By Tinomudaishe Chinyoka
They have just buried a hero in South Africa. In her life, Nomzamo Winnie Mandela was demonised, but in death they all came to pay respect and to try, too late, to say the two phrases that would have meant so much to her before her passing: “We are sorry” and “Thank you.” Sorry that they bought into the caricature of Winnie Mandela created by the very same apartheid system that she fought all her life, and gratitude for a life sacrificed for the liberation of all.
Heroes live among us, but as Jesus Christ noted on that visit to Nazareth, a prophet is never popular among his own people. They see him as that little boy who grew up getting into little scraps and generally being like other children, so any new attributes are viewed in that light. The hero never outgrows the breeches of youth, and to be recognised, must go away to shores anew, there to be seen by faces unfamiliar.
We judge when we should praise, we criticise when we should applaud. And sometimes, nay oftentimes, we do this with motive. If we do not agree with someone, especially if our politics is different from their own, our heroes are rubbished over punny little faults or habits that are overblown into really big things.
The current frenzy over Retired General Chiwenga’s English is one such example. Every day you hear someone poke fun at his expense, the way he pronounces a certain word or says a certain phrase. In Whatsapp groups you are bombarded with snippets from his speeches. ‘The VP said “Pamberi nokuhwina ma erections,”’ runs a popular one. His appearances at official events are recounted not for the content of his speech but for the manner of delivery.
Aside from the fact that because Shona has no ‘l’ and that we always change that letter to ‘r’ (mapurisa, maroja, marhori) there is a number of things that the General’s detractors do not see.
ONE: English is a language. It is not a sign of intelligence. This is important. We must really, really, let that sink in, and reflect on it. English is just a language. There are some very dull people born in England, the United States of America, certain parts of Canada, Australia (to name but a few) but who are born vachisvisvina chirungu. That is because it is their language. When we say ‘rurimi rwaamai’ in relation to Shona, they say that in regards to English. It is not some special attainment, but just a medium of communication.
TWO: those accents some in our midst show off with, mean precious little in the scheme of things. Where English comes from accents are a measure of geography and not intelligence. A Scouse from Liverpool speaks differently to a Geordie from Newcastle, just as the Cockneys of Southern England speak differently to them. Zvakangofanana nokuti muManyika anotaura zvakasiyana nemazuhwiro omuKaranga vachibviro siyanezve nemabwereketero evokwaMtoko.
When we try to break our tongues or contort our mouths in order to pronounce words in a certain way, we are merely copying one of a myriad of different accents of this language. And when we think we have no accent, we are merely deluding ourselves, because to anyone who speaks English differently from us, we definitely sound like we have an accent.
Accents are geographical. Just as some people adore the Texas drawl, I am particularly partial to both the Kenyan and Nigerian accent: you have not enjoyed the melody of the English language until you have heard a Kenyan pronounce Leicester as ‘Lei-se-ster’ or a Nigerian sister say ‘I perceive odour.’ None of it dull, all just merely an accident of geography.
THREE: General Chiwenga is not English. This is important. The man is very educated yes, but he is not English. He therefore does not need to sound English. I have listened to him speaking, most recently at the field day at President Mnangagwa’s farm and I thought ‘damn this man’s Shona is good!’ Vaisvisvina chiShona! And why is that? because that is who he is. He is Shona. Dr Khupe absolutely murders some English words but boy you should listen to her Ndebele! Absolutely faultless.
FOUR: we are hypocrites. When French, Italian or Russian people speak English we find their accents adorable to listen to, but the reality is that they do not sound English at all. Why do we not vilify them as we do our own?
FIVE: General Chiwenga is a very, very intelligent man. Aside from the fact that he came back from the bush and did not stop studying until he earned a PhD (not getting one from some nondescript South Korean University), he has inspired a whole generation of army officers to do the same.
November 2017 tells you that we are not dealing with ordinary soldiers here, but highly educated and intelligent people. And the professionalism in the armed forces can only come from people that are well and properly led.
English is not some special thing that we get and go around showing off with. It is, to bastardise a Clinton aphorism just a language, stupid! It is not even one that all native speakers manage very well, who can forget how George W Bush always said ‘nukila’ instead of ‘nuclear’? Where were our language police then?
General Chiwenga risked his life for our freedom. Twice. As a young man he took up arms to free us from colonial oppression. We have not thanked him yet. And in 2017 he risked his life again to correct us from a trajectory that was taking us into ruin. We have not properly thanked him yet. Twice the man has put his neck on the line, and we spend days talking about how he pronounces words in the former oppressor’s language?!
For twice the sacrifice, the man deserves to be praised, not mocked. We should be erecting statues of the man, not poking fun at his accent when he says elections in Shona. We should be erecting monuments of the man, not caricaturing him for election publicity. But, more than anything, we should all be looking at him with gratitude, for a life risked twice for our country’s sake. Twice, people.
When we poke fun at the man, we show that we have no shame. And that perhaps, his fight has been misunderstood. Colonialism was based on the idea that European ways were better, and African ways primitive. European dress, culture, food and yes, language, was presented as epitomising civilisation and our ways backward. We are now free. But that freedom should not mean mere political freedom. It must be seen to include freedom from this inferiority complex which suggests that Shona or Ndebele or Nambya or Chichewa are somehow second cousins to English. They are not. They are exactly the same thing, languages.
So please, maComrades. Let us leave General Chiwenga alone. Whatever language he uses, let us remember these truths: his Shona is excellent, his commitment to our freedoms is unquestionable, his heroism is not in doubt and his intelligence is severely underestimated. Let’s not create a caricature of the man, but thank him for a life dedicated to love of country.
It would be an error to judge our leaders based on something that is not a measure of intelligence. Which English is not.
Hands off the General please. Ndavonga hangu.
Tinomudaishe Chinyoka is a Gweru based lawyer and former prominent student leader at the University of Zimbabwe