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5— Tribalism in the Political History of Malawi1
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Language Policy and the Creation of Northern Regionalism

During the 1930s the Northern Province's two major ethnic movements, with their ideological core of history and chiefly authority, partially coalesced into a regional movement that was defined by common interests and specified by a new concern, language. The issue that precipitated this change was the government's language policy. In 1918 one of the administration's junior officers resurrected the old idea that Nyanja should be made the official language of the country and taught in all its schools. As a proposal it made good sense, for Nyanja, or its dialectal variants, Mang'anja and Chewa, were spoken by a majority of the country's people. The governor, Sir George Smith, rejected the suggestion totally, however, pointing out that:

Though the spread of one dialect through the country would be advantageous . . . it would tend to merge the various tribes in the Protectorate at a greater rate than at present, and this I consider undesirable. One of the chief safeguards against any combined rising is the individualism of the various tribes, and with a small and scattered white population, this I think should be postponed.[83]

Divide-and-rule was to be British policy. In the north, the language that was granted official status was Tumbuka. Throughout the 1920s the Mission's presses confirmed the status of Tumbuka by pouring forth school texts in the Tumbuka language in editions of between 7000 and 10,000 copies.[84] For the Tumbuka themselves, it was a symbol of their reviving respectability and self-esteem. For the Ngoni, it was their adopted language within the context of a larger society of potentially competing languages.

In the late 1920s, the government's language policy shifted. Governor Sir Shenton Thomas was not haunted by visions of uprisings nor preoccupied with strategies of divide-and-rule. He was eager to streamline the colony's administration, and he argued that the adoption of a single official lingua franca would both help unite the country and save money.[85] Following Thomas's suggestion, the Advisory Committee on Education adopted a proposal that Nyanja 'be introduced as the medium of instruction not later than Class 4 in all Government and Assisted schools'.[86] To obtain state aid missions would be obliged to follow this policy.[87]

This decision distressed the Scottish missionaries of the north. On 15 July 1933 the Livingstonia Mission announced that it was 'unable to accept this ruling', attacking Nyanja on several grounds. First, it was educationally unsound and simply would not work. Second, it would inconvenience the Mission, which would have to find Nyanja teachers. Third, Nyanja was a bad choice because it was not a 'language of higher cultural and linguistic value'. Fourth, it was a politically unsound decision, because the people themselves opposed it.[88] Rather than introduce Nyanja into the north, therefore, the Mission would forgo governmental aid. The head of the Mission, W.P. Young, the brother of Cullen Young, put the argument in somewhat less reasoned terms:

Politically, it is an unfortunate moment to choose to attempt to turn back the pages of history. When the Livingstonia Mission began work the local people were under the domination of the Angoni. The Tumbuka . . . were a scattered and subject people, whose language was proscribed. Yet they clung to it as the symbol of their identity as a people . . . to them in a peculiar sense, their language is their life.[89]


The government had indeed chosen a peculiarly inappropriate moment to implement its decision. Indirect Rule had been introduced only recently in the north, and African leaders were quick to echo the Mission's objections. They argued that it was 'unfair to force a people to accept a language which they do not wish' and, tellingly, that 'people go to schools to learn their own vernacular books, after which they wish to learn English, which is more profitable'.[90] The language issue resulted in a merger of local Tumbuka and Ngoni ethnic consciousnesses into a new Northern regional coalition glued together by the fact that these groups now possessed a common language in a country of many languages. Thus, when a new governor, Sir Hubert Young, visited the north to convince the people that the new policy was in their best interests, fierce opposition greeted him. At a gathering of Ngoni leaders on 1 October 1933, Charles Chinula remonstrated that 'Chinyanja is not wanted in this Tumbuka-speaking area.' When Young travelled further north to speak with Tumbuka leaders, their spokesman told him that 'Tumbuka should be preserved for future generations just as seed for native produce, domestic and wild animals are preserved for them.'[91] In a minute of 19 October, Levi Mumba, the ranking Tumbuka-speaker in government service and the first African to sit on the influential Advisory Committee of Education, aligned himself with the anti-Nyanja forces, arguing that it was much too early to have a lingua franca in Nyasaland and that, if ever one were adopted, it should be English.[92]

The governor was stubborn, however, and drawing support from the Roman Catholic and Dutch Reformed Churches, both of which used Nyanja as their medium of instruction in the Central Province, he appealed to Whitehall for support. In the far north of the country Ngonde-speakers, resenting their long social subordination to Mission-educated Henga, joined in attacking Tumbuka, asserting that 'We Bangonde would like our children to learn Nyanja in schools and not Tumbuka.'[93] The Colonial Office initially agreed with the governor, commenting that the Livingstonia Mission must face facts and accept Nyanja. If they did not, their students' careers would be blighted because of their ignorance of the official language of the country and their consequent ineligibility for positions in the civil service.[94] Therefore, in 1935 Young's successor, Sir Harold Kittermaster, ordered the immediate implementation of the new language policy.

The Mission, however, refused to give up, carrying the fight for their educated graduates over the heads of Nyasaland's officials to London and succeeding in gaining the sympathy of key Whitehall officials.[95] As one noted:

It does seem to me a pity—to put it no more strongly—that because of this persistent pursuit of a policy about whose merits there is considerable dispute, Government should run the risk of alienating a Mission in Nyasaland which is doing wonderful work and which . . . is only too anxious to co-operate with Government wherever it can.[96]

The Mission was victorious. London instructed Kittermaster to hold another conference and to impose no policy against the Mission's wishes.[97] In mid-1936 this conference was held. The Mission's representative asserted that the mother tongue was the 'soul of the people' and that to impose Nyanja as a lingua franca would be tantamount to the suppression of Nyasaland's other languages. At this conference, Levi Mumba not only deprecated the whole idea of a lingua franca but went so far as to say that Nyanja should never be considered as a subject to be taught in schools, as its introduction 'would interfere with the mental development of the children'.[98] After World War II Tumbuka gained an additional victory when, in 1947, it, together with Nyanja, was made one of the


two official languages of the country, a position it held until 1968 despite the fact that it was spoken by only a very small fraction of the population.[99] The alliance of educated Africans and well-connected Scottish missionaries was a potent one, and it ensured that the bulk of African positions in the colonial civil service would be taken by Tumbuka-speaking northerners as rapidly as such positions opened up.

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