Celebrating cultural heritage is becoming a popular event among Malawian tribal groups. The Tongas in Nkhata Bay are the latest tribe to celebrate their cultural heritage. They held their first cultural event in August. They have joined other tribes such as Tumbukas, Ngonis, Lomwes, Cewas, Ngondes who have been celebrating cultural events for some time. Just two weeks ago, the Tumbukas celebrated Gonapamuhanya cultural event in Rumphi.
During the Ngoni Umuhlangano Ceremony in Ntcheu last month President Peter Mutharika called on Malawians to promote their cultural heritage. He advised the people of Ntcheu to teach Ngoni in schools.
All these cultural events have one thing in common: to preserve culture from dying and pass it on to posterity. However, the various cultures cannot be preserved unless there is deliberate government effort to promote languages and change the way public communication is done.
The use of Chichewa as the only vernacular language in schools and public radio is not only killing the culture of other tribes, but their languages as well. There has been systematic relegation of other languages in public communication since 1964. For example, Tumbuka was introduced on MBC in 1960 with fully-fledged programmes. However, in 1969 it was banned on MBC as President Kamuzu Banda consolidated his dictatorship and grip on the nation.
Hopes that other languages will be beamed on MBC were rekindled after 1994 when President Bakili Muluzi decreed that other languages should be on the radio. Tumbuka, Tonga, Ngonde, Lomwe and Sena were introduced. However, his minister of information (name withheld) refused to have other languages to have fully-fledged programmes. And so, other languages were confined to reading news with one or two programmes in other languages. Worse still, there is no news in other languages on MBC Television other than English and Chichewa. MBC wastes time on propaganda and irrelevant programmes which could be taken up by other languages.
Celebrating a heritage event such as Umuhlangano, Umuthetho, Kulamba, Gonapamuhanya Mlakho wa Lomwe, etc is not enough to promote culture. Culture is a wide term that embraces so many things such as language, values, traditions, religion, norms, dress, belief systems, music, food, philosophy, rituals etc of a particular tribe. Many of these elements cannot be expressed during an event. But can be taught or transmitted through socialisation. Radio is the most effective agent of this process. As a mass media, radio has many advantages over other forms of media because it has the biggest audience. It is also cheap, intimate, easy and accessible.
If various cultures in Malawi are to be preserved, then more needs to be done. MBC, as a public broadcaster, must accommodate other languages in a more meaningful way. It needs to open up the air waves to other language groups by having fully-fledged programmes. Just reading the news or having one or two isolated programmes in other languages is far inadequate to promote culture.
Language is critical in imparting other elements of culture to the people. Hence, Chewas need to share the microphone with Tumbukas, Yaos, Lomwes, Tongas, Senas in a balanced way. Different languages should be allocated different time slots to broadcast programmes. For example, from 5am to 12 noon could be Yao programmes and from 12 noon to 6pm should be another language, from 6pm to 12 midnight another language etc. Simply put, languages should be taking turns to broadcast to their people.
In this way, various tribal groups will impart their cultural practices in a more sustained and effective way. Secondly, the education system should change so that pupils are taught in their mother language the first four to five years of primary education. This means books or learning material need to be written in various languages to cater for needs of their tribal groups. There is no good reason why Chichewa is still taught in schools in non-Chichewa speaking areas.
Again, there is no justification for MBC or government to give Chichewa preferential treatment as the only language or tribe to enjoy fully-fledged programmes on MBC radio and television as if it is the only tribe in Malawi. Malawi “belongs to all who live in it.” All Malawian languages are equal no matter how small they are. All Malawians (regardless of their language) pay taxes to run MBC. It is only fair that the programmes should be representative of different language groups. Community radio stations are doing a commendable job in broadcasting to communities in local languages. However, government still has the mandate to serve all language groups. Under the Communications Act (1998) Section 87, MBC is under obligation to promote public broadcasting services that reflect the wide diversity of Malawi’s cultural life. Diverse programmes in different languages can only ensure this.
It is only in Malawi where the public broadcaster, by extension government, alienates other languages in public broadcasting. Many Africa countries such as Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia public broadcasters beam programmes in different languages. This is an effective way to promote culture because various tribal groups create programmes relevant to their ethnic group.
Minister of Information and Civic Education Nicholas Dausi and Parliamentary Committee on Media and Communications should champion language reforms at MBC to have different Malawian languages promote their culture on public media.