My mother tongue

2007-11-15 00:00

I HAVE grown up in a very modern household. You know the urbanised household where everything is done the Western way. I go to an “established” high school and have friends of different races. You could call me a “Model C”.

I've always gone to English-medium schools from primary and now in high school, I have always taken Afrikaans as my second language. Never once did this bother me. Until that unforgettable day when truth, realisation and guilt invaded.

There I was waiting to board a taxi going downtown, when out of nowhere a woman who looked to be in her early 50s walked up to me and said in Zulu: “Dear child, will you help an old woman out?”

“Of course ma'am,” I responded politely in Zulu too. She produced an old newspaper from her bag and asked me to read to her a specfic article.

“Please little lady, this article holds important information on the whereabouts of my missing granddaughter,” she said in a sad tone. “But because of my illiteracy, I cannot read it myself.” She held it out to me.

The headline read: Abalahlekile - uZodwa Mbele.

I squinted my eyes to see properly. Then I realised it was written in Zulu!

“Young lady?” the old lady questioned.

“A'ba,” I breathed out heavily because there was no way I could read this.

I tried again.

“Lahhle.” Sweat broke out in buckets.

“I'm sorry, I can't help you. Please ask someone else for their help,” I said as I turned and boarded the taxi.

On my way to town, I was thinking, even in town I was still thinking as I passed the shops. What the heck happened? I asked myself repeatly.

I hardly remembered why I had come to town. Then realisation hit. I had to learn to read Zulu, the language of my people, my culture and tradition, one of the main languages of our province.

I claim to be proud of who I am but yet I did not know my breastmilk language. Speaking it was where it ended. I could not read or write it, so how was I different from that woman? What a shame. My culture lost so easily through ignorance. Did I have to wait 15 years to realise that I was lost?

I sat down on the nearest bench, my mind racing, my heart embedded in guilt. My mind was literally exploding with activity. My favourite word, a simple Zulu word, uyaphapha, I hadn't a clue how to spell. I had become a coconut, many following in my footsteps and me in theirs. A whole generation is going West but not thinking about what makes us black; what makes me proudly Zulu and a South African.

That was a month ago and I'm proud to say that going back to my roots is the greatest journey ever! I now go to afterschool classes to learn my mother tongue for my sake and my children's sake one day.

It's not wrong to learn other languages and quench your curiousity, but before you do, you should start at the beginning and know your tongue first.

I'm proud to say King Shaka's language will carry on just fine, just ask me!

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