in Botswana than there are Naro speakers. He adds that Ju/’hoan is more classroom-ready than Naro. As early as the early 1950s, western scholars started studying the Ju/’hoansi and in the process, crafted the bare bones of what would be improved upon by the South African Department of Education. The latter sought to establish official orthographies for the languages of Southwest Africa – as Namibia used to be called before it gained independence in 1990. The result was that Jan Snyman developed an orthography for the then-unwritten Juǀʼhoan, which was accepted in 1969. This second orthography was accepted in 1987 and the third orthography was developed by Namibia’s Juǀwa Bushman Development Foundation in 1994. While Jul’hoan is taught in Namibian schools up to Grade 4, Naro has yet to attain such status in the country.
However, Xixae hastens to add that the issue is not one of comparing Ju/’hoansi to Naro but of creating a conducive learning environment for pupils from both cultural communities.
“What is important is that pupils are taught in their mother tongue in the foundational phases of their primary school education. Many pupils from our communities drop out of school because of the language barrier. What the government is doing will not make the situation any better for pupils who are not Tswana because they will continue to be taught in Setswana. What is required is for all pupils to be taught in their mother tongue when they begin school.”
Oddly, the Minister of Basic Education, Fidelis Molao echoed Xixae’s sentiments when he briefed parliament about the introduction of more indigenous languages in primary schools. These languages are being implemented through the Botswana Languages Policy in Education which Molao said aims to promote languages development and facilitate access to relevant quality education by all learners; is expected to facilitate systematic transition from home to school using mother tongue for instruction; provide a framework to guide the development and use of different languages not only as medium of instruction but also as subjects in the long term; and contribute significantly to the realization of the Vision 2036 ideals of a moral, tolerant, and inclusive society that provides opportunities for all. Leaving out some languages necessarily means that such objectives will not be met for speakers of such languages.
As part of broader cultural-rights campaign, non-culturally Tswana tribes have long agitated for the introduction of their indigenous languages in schools. Since independence in 1966, Setswana is the only indigenous language that is taught in schools and in some cases, the results are nothing short of full-scale disaster. In some places, pre-primary school children grow up speaking their own indigenous languages and are introduced to Setswana at Standard 1, in some cases, by a teacher who doesn’t herself speak their language. Naturally, this adversely affects learning and some children end up dropping out because they can’t communicate with their teachers. The North East District is perhaps the most peculiar. Prior to independence, iKalanga was a medium of instruction in schools but that ended when the Republic of Botswana came into being.
Interestingly, the introduction of indigenous languages doesn’t solve yet another inclusivity problem that is not even being mentioned. Within virtually all languages, Setswana included, there are dialects and what appears to have happened with all is that the official dialect is decided on the basis of which dialect those who developed a language’s orthography speak. Much of what is “official” Setswana is actually drawn from Setlhaping because the missionaries who developed Setswana orthography lived among the Batlhaping in South Africa. Similarly, much of what is “official” ChiShona is actually ChiZezuru dialect because the Zezuru developed ChiShona orthography.
This monopoly comes at great cost to those within a speech community who don’t speak the official dialect. For example, Sengwato doesn’t have an l after t and Bangwato struggle with where to put the l when they have to use official Setswana. The proper Sengwato rendition of milk is “mapswi” but this form is dying out as more and more Bangwato switch to the official pronunciation of “mashi.” Fortunately for the Botswana situation, ChiShona is being introduced for the benefit of the Zezuru community – whose dialect happens to be predominant.