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African culture and language diversity remain closely linked to biodiversity

Posted on June 14, 2012
Nokhanyo Mhlana 'Wazi ntakani, wazi ukuthini kwayo?' (What bird do you know? And what of it do you know?)
'Uthekwane,intak'ezulu ezithandayo' (Uthekwane the heavenly one that loves itself.)

This is a game that used to be widely played amongst the Xhosa, its intention was to test and sharpen each other's knowledge of the bird species.

At an AP meeting at Nelson Mandela Museum early in 2011, I asked if we could submit articles in our home languages. The answer was 'yes' and that the articles would then be translated into English for the wider base of our audience. However, I seem to struggle with writing a Xhosa article and I find myself feeling I will have to translate it myself for I worry about misinterpretation. There's a famous saying of the Xhosa people that 'isiXhosa asitolikwa', that Xhosa needs no translation; it is as said. However, that saying was born many years ago and our forebears had not foreseen the diversity that was soon to be our living environment.

I learnt 3 languages at school during my primary education, when I got to high school I went to a school that did not teach isiXhosa, so I ended up studying two languages, English and Afrikaans. When I was in matric, my school introduced isiXhosa 3rd language. I felt it was ridiculous to try push my aggregate up by writing an exam I probably wrote in grade 4 already. I always imagined it was something like, 'Umama uya edolophini'.

This has cost me a lot as I now struggle to write in isiXhosa. Yet there's a big revolution that is slowly bubbling, that children all sorts learn indigenous South African languages at school. Bravo, I say to this. I hope the indigenous languages will not be dropped to a level of insignificance once the learners get to high school.

A language is an art form. Izaci namaqhalo, idioms and proverbs, are a way of speaking of the Xhosa people and I am sure of many cultures of the world. They are what makes isiXhosa poetic, not just the clicks. I find myself thinking about them of lately, my vague knowledge of them and my lack of ability in using them concern me. What is beautiful about Izaci namaqhalo is that you say one thing and it covers ground for so many teachings and applications in one's life. Many use plants and animals and pieces of our environmental fabric in their form and are easy to grasp. They also enlighten one about uses, importance and relevance of elements of our environment and instil the basics of morals and ubuntu.

Izaci namaqhalo encourage the knowledge of plants, birds and animals by name. Our biodiversity knowledge and flair for harmonious living is thus cultivated and sustained. I find it easier to remember species in isiXhosa than English as the xhosa ones reflect an understanding that is closer to home. This makes learning easier. With indigenous languages taking a backseat, there are repercussions of indigenous knowledge sitting in books and not with people and biodiversity becoming a subject that is foreign to many versus using it as a tool necessary for life on earth.

I have lived in rural Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape and I learnt there that there are trees that people ought not to cut or tamper with their trunks or branches, e.g. Umsimbithi. These are sacred trees that maintain the biodiversity of the area. They bear fruits that birds and people eat, so the birds keep on returning. Branches are scarcely used for sticks for ancestral ritual processes because of their sacredness.

I have a friend who has developed remarkable knowledge of language and plant. David Etherington. Dave, Mdavu, Mashamplani, Base, Qongqotha, Mdravu,Dravid, 50,aha, even Dave Rasta as he is famously known in Port St Johns. Dave is Irish, moved to South Africa before he turned 5, and commuted between Ireland and South Africa (mostly Cape Town) in his young life. This happened until he turned 19 and he was expected to join the army. Instead he moved to Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape and lived in a village called Mtambalala with a local family, which became home to him. Though he now has his own house in Mthumbane, Post St Johns's finest township overlooking the ocean, Mtambalala is still very much home to him.

Dave also has a diverse knowledge of plants in isiXhosa, one that is way superior to mine. This is because he lives more in rural areas than I do, that is where the languages still exist in their purest form. Dave speaks fine Pondo and fine English. When we speak I am not condemned to speaking English, ndiyaxuba. He understands the basics of the Pondo living and has absorbed knowledge from the diverse pool of living knowledge. He respects the culture and he is respected in return.

I am sharing Dave's story to show how learning each other's languages is too a ticket to a Rainbow nation. Otherwise, the rainbow concept will remain a concept and instead of creating spaces for rainbows and butterflies, we will be creating mines, killing our biodiversity because through loss of languages we lose culture and knowledge, losing the marrow of our existence. The loss of or not tapping into indigenous languages also puts us in a compromised position of lacking in arguing for the protection of our biodiversity.

Now that we are practicing writing, it is important to teach ourselves to read books and write papers and books in our indigenous languages. They can be short pieces like inyanga zonyaka(months of the year). And soon we would have revitalised the use of indigenous languages.

'Do what is possible, then do what is necessary, then you will soon realise nothing is impossible', says the Mantra of St Francis of Assisi. Then I will also say, 'Akulahlwa mbeleko ngakufelwa' a Xhosa idiom roughly meaning disappointments are not a ticket to throw away hope, they are mere delays, dust yourself up and try again.

We can break grounds together for truer diversity, this is going to be an answer for our South African problems. 'Diversity unites us seeking truth', goes a line from my high school hymn and I find it true still. Language helps us respect each other's cultures, creating a space of honour for each other. Language is a critical to ponder when we talk about archives. For languages are not just communicating tools, a lot is hidden with the words and phrases.

Amandla to diversifying our archival material with languages.

Nokhanyo Mhlana is an Archival Platform correspondent.