Bopape – man on a mission to preserve Mother Tongue beyond the classroom

Bopape – man on a mission to preserve Mother Tongue beyond the classroom

Author, teacher, journalist, language activist and publisher Diphete Bopape tells Mukurukuru Media editor Lucas Ledwaba how seeing his mother battle to find anything to read in Northern Sotho/Sepedi set him on a mission to ensure that the Bible wasn’t the only reading material available in his language beyond the school system. The 2011 Census noted that the language was the fifth most spoken in the country with an estimated 4.6 million speakers.

Lucas Ledwaba [LL]: The Unesco has declared the decade 2022/2032 as The Decade of Indigenous Languages. In your view what is the significance of such a development especially by a respected and influential body as the UN?

Diphete Bopape [DB]: This, coming from Unesco, is a very significant stand in more than one way. For one, this is recognition that every race under the sun has or had a history, a culture and a language indigenous to that race that helped transmit the history, culture and their associated values from generation to generation. For another, this stance is an acknowledgement of the damage that colonialism, slavery and other forms of dehumanization have had on colonized communities, among others, by maligning and marginalising indigenous languages and replacing them with foreign colonial languages. By dedicating a decade to this task, Unesco recognises the degree of damage that has been done to indigenous language and the amount of time and resources that would be required to revive them.

LL: There’s a perception that indigenous languages are backward and not really important in today’s fast developing world. What’s your take on that and what role do indigenous languages play in development of society, heritage and culture?

DB: The perception that indigenous languages are backward is itself a contorted colonised perception of reality. This is a perception of reality from colonisers rather than the colonised worldview. Colonisation was a complex and brutal exercise of power on a defeated helpless people against their will. The primary target of the colonisation process was the colonised’s culture that included their names, their cultural practices, their values, their religion, their traditions and practices. The colonised were viewed as uncivilised, barbaric, backward, unintelligent and less human than the colonisers and therefore needed to be civilised to bring them to the level of the colonisers.

Thus, the civilisation project was a process of turning the colonised 360˚against everything they ever knew, to wipe off their history, identity and experiences and to leave in their minds a ‘tabula rasa’, blank slates on which the colonisers could write what they liked. With religion as the entry point, the colonised were required to change their indigenous names and to assume new colonial, often called ‘Christian’ names as a sign of being civilised.

The ‘converts’ had to denounce their religion, reject the idea of ancestors and ancestor worship and associated practices in order to be seen as ‘civilised’.

The colonised were made to denounce and to reject traditional religious practices such a ‘koma’ (initiation), ‘go upa naga’ (land cleansing practices), ‘diila’ (taboos), etc. The colonised were made to reject and hate their languages that became marginalised in preference to colonial languages that served as passage to schooling and better future economic prospects.

With the colonised disposed of their land and means of living, by tying civilization to economic opportunities, the colonised were forced to adopt the religion, the education and to adopt values of the colonisers in order to be accepted to the world of the civilised. Thus, civilisation was a process of making the colonised to turn against themselves and to adopt new compromised false colonial identities aimed at turning the colonised into perpetual slaves of foreign identities and languages.

Civilisation was a process of trying to escape from the shame and backwardness of indigenous existence and strive to be like the colonisers, and to be one with them. Thus, the perception of indigenous languages as backward and not suitable for modern times is a compromised colonial perception of reality of a people that, while African, for instance, think of and see themselves as ‘English’, ‘French’, ‘Spanish’, etc. and not Africans, for instance, that in reality they are.

Indigenous languages are not merely media of communication but above all they are an important identifier that helps people to know who they are, the meaning of life and their place and role in that life. A person is English because his or her language is English, French because his or her people are French, Tswana because his or her language is Setswana.

So people who do have a measure of reading and writing in their mother tongue are condemned to spending the rest of their lives without anything they can read with comprehension and a measure of enjoyment.

Thus, people are one with their languages and find their identity in their language. But language is not only an identifier and a medium of communication – it is also a thinking tool. It is through language as a thinking tool that people acquire concepts, generate and exchange ideas, feelings and aspirations. Because language is a product of culture, it enables exchange of ideas, execution of tasks and peaceful and harmonious social co-existence.

Unlike colonial languages the mastery of which is contingent upon schooling, indigenous languages are born and used within communities with a shared culture and thus enable unambiguous interactions among members. A shared understanding of reality enhances communal development as all community members share common understanding of issues. Unlike colonial languages, indigenous languages place all community members on the same footing which enhances synergy and social cohesiveness that can never be achieved through colonial languages that are usually properly understood by tiny fractions of indigenous people.

