I live with my sister and her two children. I'm the only father figure in the house and, like my sister, I'm the family's custodian of culture. It's not a role I had envisioned, yet I find myself increasingly taking up the cause. I cannot stand by and watch all I have treasured in my people - my identity - disappear.It's dinnertime. The stage is set for another battle between the Queen and my mother. Or, more precisely, the Queen's language and my mother tongue. Night and day it builds and grows, feeding from gigantic calabashes of culture. For the life of me, I have no inkling how to stop it.
My nieces come from a rural area in the east of Zimbabwe (Wedza), while I am of Zimbabwean (Shona) and Mozambican heritage. About 10 million people in Zimbabwe and southern Mozambique speak Shona. It's linguistically linked to the central Bantu languages. There are five main dialects in the language: Korekore, Zezuru, Manyika, Ndau and Karanga.
At the core of the traditional Shona culture is the Supreme Being, or Mwari (He Who Is There). Communication with God was carried out through Vadzimu (ancestral spirits). Vadzimu served to protect society.
Nowadays, Vadzimu has largely given way to the Christian God. The modern Christian Church has largely taken over. The Shona are loath to watch their values erode.
But life continues to be governed by hunhuism, or ubuntu, which teaches us that we have a responsibility to live and contribute to the betterment of the community.
True, we used English in certain aspects of our lives back home at school or work. But English never dominated our lives as it does now.
Language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through literature and orature, the whole body of values through which we perceive and identify ourselves. Language is, as one wise African man put it, "the honey of a nation's soul." Without language, identity is lost.
It is customary in Shona greetings, for example, to ask after one's family. "I am fine if you are fine," is the most common reply to "How are you?" Implicit is the notion that one's happiness is dependent upon the other's. It is the notion of communalism, of ubuntu.
"I'm fine, thanks, and how are you?" is how one would respond to an everyday greeting in English. Absent in this statement is the conditional "if." The essential notion of interconnectedness among individuals is lost.
More and more, my nieces enter into environments that require English. What will be the effect of these new ideas, this new reality? This is a crucial period in the children's development, and I worry about it constantly. They were only developing their skills in their mother language. Is the greater use of another language impeding the development of their native tongue?
I walk in the street and the bounce in my step is drawn from my sense of identity. I feel a familiar, exquisite tugging in my heart when words in the language I first heard on my mother's lap reach my ear. I am immeasurably blissful when a new day rises and my nieces say, "Mangwanani Sekuru Saiî (Good morning, Uncle)."
I shudder to think of the day when I will be called uncle in a language other than my own. Sometimes I'm discouraged.
For now, I always play more music from my homeland when all of us are at home. We have books in our first language. And I have hope!