My Story Your Story
A big problem facing social and cultural development in South Africa is the status of indigenous languages. There are 11 official languages in the country, two of them English and Afrikaans. The other nine are indigenous African languages, but 20 years after the end of Apartheid, they continue to be overshadowed by English and Afrikaans.
Christian missionaries played some part in promoting African languages by having the Bible translated into them. But the languages, which are rich in traditions of expression going back thousands of years, were not considered a serious medium for communication outside of the so-called homelands, the 13 % of South Africa’s land area set aside by the white state for the majority black population to live in.
According to Apartheid thinking, 2 000 years of underdevelopment separated Africans from Europeans. It was no wonder, therefore, that little attention was paid to African languages.
Following South Africa’s democratic breakthrough in 1994 and majority rule, the governing African National Congress set out to promote the indigenous African languages. The first step was to make them official languages, to be used in all areas of government. Schools were to offer education in at least three languages. Cultural development was to expand the use of the indigenous languages and promote publishing and literacy in them.
Much progress has been made in raising the status of African languages, but improving their use and status has been uphill work. English remains the lingua franca in South Africa, even though only 9 % of the population of 55 million has it as a first language. Zulu is the larger of the first languages, used as such by 23 % of the population.
Within the nine official African languages, some are used by only a relatively small portion of the population. In Limpopo province, in the north east of South Africa, the languages Sepedi, Xitsonga, and Tshivenda constitute the dominant languages, used by 87 % of the 5.5 million population of the province. But nationally these languages are in a minority, and consequently tend to be sidelined.
Limpopo is a mainly rural province, and is one of the country’s poorest regions, despite having a thriving urban capital, Polokwane. Speakers of the three language groups were grouped into under-resourced “homelands” under Apartheid.
The homelands were starved of the wealth kept by the white minority regime for its ‘European’ population. The legacy of this is felt in the extreme poverty and neglect that continues to blight many areas of Limpopo. With poverty come high levels of HIV-AIDS, dysfunction, crime, and social exclusion that government has failed to tackle adequately.
A leading pioneer of cultural development in Limpopo is the Timbila Poetry Project (Timbila for short), based in Polokwane. This ‘project’ is more of a writers’ cooperative, and it does much to promote new literature and authors that are routinely by-passed by large profit-driven publishers. Timbila was founded and is run by one of South Africa’s best-known poets, Vonani Bila.
Timbila is currently running a project, titled ‘My Story Your Story’ with support from the Spartacus Foundation in Finland, partly funded by the Finnish Foreign Ministry. The aim is to publish stories by secondary school children whose home languages are Xitsonga, Sepedi and Tshivenda. The project seeks to support language use and learning, but also to encourage the young writers who will take part in it to write about the social problems they encounter, particularly in terms of the whole struggle against HIV-AIDS.
“That struggle is not just about the disease, but about relations between men and women, boys and girls, and the hardships of life in rural areas,” says Vonani Bila. “The writing project has a number of aims, but overall it is about our young people’s ability to express themselves in their own languages on the really tough issues they face.”
Poet and fictionist Gudani Ramikosi, is coordinating the project and facilitating a series of story-writing workshops for Tshivenda-speaking school learners. She says that much of the hard effort of the project will be on the shoulders of the young writers.
“We will have about 90 learners involved from several schools, about 30 from each language group. The real work will be in the writing workshops, where we will discuss with the learners about writing and literary expression in their home languages. The result will be a book that we will distribute widely to schools in Limpopo.”
Ramikosi says that the project is a unique opportunity to support indigenous language use at a creative level, and to do so in a way that gives young people a voice to talk about their everyday experiences.
“We hope that this very small start will take root, and that publishing young learners’ writings in their home languages for use in schools will grow into something permanent.”
Text: Mark Waller