Saturday, September 23, 2023

Minister touts policy failure as a success to UN body

As representatives from across the globe listened, the Minister of Justice, Ronald Shamukuni, announced what at face value would have sounded like big news to the unwitting.

“In order to ensure access and inclusivity in education, the implementation of the Language Policy of 2022, which introduced the use of 13 different local languages – including sign language – as a medium of instruction in early childhood learning, commenced from January 2023,” said Shamukuni at the top of a Human Rights Council session in Geneva that peer-reviewed Botswana’s human rights record.

The reality is that Shamukuni was overstating his case. Introducing the 13 languages was doubtless a step in the right direction but many more steps need to be taken to make the Language Policy much more meaningful.

The 13 languages are Shiyeyi, ThiMbukushu, Ikalanga, Jul’hoan, Shekgalagari, Chiikuhane (Subiya), IsiNdebele, Afrikaans, Naro, Khoekhoegowab, ChiShona, Otjiherero and Sign. Their introduction actualises a pledge that the Botswana Democratic Party made ahead of the 2019 general election and whose implementation has largely been characterised by political expediency. The latter explains the chaos that has attended the implementation from Day 1. The chaos was itself a direct result of the government not having done enough spade work.

Following the election, which the BDP won, some people continually reminded the government of its pledge. This pressure may have forced the government to prematurely announce, in late 2021, that it would introduce the teaching of 12 local languages at the beginning of the new school year. The result was a debacle which, interestingly, attracted neither media nor public attention.

Jul’hoan, which is the language of a Khwe (Bushman) tribe called Ju/’hoansi, was a late addition. Its addition may have been the result of some Ju/’hoansi activists publicly expressing dissatisfaction with its exclusion.

“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,” Dahm Xixae, a Ju/’hoansi cultural rights activist, told Sunday Standard in December 2021.

Xixae had expressed the same sentiment a month earlier when a team comprised of officers from the Ministry of Education and Skills Development and lecturers from the University of Botswana visited the Okavango region to “consult” residents on the Draft Languages Policy for Education. “Consult” is so rendered because the consultation happened after the Ministry had already announced that new languages would be introduced when the 2022 school year began.

However, schools were not ready in January and the implementation of this initiative was postponed to June. June came and went with nothing happening and it would later emerge that the syllabus was still being developed months after plans to introduce the languages had been publicly announced. The debacle continues.

To the extent classroom learning should have real-life application, an unplanned-for disaster is already unfolding.

Save for Naro (spoken by the N/oakhwe) and Khoekhoegowab (spoken by the Nama), all other languages used standard orthography found in English and Setswana which are already in use. On the other hand, Naro and Khoekhoegowab have labial, dental, alveolar, palate-alveolar and lateral click sounds which are denoted in symbols that are currently not being used officially.

For decades now, the government has been taking shortcuts with regard of the proper phonetic representation of Khwe names with click sounds. Resultantly, the orthography for some names is misrepresented on official documents like school certificates, national identity and medical cards as well as passports. With the help of benefactors and minus the government’s involvement, some Khwe tribes have developed orthographies for their languages. Such orthographies, which include symbols for click sounds, have since been formally adopted and are being used during classroom learning.

The latter development will lead to a complication for which there is no common-sense argument against: learners will have to use, in real-life, what they would have learnt in the classroom. Otherwise, it would defeat the whole educational purpose to teach a learner whose name has click-sound symbols how to write those symbols, then award him a school certificate or Omang on which the name is written differently. There is also no system-wide adoption of these orthographies because commercial banks (as just one example) have no plans to use these orthographies for smart cards

The “inclusivity in education” that Shamukuni told the Human Rights Council about in Geneva actually excludes cultural education from other cultures. In that regard, Botswana remains mono-cultural. Resultantly, it is just a matter of time before parties that have agitated for the introduction of the 12 indigenous languages in the school system raise the complaint that there is no cultural content from the communities of the languages being taught.