LL: Unesco says 40% of languages spoken today are in danger of being extinct if nothing is done to preserve them. What should be done to ensure that our mother tongues are not annihilated by foreign languages such as English and French among others?

DB: We should use these indigenous languages in official capacities both in spoken and written formats. There’s an expression that: ‘if you don’t use it, you will lose it’.  This is so true about language in general and indigenous languages in particular. As alluded above, the aim of colonisation, under the guise of ‘civilisation’ was to turn the colonised against themselves, to make them hate and reject everything about themselves and their culture and to substitute a false colonial identity in its place.

This act of making people turn against themselves – hate their names, reject their indigenous religion, hate their languages and culture and adopt foreign concepts such as individualism as opposed to communalism, is one of the most vicious and heartless acts ever meted out on mankind.

Colonialists deliberately made mastery of their languages and unquestioning acceptance of their culture and values as bases for access to their religion, education, health, economic and other opportunities, thus forcing the colonised to strive to be like them. Thus mastery and adoption of colonial languages and lifestyle are viewed as a basis and measure of civilisation while indigenous languages and cultures are confined to the margins.

Colonialists deliberately made mastery of their languages and unquestioning acceptance of their culture and values as bases for access to their religion, education, health, economic and other opportunities, thus forcing the colonised to strive to be like them. Thus mastery and adoption of colonial languages and lifestyle are viewed as a basis and measure of civilisation while indigenous languages and cultures are confined to the margins.

The irony of the indigenous languages is that most indigenous people rely on their indigenous languages for all their communication needs 100% of the time while mastery of colonial languages is a function of schooling. Despite this, most African countries have adopted the languages of their former colonisers as their official languages of communication at the expense of their indigenous languages.

Even in countries such as South Africa where indigenous languages have been accorded status of ‘official languages’, their officialdom is nothing beyond a paper statement with no sign of concomitant actions in the lives of people that rely on these languages. What needs to happen is that indigenous languages should be afforded official status by using them to communicate to indigenous people both in spoken and written formats in addressing all aspects of life – education, health, environment, politics, economy, etc.      

LL: You are the publisher and editor of Seipone newspaper. What made you decide to start an indigenous language newspaper in an age where most people seem to be moving away from mother tongue to English?

Diphete Bopape publishes the Sepedi newspaper Seipone in Limpopo province. He is on a mission to preserve his mother tongue. He has also authored nine books in his mother tongue. Photo: Lucas Ledwaba/Mukurukuru Media

DB: I believe that I was never an English person, I am not one now and I never will be one no matter how well I speak that language. People that I consider to be ‘my people’ – my parents, friends, relatives, my race and ethnic group are in no way related to English. While apartheid was such a cruel and vicious system while I was growing up, the system did have at least two publications in my language, Northern Sotho / Sepedi, namely ‘Tšwelopele’ (Progress) and ‘Motswalle wa Bana’ or WAMBA (Children’s Friend).

While these publications were mainly used for propaganda purposes, besides the Bible, they offered something in my language that I could read with a measure of understanding and confidence. With the demise of apartheid in the early 1990s, these publications ceased and they have not been replaced by anything. What this means is that, besides school texts that are meant for use in schools, the only publication that is available to speakers of my language is the Bible, and the Bible only. The implication of this is that once they quit school, my people have nothing that they can read with comprehension for the rest of their lives.

…besides school texts that are meant for use in schools, the only publication that is available to speakers of my language is the Bible, and the Bible only. The implication of this is that once they quit school, my people have nothing that they can read with comprehension for the rest of their lives.

So people who do have a measure of reading and writing in their mother tongue are condemned to spending the rest of their lives without anything they can read with comprehension and a measure of enjoyment.

My late mother fell in this category of people: she had done primary school education and could read the Bible and other material published in Northern Sotho / Sepedi with a measure of comprehension and enjoyment. When, as her children we read, especially Sunday newspapers that were published in English, she would simply page through the newspaper looking at pictures.

She could not understand English and was thus condemned to merely looking at pictures in a newspaper without reading anything. I thought that was sad. I have written nine (9) Northern Sotho / Sepedi literary books – my mother has read them with a significant measure of comprehension and enjoyment, and would occasionally cite what she read.

