A chance encounter between a South African music teacher and Xhosa-speaking students in Zimbabwe has led to the production of Rhodes University’s first PhD thesis in isiXhosa.
Although the study unveiled little-known linkages between AmaXhosa in the Eastern Cape and a community of over 200000 others living in Mbembesi, about 45km outside Bulawayo, it was mostly celebrated for putting the language on par with English among others used in academic inquiry.
Dr Hleze Kunju’s doctoral thesis has been described as “a milestone” for Xhosa academic writing and a glimmer of hope in the quest for a decolonised and transformed education system in the country.
When Rhodes University drafted its new language policy allowing students to use their mother tongue for learning, 31-year-old Kunju said he knew this would give him an opportunity to conduct work in his vernacular language.
This was an easy sell, he explained, because like many other students he had struggled with English during his undergraduate studies. “I’d write (in English) and think this is it.
“But it would come back marked in red and they (lecturers) would ask what are you trying to say, and I eventually put it in a way that made sense to them.
“I constantly felt I was lost in translation.”
Writing in isiXhosa was a “beautiful” experience, Kunju said, one that left little room for self-doubt.
His subject was decided upon when, after hearing some of his students speak isiXhosa while teaching music in Zimbabwe, he dug deeper until he found himself in Mbembesi.
There he was confronted with a long history dating back 116 years when Cecil John Rhodes used false promises to lure descendants of amaMfengu to join him in the region.
As a result, the community plans to approach the British Embassy to enquire about possible reparations as Rhodes failed to deliver the large amounts of land, schooling and jobs he had dangled before their chiefs at the time.
“The main thing they would like is for their children to have scholarships to study, including at Rhodes University, and that was number one on their list to be presented to the British Embassy,” Kunju said.
He used ethnography, in the absence of prior studies, along with oral history to study the socio-linguistic and historical background of the community which has successfully preserved its culture while living alongside AmaNdebele and Shona people.
“The findings reveal that land, culture, songs, religion, literature, technology and social media, as well as the 2013 Zimbabwean constitution, are tools that have played a role in the survival and maintenance of Xhosa in Zimbabwe.”
Kunju dedicated a chapter of his study to the analysis of circumcision out of fascination after he was met with sheer shock when explaining to the Zimbabwean AmaXhosa that hundreds of South African boys have perished in the mountains during the sacred rite of passage.
“They had never heard of deaths that happen when the boys are in the mountains for circumcision.
“They are smaller in number, unlike in South Africa where criminals and opportunists take advantage of the system.
“They are also very strict about who the surgeon is and who looks after the boys when they are there, unlike in South Africa.”
Beyond the contradictions cited in the study, songs and jargon used during circumcision were also found to have contributed in safeguarding the culture against dilution.
AmaXhosa King Zwelonke Sigcawu discovered the small nation that depends on farming and informal mining activity in 2012 and he has revisited the area yearly since then, according to Kunju.
A process is under way to build a Xhosa-medium school there, in partnership with the two countries’ governments.
The Bible was the only written Xhosa material the people there had laid eyes on, with the exception of those who ventured far and wide in search of better opportunities.
Kunju intends to take the study to the involved communities as he did not want it to “gather dust” in libraries.
“I wanted to show that isiXhosa can do what the English language and others can do.
“As a language activist, I always try to elevate isiXhosa, but many people think to elevate isiXhosa is to suppress everything else and we might be getting it wrong that way.
“We should be saying, look, this is what English can do and also what isiXhosa can do.”
Kunju was among seven other PhD graduates who conducted their thesis in African languages at the university.
World-renowned musician, poet and anti-racism activist Linton Kwesi Johnson, who received an honorary doctorate in literature from Rhodes University, spoke to The Sunday Tribune this week about the fundamentals of language and its use against racial oppression.
The UK-based artist is the only black person and the second living poet to be published in the Penguin Modern Classic Series, alongside the likes of Irish poet WB Yeats.
Johnson described as “gratifying” and encouraging that some young South Africans he has encountered write poetry in their own native language.