My appreciation of the value of language came very early in life.
Having started my education in post-colonial Zimbabwe in the 1980s, my parents were among those who sent their children to multi-racial schools previously reserved for white children, in order to enhance our chances of success in life.
However, when we got there, the systems were still intact and the rules were strict. For instance, we were not allowed to speak our local languages within the school premises and anyone caught doing so would have their knuckles rapped with the sharp end of a ruler. That may seem like a minor punishment but not to a child below the age of 10. As a child in boarding school, I only saw my widowed mother on some weekends and during the holiday.
The shaping of my thoughts and values was left largely to self discovery and school authorities, in a system that did not promote our languages and cultural identity.
Like all children, I happily adhered to the school rules and only spoke English. I learnt to think, dream, feel, imagine and primarily function in English. I was quite content with this existence until the day my mother and her friend paid me a surprise visit and I suddenly realised, to my horror, that I had forgotten the basic greeting in one of our local languages.
In our culture it was rude for a child to greet elders in English as it was a foreign language. It was both prudent and respectful to greet elders first and in their language. I greeted my mother first in Shona and intended to greet her friend in her language, Ndebele, but the words failed me.
I remember standing between my mother’s yellow Renault and the imposing white washed girls’ hostel, just staring and gaping at the visitor, who was patiently waiting for me to dutifully greet her. Try as I might, the Ndebele greeting stubbornly refused to emerge from where it was buried in the recesses of my mind. The simple word, “salibonani” evaded me as if in a mischievous effort to embarrass me.
After a long awkward and uncomfortable silence, my mother’s friend greeted me, jolting me to remember the response. The rest of the visit was pleasant.
However, after my mother and her friend left, my young mind pondered and reflected on a few fundamentals. Although I was only eight years old, I made some decisions that I have carried into adulthood. I promised myself never to forget our local languages. A seemingly simple promise that was difficult to keep in the face of numerous challenges such as being in a society that subordinates its languages to English. I pledged to remember, despite not being able to speak the languages during the school term. I vowed to remain mindful of our languages, even though they constituted less than 20 per cent of our curriculum, with little room for practice.
Those vows were later renewed when I was on a flight to the UK around 2008. During a moment of boredom, I looked around me and started reading the titles of the novels being read by those near me. The languages were all foreign to me. It struck me that all these people were reading books in their own languages. Perhaps it was because I was on a Dutch airline. Whatever the reason, I became acutely aware of my alienation from my language. I was holding a book with an English title and the only other person with an English book was a black woman sitting diagonally opposite me. I guessed that she was Zimbabwean, and I was right. Had she not been Zimbabwean, she probably would have been from a former British colony.
Now I take time to invest in learning and practicing more of our local languages.
Although I speak both Shona and Ndebele fluently, I struggle with idioms and proverbs, largely because I was deprived of the languages early. Sadly, I speak local languages with a tinge of an English accent, which sometimes creates the impression that I can’t speak the languages. I have found ways to work around my handicaps though, by reading and speaking Shona and Ndebele as often as I can. When the opportunity presents itself, I try to learn other local languages like Tonga, Kalanga etc.
It saddens me when modern parents boast and take pleasure in their children’s inability to speak local languages. What those parents do not realise is that they are robbing those children of their birthright and depriving them of their cultural heritage. The truth is, no matter how well we speak English, we can never own it, but we can truly say we are the custodians of Shona, Ndebele, Tonga, Nambya, Kalanga and other languages that are spoken locally. Taking pride in the inability to speak one’s language is not a sign of education, but rather, exposure of painful ignorance and cultural bankruptcy.
Indeed learning other languages enables us to function effectively in a global village. It also helps to mask tribal divisions, among its other advantages. However, this does not mean we should recklessly abandon who we are and discard our heritage.
Whether we like it or not, there is an intricate link between language and identity and until we recognise that, we will float around like people without roots.
Language is a central feature of human identity. There is a level of pride that comes with being able to say “I am Matilda Moyo from Zimbabwe and I am Karanga.” Beyond that, there is some pride in being able to speak the language. Indeed let us learn other languages, but let us not forget our own languages, which are central to who we are.