Save for Tswana tribes, the familial concept and kinship of “cousin” doesn’t exist in some cultures north of Dibete. Among the Hambukushu, Kalanga, Subiya, Wayeyi, Shona, VaGciriku and many more tribes in northern Botswana, a child of one’s aunt or uncle is, depending on age, either a younger or older brother or sister. That notwithstanding, the Standard 2 Cultural Studies textbook teaches seven-year olds from these cultures about cousins – which is something they can’t culturally relate to. Among some other tribes (like the Kalanga, Hambukushu and Xhosa) and within proper translative context, there is no such thing as a paternal uncle – rangwane in Setswana.

Missionaries, who were the first to translate indigenous languages, fumbled the translation. In western culture, socio-linguistic occurrence of “father” is limited to the biological father. On the other hand, “father” occurs in three forms in most African cultures. However, that distinction was not reflected in translation that was done by people (European missionaries) who were not steeped in African culture. Resultantly and after the fashion of western culture, the male sibling of one’s biological father became “uncle” – overburdening an ambiguous term that already means the brother of one’s father or mother and husband of one’s aunt. In the process, the African kinship principle of siblings of one’s father being fathers themselves was lost in translation.

Hambukushu culture acknowledges three fathers: “tate” (biological father), “tateghana” (junior father) and “tateshokuru” (senior father). One also has the same number of fathers in northern Botswana cultures like Kalanga, Nyemba, Kwangali, Subiya and Gcireku. Standard 2 pupils from these cultures can’t relate to the universal use of “uncle” in the aforementioned textbook. Setswana itself uses two kinship terms to express fatherhood: “rre” (biological father) and “rremogolo” (literally “senior father”).) Ironically and oddly, while Africans will refer to their fathers’ male siblings as “uncles” when using English, they retain the original terminology of African kinship that denotes fatherhood when using their own languages.

One section of the Social Studies textbook for Standard 7 mentions officially-recognised monuments. This recognition falls in line with Botswana’s mono-culturalism because practically all such monuments are related to Tswana history culture. One, Matsieng Footprints in Rasesa, is the focal point of the Sotho-Tswana origin myth. Interestingly, no other origin myth from any Botswana culture has been franchised into public consciousness. The G/cui, a majority of whom were forcibly relocated to New Xade, believe that man originated in a Central Kgalagadi Game Reserve location called Kgcou. Conversely, the VaNyemba, a Luba-Lunda-origin tribe which is found in the Etsha villages, trace the mythical origins of man to Kalala Ilunga, the founder of the Luba royal dynasty. G/cui learners in New Xade and Nyemba ones in Etsha 3 know about Matsieng Footprints and absolutely nothing about origin myths from their own cultures.

The solution is a quite simple one. Before rushing to introduce the Language Policy, the government should have developed a comprehensive cultural-rights framework, which framework would itself have generated an adequate stock of cultural knowledge from the tribes whose languages are now being taught in some primary schools. What is currently happening is that there has been no fundamental change: pupils from those tribes are merely learning about Tswana history and culture in their own languages. Contrary to what Shamukuni told the Human Rights Council, this can hardly be described as “inclusivity in education.”

The cultural-rights framework would also have been helpful in terms of re-orienting official conception of “culture” away from entertainment and production of crafts. Culture is comprehensive, encapsulating such substantive elements as governance, religion, language, values, architecture and technology. The one government organisation that deals with culture (the Department of Culture) is largely concerned with entertainment and production of crafts. The non-Tswana culture that the government focusses on has itself been misrepresented. What has been introduced to the world as “tsutsube” is a good example. According to Kuela Kiema, a former CKGR resident and author, “tsutsube”, which is thought of as a universal music genre for Bushmen tribes, is actually the name of a late 1950s/early 1960s hit song. This song was performed by G/cui and G/ana returning from South African mines and sojourning in Molepolole. “Tsutsube” the song, which was sung to the accompaniment of dancers, was Bakwena’s introduction to G/cui music. Through Bakwena, this title came to mean all types of Bushmen dances across Botswana, be they religious or playful.


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