Zambia Ditches English in Primary School for Government-Approved Local Languages

In what is probably the most radical policy change by Zambia's just over two-years-old Patriotic Front (PF) government is the change in the language of instruction in lower primary school from English to local languages.

Lower primary school in Zambia is from Grade 1 to Grade 4 and caters to ages anywhere between three and 12 because there is no policy regarding how old a child has got to be to start or complete school.

The language change has its supporters, but it also has it is critics, and among the latter are chiefs, the traditional leaders who head various ethnic groups as custodians of language and culture of their ethnic groups.

The problem is that there are 73 recognised languages—although most of these can be classified as dialects—in the country, but only seven are recognised for official communication and are broadcast on government-run national radio by the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC). These seven, which are Nyanja, Bemba, Tonga, Lozi, Kaonde, Lunda and Luvale, will be the only local languages of instruction, despite the existence of many others.

The story of Chieftainess Nkomeshya opposing the use of the seven

An image of the Post newspaper's story on Chieftainess Nkomeshya opposing Zambia's use of the seven “official” local languages in primary school. Image from Zambian Watchdog Facebook page. Used with permission.

A full year before the language policy was rolled out, Justice Minister Wynter Kabimba, who is also the ruling party’s Secretary General, wondered why people insisted on the use of English:

Our education system does not meet the demands of a third-world country. We are producing students who are not relevant to the needs of our country […] It is the policy of the PF to revive vernacular languages because a language gives us identity.

The first signs of trouble for the proposed policy was when pupils in a rural school in Zambezi District of the North-Western Province protested being taught in one of the two languages, Lunda and Luvale, in use in the area. The protest forced government authorities to close the affected school temporarily.

One blogger, Munshya wa Munshya, argued that the policy is based on useless Pan-Africanist motives:

When a government has no tangible plan for development, it begins to couch useless pan-Africanist ideals that have no practical value. Nothing demonstrates this recklessness better than the recent decision of the Michael Sata government to introduce vernacular languages as the sole media of instruction in lower primary school. According to the Hon. Kabimba, government introduced this policy so that Zambia can truly be free from the foreign language of English. The Permanent Secretary in the ministry responsible for education is couching this new policy as “the necessary revision to the educational curriculum.” At close inspection, however, we find this new policy is nothing other than a noisome invention that lacks any proper objectives.

He criticized the policy, calling it absurd:

The government is saying that they have revised the curriculum in such a way that the pupils will now be taught in the “local languages”. This is absurd. In order for this reasoning to stand, we must first deconstruct what is meant by “local language”. The idea that Zambia has seven local languages is perhaps the greatest fabrication to have ever come from the Kenneth Kaunda [Zambia’s first president] dictatorship. Zambia does not have seven local languages. In fact, the seven local languages are not in any logical way expressive of the language status of the Zambian majority. Kaunda picked on the seven languages in an arbitrary manner and imposed them on us.

Chiefs in the mining province of Copperbelt, a very urbanised area of Zambia where Bemba or variants of it are widely spoken, rejected its teaching in favour of their ethnic Lamba which is mostly spoken in the rural areas. Senior Chief Chiwala said in a statement:

We, the Chiefs of the Copperbelt Province observe that it is a violation of human rights to impose on children the teaching of vernacular language that is not their own […] The position the Lambas have taken shall never be compromised and no amount of intimidation shall sway the people of Lamba land from this decision.

Throughout British Colonial and independent Zambia’s history, Lambas have been tolerant and sacrificed enough of their land for the sake of national development, mindful of the fact that Zambia is a unitary state in tribal diversity.

In Lusaka Province, where the capital city Lusaka is situated, Chieftainess Nkomeshya of the Soli, whose indigenous language has largely been sidelined, opposed the training of area chiefs in selected languages. Solis have to learn Chewa/Nyanja instead, a practice that has practically killed off Soli.

Similarly, some people hailing from Central Province have also rejected the use of languages other than Lenje, which is spoken in most parts of the region.

Whether the policy works or not is yet to be seen.


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