By Matilda Moyo
18 January 2014
Once upon a time, we were told that advice is good, particularly if it comes from someone older and wiser. “A person who does not listen to advice is a fool,” we have often heard. The assumption is that everyone who dispenses advice is wise and well-meaning. However, real life experience teaches us otherwise – not all advice is good. All advice, no matter how good it seems and who it comes from, should be evaluated and taken in context as it is often clouded by other factors. This instalment, while not exhaustive, will assess some of the factors that influence advice doled out by people.
Temperament and personality
Who we are affects our actions. We give advice based on our perception and how we would react if faced with a similar situation. Our personalities permeate the advice we give, for example, the four temperaments of melancholic, choleric, phlegmatic and sanguine and their various combinations . When faced with a difficult situation, the choleric would probably tackle it head on, the melancholic would go through some introspection before dealing with it, the sanguine would look for a pleasant distraction and the phlegmatic would do everything to avoid confrontation. Temperament affects our behaviour and is likely to influence the type of advice we give. I am a melancholic-choleric and this seeps through the advice I give.
A lot of times, our background affects our decision making processes and consequently the advice we give. Often, people give advice based on what they have seen all their life because that is all they know. In the book “The Dreamgiver ,” by Bruce Wilkinson, Ordinary dares to leave the Land of Familiar to pursue his Big Dream. However, he meets much resistance from those in Familiar who do not understand why he wants to divert from the norm. “If it is working well, why disturb the system?” or “We have always done it this way” are all too common sayings.
Our experience – whether past or present – affects our perception and the advice we dispense. I know of a lady who became very bitter after her fiancé stood her up at the altar on their wedding day. The bitterness colours her paradigm and subsequently the advice she gives. Similarly, someone who is undergoing marital distress because of an unfaithful spouse will likely have negative perceptions of marriage and discourage a couple who are excited about their wedding.
A naturally chirpy and optimistic person, I often find myself being discouraged by such people and have to remind myself that I need not relive their negative experiences. Once, I found myself in a heated argument with a colleague who was trying to discourage me from buying a small car because she argued that they had a tendency of going under trucks and I could be killed. I disregarded the advice, bought the cute little car and in all my years of driving it did not once find myself under a truck. My colleague meant well and had seen a number of newspaper articles about such accidents. However, it did not follow that I would be among those statistics – not all people who drive small cars will be involved in an accident and find themselves under trucks. Just because it happened to one person does not mean it will happen to all.
Whether we know it or not, whatever advice people give is coloured by their perception. This is at varying levels. First, there are people who are generally negative and poke holes in everything without advancing a better option. The optimist will encourage and the pessimist may discourage because that is the lens through which they see the world.
Second is the person’s perception of you. If they have decided you are foolish, they will treat you as such and based on the assumption that you cannot possibly think of anything intelligent. On the other hand, if they hold you in high esteem, they may encourage you to carry out a foolish idea simply because they assume that you are incapable of making silly mistakes.
Regardless of what influences their perception, the bottom line is such people will either raise you or put you down. The best is to keep away from those who either view you negatively or are generally pessimistic. On the other hand, try to be more objective with advice from those who think too highly of you. These cheerleaders could unintentionally cheer you into a disaster if you are not careful.
Also, be aware that we have such different perceptions that what may appear like the road to hell for once person could actually lead someone else to heaven on earth.
Level of knowledge
Some people mean well but simply lack the information and knowledge to be good advisers. They may want to see you rise but have insufficient information to give effective advice. Someone who is an expert in one area is not necessarily one in everything. Just because someone gave you good advice about what car to buy based on their mechanical engineering background doesn’t mean they will necessarily give sound advice about investments. Don’t be a victim of other people’s ignorance no matter how well their intentions. Some people are confident despite their ignorance and can give very misleading advice.
Also, don’t just seek advice from everyone. Once, on the way to an assignment at an unfamiliar place, the driver and I got lost so we asked people close by for directions. The first person we asked was a young man who did not say much but pointed to the north indicating that was the direction we should go. We drove northwards but did not find the place so we asked the next person and he pointed south and we drove in that direction. In a place where there was a language barrier and we did not have a map, we were at the mercy of those we met along the way. Finally, after the fourth person I asked the driver if he realised that none of the people we spoke to knew where we were going but they were all reluctant to admit it so they would just point in any direction. We nearly missed our assignment while going around in circles at the leading of people who wished to help but lacked information to do so. Our assumption that they knew the place we were looking for because they lived in that town and appeared confident was wrong. However, this is what sometimes happens when we look to people who lack knowledge and it applies to all aspects of life. Thankfully this was a minor issue but imagine if we had received misguided advice for a life-changing, long-term decision?! I know many people who made serious career mistakes because of the sources of advice they chose.
