Delegates differ on proposal for Malawi parliament to use vernacular languages for deliberations

Delegates to Electoral Reforms Review Conference in Lilongwe failed to reach an agreement on whether members of Parliament (MPs) should be freed from the bondage of using English as the official language for transacting their business in the National Assembly.

Delegates locked in a conference in Lilongwe to review Electoral Reforms in readiness for the forthcoming General Elections–Photos by Watipaso Mzungu, Nyasa Times

The National Initiative for Civic Education (NICE) Public Trust organized the conference with financial assistance from the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) and the European Union (EU) to review electoral law reforms and chart a path for their adoption before the next general election in 2025.

One of the items on the agenda was for the delegates to debate on whether time had come for Malawi to replace English with a local one to improve the quality of deliberations in Parliament as being agitated by some concerned voters and democracy enthusiasts.

In their considered view, the deteriorating quality of parliamentary deliberations is a result of language barrier as the majority of the MPs are barely educated and, therefore, cannot contribute and comprehend what is being discussed in the National Assembly.

But  other delegates expressed reservations with the use of other languages besides English in the House, saying parliamentary deliberations are serious business that should not be watered down by translating budget documents into vernacular languages.

The Centre for Multiparty Democracy (CMD) executive director, Kizito Tenthani, is one of those calling for replacement of English with a local language to enable MPs transact government business in a language they can ably and easily understand and speak.

In fact, Tenthani has told the conference that speaking fluent English should not be used as a measure or yardstick for gauging one’s ingenuity and understanding of things.

“I strongly believe that allowing our MPs to switch from English to a local one would improve the quality and level of participation in parliamentary deliberations among individual members,” he said.

The former Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) Executive Secretary, Grace Malera, supported the proposal, arguing putting English as a mandatory language for transacting business in Parliament is disenfranchising constituents who elected the seemingly semi-literate MPs.

Malera emphasized that an election border on the trust and confidence the constituents have in their MPs without considering his educational qualification; hence, it would be unfair for the National Assembly to block the legislator from representing the interests of his people because of language barrier.

But other delegates, including the People’s Party (PP) Secretary General, Ibrahim Matola, and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) National Governing Council member, Dr. Hetherwick Ntaba, held a different viewpoint.

Matola wondered how the MPs would converse with others when they are invited or sent to represent Malawi as international meetings.

“As much as a local language may be preferable to enable the MPs comfortably and confidently represent their people, the legislators will face challenges to represent Malawi at international fora,” he warned.

Henry Chingaipe from Institute for Policy Research and Social Empowerment, who was one of the conference moderators, observed that the emphasis on fluency in English started with former president Hastings Kamuzu Banda.

He said: “This is a carryover law. There was a time when many MPs could not speak English and in 1978, Kamuzu dissolved Parliament because he felt embarrassed. We have carried it over. We need to think about it.”

The aim of the meeting was to review Electoral Law reforms and chart a path for their adoption before the next tripartite election.

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abdul azizi
abdul azizi
9 months ago

Kugwiritsa ntchito chilankhulo chathu chingakhale chinthu cha mtengo wa patali.ndikutero poti aphungu akamalankhula anthu awo omwe anawayika pampando azitha kuzimverera okha pa zomwe akunena kuti ndi zomwe anatumidwadi.zomamasulira wina wake kaya wa ku wayilesi nthawi zambiri zimasiyana poti iye atha nthawi zina kumasulira monga iye wamverera nthawi zina kungoyenda madulira kuti bola zamveka. ndikumbuka ndimatsata zokambidwa zina zake ku khoti pamapezeka kuti oweruza walankhula zina koma wa pawailesi kukamasulira zina. choncho ife tingamave kukoma titamamva chilankhulo chathu.za kwa azunguzo azikalankhula akapita konko.nchifukwa chake pali phunziro la chichewa pa sukulu. kusonyeza kuti phunziloli limatilumikizisa ife amalawi. tsono mukalowa mu nyumba ya… Read more »

Patric
Patric
9 months ago

In Malawi we think that in order for one to pass as educated, then one has to be fluent in English and express non fluency in one’s own mother tongue. Unbelievable. Should we say that the likes of Matola think that the educated ones cannot effectively deliberate issues in Chichewa? That’s strange. Another setback is that it appears most non Chewa Malawians are of the opinion that Chewa language might expose it’s superiority over these other languages. Unfortunately that’s a fact we should have learnt to live with by now. Chewa is the national language in Malawi that can be… Read more »

Mwini muzi
9 months ago

In Malawi, our English is learned at school and not from interacting with white people. There is a correlation of the more one advances with education to Bachelors degree, to Masters degree, the more a person becomes fully conversant in the language. I would suggest to raise the bar to a degree level. We have many university colleges in this country and who ever wants that job must study and get a degree.

Baba Tunde
Baba Tunde
9 months ago

The solution is not to lower that bar, but to ensure we elect better quit MPs. Translating government Bill’s into vernacular languages will be just too costly. It will also mean hiring interpreters to provide live coverage during sessions.
Which vernacular language or languages will be used? As a Sena the only vernacular language I am comfortable with is Sena. When I speak Chechewa my nyau friends laugh at my pronunciations. This also applies to many people whose mother tongue is not Chichewa.
Kuli bwino tonse tidzingoyankhula mchingerezi. Palibe woseka mzache, kkk!

Andrew Namba
Andrew Namba
9 months ago
Reply to  Baba Tunde

Mbuya musadandaule tiyeni tiziyankhula Ziyankhulo zathu pang’ono pang’ono tizilowera basi

Andrew Namba
Andrew Namba
9 months ago

Let us allow allow our members of parliament express themselves in their vernacular languages.But still we must have a minimum qualification for them to be in parliament .We have a lot of leaders in the world who can not utter even a single word in English buy they are great leaders.They can even use translators for easy communication

CESSPOOL
CESSPOOL
9 months ago

Unlike Kiswahili Chichewa enjoys a negligible number of fluent speakers of the Chewa language. Both Malera and Kizito have failed to give space to nonnative speakers of the Chichewa language. We are fifty two away from the date MCP courtesy Kamuzu forced Chichewa as a national language on all Malawians killing the salient language of the Northern Region namely Chitumbuka. The argument of English as barrier to the electorate is lopsided. Kenya and Tanzania have a way of carrying out their debates in their parliaments Kenya uses English while uses Kiswahili go to Nigeria its English which is viable the… Read more »

Richard Steel
Richard Steel
9 months ago

I am sick of the assertion that speaking in our vernacular language(s) is ‘watering down’ documents. Is the English Language superior to our vernacular languages? I would rather have deliberations with a heart understanding, and not a rhetoric understanding. The Chinese use their language(s), Tanzania uses their language and when they see a black African not understanding or speaking Swahili they get surprised; in France they use the French Language; the Netherlands use Dutch; the Germans use the German Language; in Italy they use Latin as their native language; etc. What is the problem with Malawi and Malawians in disrespecting… Read more »

Test
Test
9 months ago

if they can’t speak English they should just get out of there. They can’t represent us at an international level. Malawi is part of a global community and not just a village.

Banda
Banda
9 months ago

Many countries are bilingual and conduct Parliment and all Government services in two or more languages. Parliment can implement the use of translators that MP’s can listen using headphones.

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