Tribalism, the elephant in Zimbabwe's room

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Recently fast food outlet Chicken Slice and drinks maker Coca Cola faced a barrage of criticism in Zimbabwe after they spelt Ndebele names wrongly in their media campaigns.

Many feel the response was unwarranted and critics were being petty, but for Ndebele speaking people, whether rightly or wrongly, this is part of a sustained attack on their language.

While this may seem like an over the top analysis, the Ndebele have examples of what they believe is a government-led attack on their language and now that the corporate world is being involved, real fears start emerging there is something sinister going on.

Let’s take the example of passports, it boggles the mind how the government, 35 years after the much vaunted independence, still manages to get Ndebele spelling and grammar wrong on the travel documents.

A number of people and organisations have raised this with the authorities, but the government seems nonchalant and does not seem eager to address these issues.

The national broadcaster, despite employing several Ndebele speaking people, routinely gets Ndebele spellings in their bulletins wrong.

Just recently, Obert Mpofu, a minister, was ordered in parliament to speak in Shona in addressing a question asked in Shona. The Speaker said the person who asked the question did not understand Ndebele and so Mpofu should speak in Shona instead of Ndebele.

Never mind that Mpofu is Ndebele and parliament recognises all languages as equal.

Again a columnist in The Herald wrote that a music group, Mokoomba was doing well, but if they wanted to do better, they should sing in Shona rather than their Tonga language.

Whatever the writer’s intentions were in saying that, they became buried in emotion and suspicion, and the overriding narrative is that he believed that one language, the one he speaks, is superior to the other.

Instead of celebrating the country’s diversity, the author seemingly called for homogeneity in language and music, an issue that troubles many in the country.

These are just a few examples and for someone who already feels hard done by the system, a clear pattern is developing – their language and culture are under attack.

While these may be genuine mistakes, with no underlying conspiracy, the government and corporates’ response to criticisms on the way the Ndebele language is handled is often dismissive and this further entrenches hostility from the aggrieved people.

I think Zimbabwe needs an open and frank discussion about ethnicity and languages, as failure to do this will continue to hold the country back.

Each time someone raises an issue, no matter how genuine, describing what they see as the undermining of the Ndebele language, they are simply accused of tribalism and with that the grievance is buried.

Even raising the issue of ethnicity is considered divisive and there lacks a genuine desire to investigate the genesis of the question of ethnicity.

No genuine effort is made to address the grievance and with this hate and anger grow, when a simple apology and better handling of the situation in future would have sufficed.

Instead of dealing with the question, Zimbabwe has either ignored it or pretending it is not an issue, in the hope it will go away.

I am not saying the Ndebele language should be given special treatment, but just its fair recognition will do.

Where Coca Cola, Chicken Slice and the government among others do not make spelling mistakes in English or Shona, surely it is not too much to ask that they do not make mistakes in the Ndebele language.

While there are claims to the country being united despite language and tribe, the truth is there are several undercurrents of discontent.

There is a historical context to the ethnical question in Zimbabwe, a genocide just after independence in 1980, which up to this day remains unsolved, but that is a matter for another day.

For some, the genocide has moved from being physical killings, to a more calculated attack on their culture, language and history.

As long as Zimbabwe does not address, but instead pretend the question of ethnicity, tribe and language does not exist, then what may start as rumblings will lead into open agitation and that does not bode well for nation-building.

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