In another incident, I recently shared my thoughts about a plant I wanted at my place because I thought it would look beautiful. The person I was talking to immediately advised against it and told me it would draw snakes to my home. I have a phobia for snakes and considered abandoning the idea, but I was so in love with the plant and I kept seeing it everywhere. I wondered if all the yards with the plant were really harbouring reptiles. Finally, I worked up the courage to ask someone with a row full of those plants at her house and she was surprised at the theory. First, throughout her life with the plants at her home, she had not encountered a single snake. Secondly, it was her first time to hear that myth and third, the man who told me about the relationship between the plant and snakes does not have such plants at his home and may by some coincidence have seen a snake hiding behind the plant. However, that single incident did not translate to a tendency by snakes to gravitate towards the plant.
Sometimes people can create a box and try to force you to fit into it based on their limited knowledge about you. When I started studying for my Masters’ degree I briefly discussed the issue with a highly esteemed gentleman who seemed progressive. At that time, I had unwittingly settled for a junior position in a regional organisation from a senior position in a national organisation. I thought it was a good opportunity to break into the regional market and did not know that employers would judge me based on the position I occupied then, rather than what I had been in the past, despite all the details being chronicled in my curriculum vitae. I was desperately trying to get out of that position and a post graduate degree was part of the solution. I mentioned my studies to this man in passing. His response shocked me and led to the instant death of what a fledgling friendship.
“You’re ok with a first degree for your position. Why on earth do you need a Masters?” he asked. The man had judged me based on my current erroneous decision rather than my potential. He saw my present, yet I was looking at my future. He saw what I was then, yet I saw what I could become. I later learnt that he had an MBA and I found it strange that someone would try to prevent me from reaching a similar goal, as though I was born for a lower station in life. Looking back I realised we had always related from the position of a horse and a rider with him having the upper hand. It both saddened and angered me that he had tried to mislead me to maintain that status. Through that brief encounter, I learnt the painful truth that not everyone who gives advice means well and some people want to maintain an imaginary position of superiority. I also learnt that it helps to believe in myself and to be headstrong when faced by such people.
Not everyone means well
Human beings occasionally exhibit a characteristic called jealousy. Sometimes it manifests through the dispensing of harmful counsel coated as advice. Not everyone means well. Some people are wicked and find pleasure in watching other people stumble and fall while others are just mischievous. Also, some people may ill advise you so that you repeat the mistakes they made and they can find comfort in numbers. The human mind can sometimes conceive unfathomable evil.
Finally, the aim of this instalment is not to discourage people from taking advice. There are numerous benefits to taking advice. These including learning from other people’s knowledge, getting fresh ideas and avoiding repeating old mistakes, among others. The aim is simply to encourage people to be more objective in seeking and accepting advice, being mindful that counsel is influenced by various factors. Advisors are fallible human beings who just love to dispense advice, which can be either beneficial or detrimental. Sometimes these humans mean well but fall short. Evaluate advice and its intentions before accepting it because it will influence the decisions you make and ultimately, you will live with the consequences.
Life, is a series of choices, so we have been told. The impression is that if you make good choices, your life will be good. Most of us have heard the cliché “you are where you are today because of the choices you made yesterday.”
True, I do not dispute that. The greater part of our adult life is a result of the decisions we constantly make. However, there is that small proportion of our lives that is a consequence of other people’s decisions. Stephen Covey, in “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” advises us to focus and work on what is within our control, or our sphere of influence. That’s some really helpful advice. However, sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we end up facing the consequences of other people’s decisions.
