I get mocked for not being able to speak my mother tongue. Do people have nothing better to do with their time anymore? What does my lack in language have to do with anyone? I get comments such as “you are not truly Zambian if you can’t speak your mother tongue.” Or “you have no identity and do not belong anywhere because you cannot speak Bemba”. You have got to be kidding me with these comments and I am sick and tired of them.
No, I did not grow up outside the country. What has that got to do with anything? I grew up in Zambia, born and raised in Lusaka. Only thing is, I grew up in a home where we were not allowed to speak anything other than English. My father made it clear that we were not to speak anything else and he and my mom only spoke to us in English. And that’s what we used everywhere else. I went to private schools and local languages were not common there either. It was English all around.
My father grew up in an era that was largely uneducated and around the time Zambia gained her independence from Britain. Being colonized by the British meant that our system was run English style. And after gaining independence, this system stayed in place in all faucets of the Republic. This meant that we were governed under British policies which to this day are still utilized. English was declared the official national language (we have 74 local languages). The population at large could barely speak English yet it was declared the official national language.
With his background, he decided his children would learn how to speak English and speak it well. Both my parents came from educated back grounds and decided this was the best course for their children. Unfortunately, my dad died when I was only 10. Maybe their plan was to teach us their language as we grew older, who knows. His death disrupted our family life as I knew it. My mother left for the United States after his funeral for greener pastures to secure a bright future for my siblings and I. We were left with relatives who took care of us as best as they could. Do I resent my parents for my inability to speak my mother tongue fluently? No. Why would I do that? They did what they thought was best for us. And that is good enough for me. Should I be mocked for not being able to speak it? NO. It makes no sense.
So to those of you that call me names for not being able to speak my mother tongue perfectly get a life. My inability to speak it does not make me less Zambian or Bemba than anyone else. I am Bemba by virtue of being my father’s daughter. My identity is not constructed by my language but rather by a combination of values and beliefs imparted on me by both my parents and the society I live in. I am not defined by my language or my peers or other people’s opinions of me. Language is a tool I use to communicate with others. It is obviously a great and enjoyable experience when you meet someone who speaks the same language as you that majority of the people do not understand. It reminds you of home and is comforting (I am currently in the U.S). But does it define me who I am? No I do not believe it does.
And just for the record, I managed to pick up one local language, Nyanja, which is not my mother tongue but is a language widely spoken in the city I live. And I have been learning my mother tongue. It is not perfect but I am proud to say that I can understand it and attempt to speak it albeit speaking it with an accent. And instead of mocking me for speaking my mother tongue poorly and with an accent, why not teach me since you know better?
Not every child had the privilege of growing up in a household where their mother tongue was spoken. We all grew up in different homes, facing different challenges and opportunities. Instead of tearing each other down by claiming one is not truly Zambian if they can’t speak their mother tongue, why not direct this energy towards more constructive things and build each other up? If you see someone doing something wrong, correct them don’t condemn them. Teach them better. Do not be quick to judge. Instead of judging, be compassionate and teach them better. It is more rewarding than being judgmental which only gives you a headache and you gain nothing from it.
I am Zambian and proudly so. I may not speak my mother tongue perfectly and that does not detract from who I am.