Growing up, my parents sent my siblings and I to a private school which was very strict with English and taught us using the British curriculum. When we get in through the gates, we weren’t supposed to speak any vernacular language. I grew up looking down on my mother tongue for most part of my childhood, because of how much the school “demonised” it. Speaking Chichewa was kind of backward, and English was superior and better.
My parents didn’t think so. They didn’t like how we didn’t learn Chichewa at all, and they worried that we were growing up in a society that uses Chichewa and in the long run, we wouldn’t be a ‘part-of’ because we didn’t fully know our mother tongue. So at home, we always spoke Chichewa. Sometimes I would try kuwawalila mummy (showing off my English to mummy) and talk to her in English, but she would look at me (after rolling her eyes lol) and speak to me in Chichewa. Why was she being so backward?
Eventually, chizungu timachisiya pa gate pa school pompo and timachitola mawa lake tikabwelela (we left English at the gate and picked it up the next day when we were back).
It wasn’t long, they found us a tutor who would teach us how to read and write Chichewa. We had the lessons every day after school. I remember his name was Mr Chitsakamile (I wonder where he is now). Soon, we could also read and write Chichewa. My parents were satisfied. I went on to secondary school where I learnt Chichewa, sat for national exams and passed. I got a lot of jobs transcribing, translating, collecting data and working in communities because of these Chichewa lessons. Thank you, mum and dad. And Mr Chitsakamile, wherever you are.
“What’s the most important part when singing?” I asked my nursery Sunday school class.
“Your voice,” one girl said.
Another kid raised their hand.
“That you don’t sing with your arms across your chest,” he said.
“That you’re loud,” another said.
“Wrong!” I said.
Years later, I took interest in teaching music to the kids in my home church. I asked for a 15-minute slot every Sunday from the teachers, and they were happy to have me teach the kids a few songs. My pastor eventually made me one of the Sunday school teachers, a role I still feel is too big for me, but exciting at the same time.
“The most important part of your singing are the words you are singing,” I said, “the people listening want to know what you’re saying. Everything else is supporting the message you’re singing about. Your voice is important. Posture is important. Singing with a clear and strong voice is important. But your lyrics are what REALLY matter.”
After that lesson, I came home and thought about what I had just said.
“The words are the most important part of the song.”
Okay. That’s good. But what language are those words that I am singing in?
I remember that my father always told me that when I sing in English, I leave a lot of people behind. He said most people don’t understand English in the church. He said, “you sing for maybe half of the church. But when you sing in Chichewa, you sing for 100%.”
I didn’t really take his words seriously. The songs I liked were in English. The music I grew up listening to were in English. But now I was thinking about it. I thought about the 15 track album I did in 2016. All of the songs were in English, apart from a chorus I translated to Chichewa. Just one song. I kind of felt ashamed upon realising that. Maybe I was back in primary school, thinking, “English is superior. Chichewa is backward.” Of course I wasn’t thinking that way. I love Chichewa a lot! I speak it frequently and with pride. But it sure looks that way.
That day, I decided that I would start singing in my mother tongue. The first challenge I had was that there aren’t a lot of Chichewa songs that one can sing as a ‘special’ song. Most of the Chichewa songs I know (maybe even 99%) are found in the song book we use called “Nyimbo za Chitsitsimutso”. It is a collection of songs, mostly hymns, that the Assemblies of God translated to Chichewa. The only other group of people I know are Seventh Day Adventists who have a significant amount of Chichewa songs.
My dad was right. I noticed that most of the vernacular songs I sung were blessing the people in church. A lot of people came up to me and said, “why didn’t you start doing this earlier? This is great!” So I started translating almost every song I was interested in. I tried to sing songs in English and Chichewa. This is also how I had the idea to start a “7 days of hymns” challenge (which was a lot of work but so much fun!) where I made minute covers to hymns in both Chichewa and English.
I’m glad that with time, more and more Malawians, and Africans in general, are embracing their local language. We’ve had a mentality that English and all things Western is better. Clothes. Travel. Food. Values. Culture. Everything has been looked up to as greatness, and local was zachimidzi (backward). But it is not. We must free our minds from such mentalities. By the way, I don’t mean the English language is bad. No. I think it is very important to learn English from a young age because the world is dominated by English… but this mentality of being so proud because your kids can’t even greet their grandmother in the local language is why magetsi angothima thima mu Malawi muno (there are still blackouts in Malawi).
So, for my next music projects, I am trying as much as possible to sing in the local language. It isn’t as easy as I would like it to be, but I am trying to translate parts of songs as much as possible, because I am also aware that some listeners don’t understand Chichewa and I don’t want to leave them behind. I am also trying to work with song writers who can write good Chichewa songs. I just need God’s grace to be able to balance and make beautiful music. But all in all, I am glad I finally managed to pick up the vernacular language at the gate and I have no intention of dropping it again.
Ambuye akudalitseni. God bless you.