On June 14, FunDza Literacy Trust had the honor of participating in a round table discussion, organised by Nal’ibali, to delve into the intricacies of reclaiming African languages in the context of the education system. The event – attended by social activists, agents of change and advocates for literacy rights – was one that carried depth and a wealth of knowledge. At the helm of the discussion was a need and a thirst from the house to understand why it is important to speak and teach children in a language they can understand.

The discussion officially got underway after a few words of welcome from Jade Jacobsohn, Managing Director of Nal’ibali, who was of the view that “we are what we repeatedly do.”

The panelists highlighted the importance of oral history and how that is by and large very different from documented history. They sought to answer the universal question pertaining to language: How do we make literature a part of our communities? “Whether I am sharing a Khoi-san story or singing happy birthday in a trilingual fashion – I am bringing Africa into the classroom,” said Melanie “Ms Sparks” Lippert, a Nal’ibali FUNda leader.

The formidable host and literacy activist Phumza Ndamase set the tone, allowing a fast-paced frank discussion to unfold and giving opportunities to all in the room as well on those on social media to air the views. The conversation was broad and showed how intricate, vast and inconclusive the topic of language remains. Athenkosi Nzala, a panelist and student at the University of Cape Town, noted that “language carries our identity and the essence of who we are”. Listen by following this link.

Reclaiming African languages in the context of the education system goes way beyond changing the curriculum (which requires a lot of money and specialised effort). It also speaks to changing and adjusting socio-economic goals, which should be aligned to the global developmental goals. The house was of the view that, if we are indeed serious about reclaiming African languages, we ought to start with self and after mastering that we could proceed to change others. “I told myself that, I can’t just sit and not do anything about the literacy problem in my community,” emphasised Mzwandile Lugogo – a social agent of change from Khayelitsha.

Audience member Nicci Cloete Annette reminded the attendees of the words of our former president Nelson Rholihlahla Mandela, which were to the effect of, “When you speak to a man in a language he can understand, you speak to his head. But when you speak to a man in his language, you speak to his heart.”

The loss of language is closely aligned to the loss of identity merely because, in language we find the foundation on top of which our lives are set, we co-exist and find familiarity with others through the languages we speak. Dexter, an audience member and a social activist, argued that the Khoi-san (whose language has faced almost total extinction) have frequently been left out of the conversation yet they were the first people to reside in the Cape. He reminded the audience of how language is a strong part of identity. He encouraged everyone to explore our shared histories and forgotten languages.

Zilungile Zimela, a panelist member from the FunDza Literacy Trust maintained that, “there is always a conference of the mind when you speak to people in a language that is not their own.” This then indicated to everyone the importance of learning and understanding different languages.

It was wonderful for the FunDza Literacy Trust to be part of this important discussion that did its best to flesh out the ills and in the same process “strip the fat from the lean, so as to find the facts in between”, so to speak.