Although the study unveiled little-known linkages between AmaXhosa in the Eastern Cape and a community of over 200000 others living in Mbembesi – about 45km outside Bulawayo – it was mostly celebrated for putting the language on par with English among others used in academic inquiry.
Dr Hleze Kunju’s doctoral thesis has been described as a glimmer of hope for a decolonised and transformed education system.
When Rhodes University drafted its new language policy, allowing students to use their mother tongue for learning, 31-year-old Kunju said he knew this would grant him an opportunity to conduct work in his vernacular language.
This was an easy sell, he explained, because like many other students he had struggled with English during his undergraduate studies. “I’d write (in English) and think this is it. But it would come back marked in red and they (lecturers) would ask what are you trying to say, and eventually I put it in a way that made sense to them. I constantly felt I was lost in translation.”
Writing in Xhosa was a “beautiful” experience, he said.
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His subject was decided upon when, after hearing some of his students speak Xhosa while teaching music in Zimbabwe, he dug deeper until he found himself in Mbembesi.
There, he was confronted with a long history dating back 116 years, when Cecil John Rhodes used false promises to lure descendants of amaMfengu to join him in the region.
As a result, the community plans to approach the British Embassy to enquire about possible reparations.
“The main thing they would like is for their children to have scholarships to study, including here at Rhodes University,” Kunju said.
He used ethnography in the absence of prior studies along with oral history to study the socio-linguistic and historical background of the community which has successfully preserved its culture.
“The findings reveal that land, culture, songs, religion, literature, technology and social media, as well as the 2013 Zimbabwean constitution, are tools that have played a role in the survival and maintenance of Xhosa in Zimbabwe.”
Kunju dedicated a chapter of his study to an analysis of circumcision after he was met with shock when explaining to the Zimbabwean AmaXhosa that hundreds of South African boys have perished in the mountains during the sacred rite of passage.
Beyond the contradictions cited in the study, songs and jargon used during circumcision were also found to have contributed in safeguarding the culture against dilution.
AmaXhosa King Zwelonke Sigcawu discovered the small community in 2012 and has revisited the area yearly ever since, according to Kunju. A process is under way to build a Xhosa-medium school there, in partnership with the two countries’ governments.
The Bible was the only written Xhosa material the people there had laid eyes on.
Kunju intends taking the study to the involved communities as he had did not want it to “gather dust” in libraries.
“I wanted to show that isiXhosa can do what the English language and others can do.
“As a language activist, I always try to elevate isiXhosa, but many people think to elevate isiXhosa is to suppress everything else and we might be getting it wrong that way.
“We should be saying, look, this is what English can do and also what isiXhosa can do.”
Kunju was among seven other PhD graduates who conducted their thesis in African languages at the university.
World-renowned musician, poet and anti-racism activist Linton Kwesi Johnson, who received an honorary doctorate in literature from Rhodes University, spoke to the Sunday Independent this week about the fundamentals of language and its use against racial oppression.
The UK-based artist is the only black person and second living poet to be published in the Penguin Modern Classic Series, alongside the likes of Irish poet WB Yeats. He described as “gratifying” and encouraging that some young South Africans write poetry in their native language.
“We define ourselves through language, we negotiate our everyday realities through language and, more importantly, we define our humanity through language, so if you are negotiating your own reality and humanities through somebody else’s languages, that is a recipe for deep alienation,” he said.
Johnson explained that even Jamaican linguists were making a case for the teaching of English as a second language.
“There is a problem in the educational system where a lot of students don’t do well in English because you are taught one language as the official language but you speak a different language.”