Once again, another high profile Member of Parliament has fallen foul of the English language police brigade that places English grammar pedantry above substance.
Earlier this week, Ramuzani Mahommed, MP for Nsanje South, to whom English may be his second, if not third, language, made his contribution to President Lazarus Chakwera's State of the Nation Address.
In its wake, a two-minute recorded extract of Mahommed’s speech is making its customary way round social media to unbridled mirth and scorn.
Substance has been sacrificed at the altar of form for most of the obsessive commentators.
For those who missed it, here is the substance from Mahommed’s speech: building a new Malawi for all, but we cannot build a such a nation until and unless the courts administer justice without hindrance; commending the government for plans to build constituency offices and residential houses for MPs to make them accessible to their constituents; commending the government for commitment to eradicate malaria and a zero-malaria campaign to that effect will be launched soon; commending the government for its commitment to fight the COVID-19 pandemic by allocating funds to Ministry of Health to cover prevention and control measures.
That was the substance. For anyone who values substance over form and attuned their ears appropriately, Mahommed communicated. The English language grammar brigade, however, is livid with his inability to articulate the English language like the Queen.
We obsess so much over the death of the English language in our communication, yet we express no such compunction when our national languages get mangled at every turn in our everyday conversations. It is, by no means, foreigners who murder our languages. We, Malawians, murder our languages under the guise of creativity or artistic licence or a misplaced sense of progression.
Take Chichewa, for example, and listen to how it gets muddled up every day on the radio, in the streets, anywhere, yet no one has a gripe at the language’s imperceptible decline. Every day we hear of zinyumba (when they meant nyumba), maphunzitsi (their aphunzitsi would correct them that they are aphunzitsi), maufulu (when ufulu works just as fine). At the rate we are mangling Chichewa, it is not farfetched to envision some idiot soon uttering the terms ‘mitendere’ or mipweya. And that’s because abstract and uncountable nouns are the worst victims of the lot. Yet, our linguistic police hardly raise a voice.
But make a mistake in an English text, people will descend on you like a tonne of bricks. It is as if we were warned we would never develop if we made a mistake in English grammar. Need I mention that we are languishing at the tail end of the development chain despite our obsession with English?
Let Mohammed be. He is a product of the standards we set for our MPs (and I don’t mean to suggest there is anything wrong with them). We want an MP to have competence in English to be able to follow and contribute to debates in Parliament. It is without doubt that Mohammed followed the debate in Parliament and he contributed to it. He communicated his message.
So what's the fuss? Just a few misplaced modifiers, mispronounced words and we believe he has committed worse crimes than the thieves who are robbing the public purse blind?
In any case, why does our National Assembly cling to English as a measure of competence and means for conducting debate in Parliament? Isn't it time we reviewed the way Parliament conducts its business? Parliamentarians routinely interject in whatever language catches their fancy (refer to colourful terms such as ‘agalu inu’, ‘tchaya! tchaya! tchaya!’, ‘khala pansi’), but the same MPs are prohibited from making full contributions in local languages?
Mahommed has followed in the hallowed footsteps of other MPs who have drawn the ire of the English grammar brigade for their contributions on the Parliamentary floor. Notably, Roy Commsy asked for a bituminised road in his constituency because vehicles were ‘capsizing’ and Themba Mkandawire of Blantyre Central who lamented the shortage of water for his constituents and asked for a ‘water bouncer’ to alleviate the problem.
I doubt either of them would have linguistically capsized (forgive the sarcasm) had they been allowed to conduct debates in their local languages.
Do we wonder why some MPs hardly ever speak in Parliament, yet they are routinely returned to Parliament at the next vote? They don’t contribute because some of them cannot communicate comfortably in English or at least comfortable enough to sustain a debate in Parliament. But their constituents trust them as the best representative of their causes. By restricting debates to English, these people are denied a chance to be heard and make contributions to the national cause.
Why can’t Parliament allow debates to be conducted in our languages (English inclusive) and provide translation services for the MPs? Other than creating a few extra jobs for the translators (towards those million jobs), it would ensure our MPs contribute as robustly as possible. Needless to say, we might even eliminate these mea culpas.