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Languages, tribes and underdevelopment


It seems the debate on languages, tribe and development in Zimbabwe will never die until the Matabeleland issue is resolved.

Each time the subject is raised, it invokes emotions and angst among many. The signs of neglect in Matabeleland makes Gukurahundi look so recent.

Each time the subject pops up, language and tribe ensues.

By definition, a tribe or clan is a group of people united by common descent and sharing common customs usually organised on the basis of kinship. History shows us that one can change languages without changing tribe/clan.

Hence we have Mhofu in Shona and Mpofu in Ndebele, Sibanda and Shumba, etc. But still in the current debate language seems to leverage one’s identity more than tribe even though when it comes to marriage, people can marry from the same language but not clan.

My first set of questions arise: Who is Ndebele or Shona? Is it one who speaks the language; one whose ancestry originates from the south or north; or one whose clan/tribal name suggests linkages to Chaka Zulu or Munhumutapa empires?

Can a Gomo born and bred in Lupane be considered Ndebele or Khumalo in Guruve a Shona? Why can’t a Mpofu marry a Mhofu? Doesn’t this suggest that we are one people, divided by language? And what then is a tribe? Does it exist and what defines it.

This leads to the key and perhaps most sensitive question to confront Zimbabwe since independence: Why is Matabeleland neglected? Is it that those in power have issues with the geographical area, tribe, and language or perhaps the political views of the south?

Is Matabeleland the only neglected region in Zimbabwe? I come from Mashonaland Central, a Korekore region believed to be a Zanu PF stronghold and yet it is among the least developed.

Then again, who is to blame for the centralisation of growth and services in Harare instead of Bulawayo or Mutare?

Though history tells us that colonialists intended to make Harare the regional capital for Southern and Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland, couldn’t the current government have done something to address the anomaly? For now I leave you to answer some of these questions, if you can.

Last week I was invited into a facebook discussion: Why is Africa poor?: The genesis effect. The author, who requested anonymity, starts by detailing his experiences growing up in different tribal areas in Zimbabwe and his encounters with tribal violence at university.

He gives a compendium of how tribe and language have been used to destabilise societies and countries in Africa, a continent with the highest number of languages per country.

Languages form the basis of tribal groupings, the very source of tribal conflict, civil wars and contributing to our poverty. In Rwanda it was a case of either being Hutu or Tutsi which cost about a million lives in 100 days.

He concluded by stating that the best way to divide a people and retard development is by having several languages among them, because they will have difficulty in understanding each other and hence working together.

When a people speak one language they are more likely to be one and work together so as to develop, to the extent that nothing they imagine or decide to do will be impossible.

To back his claim, he lists the leading global economies and the number of languages in each country. The US with a gross domestic product (GDP) of $14 trillion, speaks only English, China GDP $5,8 trillion and 91,5% of the population speaks Mandarin, while Japan, GDP $5,4 trillion, 98,5% speak Japanese. Germany and France both have one language each and have a GDP of $3,3 trillion and $2,5 trillion respectively while Brazil one of the upcoming economies speaks only Portuguese and has a GDP of $2,1 trillion.

Besides the obvious relationship between languages and GDP in Brazil, like most African countries, Brazil as a former colony, is one of the most striking, not only because it was colonised to an extent of annihilating its languages, but its economy has grown much bigger than its former “colonial master”, Portugal. Portugal is not even in the top 10, its GDP is $230 billion at a distant 37th, just over 10% of its former colony’s productivity, yet we still blame colonisation for our problems.

Africa with a GDP of $1,7 trillion out of $60 trillion global GDP, speaks over 2000 languages, an average of 40 languages per country, and the highest in the world.

While the claims by the author somewhat makes theoretical sense, it is hard to conceive how Africa can “kill” some of the languages and tribes without causing more conflicts or more borders like recently in Sudan.

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