American accent in Malawian politics

Recently while visiting Malawi, a friend remarked that in spite of spending over 10 years in America, I have not changed my accent to sound ‘American’. Another gentleman sitting there with us pointed out that the Lomwe accent is so thick that it does not change regardless of the number of years one spends overseas. He insisted that only people from his tribe catch the American accent easily. His face beamed with pride as he spoke.

I was reminded of this conversation a few days ago when a media storm was created around comments made against the ‘American accent’ of a prospective presidential candidate, Dr Lazarus Chakwera.

Let me, however, hasten to add that this article is not about Lazarus Chakwera. I am not familiar with his accent; I have never listened to him. However, if he tries to speak with an American accent, he is not alone. Malawians take a lot of pride in trying to speak with the ‘American’ accent. During my recent visit to the country, I found that almost everybody with a measure of education was trying hard to speak the accent.

In some cases, this ‘American’ accent had evolved so much that even I who has spent more than 10 years in the US could not understand it. Radio and television personalities were literally torturing their voice to try and sound American. In some cases there were even fights as to whose accent is truly American.

Rev Chakwera: Has American accent
Rev Chakwera: Has American accent

In reality, however, regardless of how hard these Malawian grown-ups try to twist their voice, their accents do not even come close to sounding like Americans, and they truly sound ridiculous. The more people try to imitate another accent the more their Lomwe, Zulu Tumbuka accents show.

So what is an American accent?

Having spent a lot of time in the United States, I have learned that there is no single American accent. There are many accents in the US, and they represent different identities. Accents can represent regions of origin. For instance by listening to a person’s accent, I can tell that he is originally from Alabama, Massachusetts, Chicago area, New York or Texas. Some subtle pronunciation differences can also betray a Canadian heritage. Native English-speaking Canadians do not speak any differently from northeastern Americans.

Accents also represent class and race. Sometimes one can tell a speaker’s class or race from his accent. You can tell from the accent whether the person is an attorney, a minister (also known as pastor or reverend in Malawi), a farmer or a graduate of certain institutions of learning. Thanks to Hollywood movies, sometimes there are stereotypes attached to accents – for instance – some foreign accents like Russians, Germany, African or Polish are usually associated with great scientists.

Your accent can also enhance your career. Perhaps that explains why when President Barack Obama is campaigning in poor blacks neighborhoods he speaks with an Ebonics accent and yet when he addresses the nation from the Oval Office he speaks like an Ivy educated attorney he is.

This is where it gets ridiculous for Malawians. When Malawians talk about the “American accent” they are usually referring to the accent of poor uneducated black people. This is the accent of rappers or gangsters as seen in music or movies. This is the most looked down upon accent in the US. African American parents strongly discourage their kids from speaking that way. Bill Cosby was recently very outspoken in his criticism of this type of language and accent. Unfortunately, this is the accent our people in Malawi strive for in order to raise their status.

This disease by Malawians to always want the American accent is just a tip of the iceberg. The bigger issue is inferiority complex and lack of confidence in ourselves. This inferiority complex has manifested itself in many forms over the years. At some point our people were obsessed with skin lightening or bleaching; there was also a time when Malawians did not consider themselves educated enough until they have married from another other race. In some cases parents would prevent their kids from learning the vernacular language even though they lived in the country and all their relatives spoke the language.

Every so often it is important for a nation to stand in a mirror and examine itself. Malawians still harbor a lot of baggage from our long history of colonialism. Colonialism told us that everything about us – our culture, our accents, our beauty, our thinking – is substandard and that we can only achieve high status by running away from ourselves as much as possible. A nation that is always imitating is a nation very poor at innovating. Our leaders must be careful not to portray themselves as copycats.

We have a very interesting field shaping up for the upcoming 2014 elections. Joyce Banda for PP, Peter Mutharika for DPP, Atupele Muluzi for UDF and maybe Lazarus Chakwera for MCP. Of course, a lot of things could still change. Regardless of the ‘accent’ with which presidential contenders speak, I hope that Malawians will vote based not on accents but ideas. As a patriotic Malawian, I am patiently looking forward to hear these candidates’ ideas on how we can move this country forward.

I also hope that just like with the DPP’s recent vote, MCP’s presidential election will be a secret ballot.

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