Like my mother, I believed and still do, that there are many mothers out there who are in the same position as my mother: they have acquired reading and writing skills in their indigenous languages but in the absence of any reading material in indigenous languages, those skills are condemned to a certain death. It was in a quest to provide a platform for such people as my mother to put their skills to use that Seipone newspaper was born.         

LL: Kindly tell us the challenges you face as an independent publisher of an indigenous language newspaper in an era where newspapers generally are battling to survive – and why you are still doing this despite the difficulties?

DB: There are several challenges to publishing a newspaper in an indigenous language in South Africa. The biggest challenge I have faced with Seipone is that, as with other indigenous languages, while they are proclaimed to be ‘official languages’, their officialdom starts and ends in Article 6 of the constitution. This article spells out what government and the state ought to do regarding the question of indigenous languages and their development.

Absurdly, assuming that English is a ‘common language’ to all citizens regardless of their mother tongue, English was adopted as the only official language for conducting government business. The result of this is that all government business including notices, advertorials, advertisements of vacancies and work opportunities in the form of tenders and requests for quotations are all done in English, and are published in English-medium newspapers.

In the absence of all these, an indigenous language newspaper such as Seipone soon finds that it only has expenditure but no income. In the absence of adverts and advertorials, the newspaper simply does not have resources to sustain itself.

I am an educator by profession. I am also an author of nine Northern Sotho / Sepedi literary books as alluded to earlier. As a teacher, I believe that language is an essential tool for effective learning both as a tool for thinking and as a medium of communication.

As a thinking tool, language is essential for understanding the content of what teacher teach and for demonstrating that understanding. Learners that struggle with language will have problems both in comprehending what teachers teach or demonstrating their understanding of what was taught to others.

Mother tongue has been demonstrated to be strongly correlated to learning capacity and that it forms a basis for all other future learning. Learners who have mastered their mother tongue have acquired learning skills that form a basis for learning other subjects including other languages.

The weakening and non-development of Northern Sotho / Sepedi has indicated a trend of poor academic achievements. Among others, a 2016 PIRLS report has indicated that Northern Sotho / Sepedi Grade 4 learners were the worst performers in their mother tongue where 90% of them do not understand basic things in their mother tongue. The conclusion drawn by the study is that these children do not have capacity to learn because if they cannot understand basic things in their mother tongue, what chance would they stand of understanding anything in English.

Teachers from various schools have indicated that they rely on Seipone to teach aspects such as spelling, comprehension, loud reading, etc. As the only newspaper in this language, Seipone is used for oral examination and for drawing questions on various language aspects. In the absence of alternative sources, it is particularly the use of the newspaper as a teaching and learning tool that has made me to push the paper despite challenges.    

LL: What role do you think should government play in ensuring languages are not only promoted and preserved, but are also given equal status in business, government and education?

I believe that the tendency to communicate with indigenous communities in foreign languages that they do not understand is retrogressive. This has created a situation in which government in particular is spending millions of rands to create uninformed communities. By packaging and disseminating all information to communities in foreign languages like English, government creates uninformed communities who rely on occasional radio broadcasts as their only source of information in a world that has abundant information flowing through newspapers, magazines, the internet and social media platforms.

I believe that government can empower indigenous languages by using them as media of communication to communities on all platforms – paper, radio, television, social media platforms and in official public addresses. I believe that by proving community services in all spheres of life including education, health, social and cultural matters, politics, economy, citizens will be empowered to engage in all matters that affect their lives.

By communicating to communities in their indigenous languages, communities will be empowered to intervene and actively participate in their own development. By providing information in languages that they understand, communities would be afforded opportunities to find their identity and a sense of pride and cohesiveness as a people.     

LL:. Lastly, who is Diphete Bopape? Kindly tell us about your other efforts in education, journalism and as a language activist?

As alluded to elsewhere, Diphete is a teacher and an author. In both of these roles, language is central in my life. I have offered motivational speeches, provided training for authors and journalists in this language. Whenever an opportunity arises, I cannot hold back the temptation to talk about the value of indigenous languages in education and in promoting identity and social cohesion.

LL: What is your dream and wish for the Sesotho sa Leboa language and other indigenous languages?

DB: My dream is to see my language, Northern Sotho / Sepedi take its rightful position of honour and pride under the sun. I believe that, as speakers of this language, we are the only people in the whole world who speak the way we do. If English, French, Chinese, Russian and American are as proud as they are about who they are and their languages, why should I be ashamed of who I am? My dream is to see speakers of my language proudly standing on local, national and international platforms and speaking their language with honour and dignity. – Mukurukuru Media

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