As I write this, I am an unwitting victim of someone else’s decision. Today we have no water at home, thanks to the gardener’s decision to pour all the water in the storage tank on his beloved plants. Sadly, only 10 green vegetables are still looking healthy, the rest have withered, while we have to think about how to use whatever drop of water comes our way. This is not the first time we’ve run out of water since he came. Yes, he’s a great guy and extremely hard working, but sadly, he sometimes makes unilateral decisions that place both our lives at risk, like now. The first time was exactly a month ago. I got home at 6pm to be told there was no water. I made a quick decision to get water trucked to the house by a commercial supplier and the problem was solved. My neighbours also stepped in and provided water to meet our needs while waiting for the truckers. However, looking back in hindsight, by quickly stepping in, I denied the gardener an opportunity to learn. Consequently, he missed a key lesson about the importance of water in water-constrained city where diseases like typhoid occur frequently. Not surprisingly, we find ourselves in exactly the same situation again. Normally, I monitor water usage and advise him not to use what’s in storage for the garden. The plants can wait and it usually isn’t very long before the City of Harare remembers that we pay bills to receive water. However, I travelled last week and in my absence, he used water without restraint – to the point of emptying a 5,000 litre tank on his own in one day. I returned from a week-long trip to a home without water. The last drop was exhausted on the day I left and I am not surprised because on the day I left, I had watched in horror as he created what looked like rice paddies that appeared to drown his plants – all this from the reserve tank – despite being told to use storage water sparingly and only in the absence of council water.
However, rather than arrange to have water trucked again, I decided to remain silent and let him solve the problem in the hope that he will also learn from this experience. His solution was to find the nearest well and ask for water, which he has been using for his daily needs. In a country bedevilled with waterborne diseases such as cholera and typhoid, in a city with a typhoid outbreak and in a suburb that is among those affected by typhoid, this solution puts both of us at risk of contracting typhoid.
Much as I have tried to ensure that this house never runs out of water, and have communicated how water is to be used, the quality of my life is being compromised because I am living out the consequences of someone else’s decision. Thankfully, unbeknown to him, I have another private storage facility designed for moments like this, which he cannot access. I thank God he does not know about it because it too, would probably have been exhausted and I would be forced to use water from the unknown well for everything else. Currently, he brings me water every morning, but since it is not from a trusted source, the best I can do is use it for flushing the toilet, while praying that the man to whom i attribute our current water woes will not contract typhoid. However, i have had to temporarily halt certain luxuries until a steady supply of water comes. At the moment, i cannot wear my contact lenses, i have to shower rather than bath, dishes have to queue up in a pile and be washed once a day, toilet usage has been limited to twice a day, laundry cannot be done and mopping has to be with the minimum possible amount of water – among other changes that compromise the quality of my life.
At least this is a minor and temporary issue. However, many people find themselves in similar positions of living out the consequences of other people’s decisions. For example, the child whose parents make foolish decisions that later shape his/her life, or the faithful spouse who contracts HIV or a sexually transmitted infection (STI) from an unfaithful partner who keeps taking risks by having unprotected sex with people outside that union. Some of these are sadly, long term and can affect the direction of one’s life.
Some years ago, when I was doing A level, one of my classmates’ mother opted to buy herself a new dress with money that had been set aside for her daughter’s examination fees a day before the fee deadline. Needless to say the girl did not write examinations and that affected the career she was forced to take up, the pool of men she became exposed to, the type of person she married and the lifestyle she is currently living. Some may say she could have gone back to school after she started working. That’s true, but could she afford it now that she had a family in her new found society where education and a career were not as great a priority as marriage?
I also know of a lady who walked out of a 10 year marriage to start her life from scratch because her husband kept making foolish decisions that were negatively affecting her and their son. The man was in the habit of unilaterally selling off family assets and spending the money alone. When she finally decided to walk out, the husband had decided to sell the family home and she only found out through phone calls when prospective buyers started calling in response to the advert he had placed in the newspaper. Efforts to discuss the matter and reverse his decision were futile, he did not respect her opinion, despite her contribution towards purchasing those assets. She finally figured that if she hung around, they would soon be very poor and she and her son would never enjoy the standard of living she was working hard to attain as long as her husband continued to make unwise choices so she left him and before two years were over, she was happy and prosperous while the husband, now reduced to poverty, was trying to negotiate with her to return.
Also, in 2002, the Women and AIDS Support Network (WASN) conducted the “Voices and Choices” research, which looked into the sexual and reproductive health and rights of HIV positive women. What struck me among the report’s findings was the percentage of married women who were infected by the only sexual partners they had known and within the marital union, contrary to the common belief that the virus affects mostly commercial sex workers who are considered a “high risk” group. More than 70 percent of women interviewed were virgins when they got married and were infected by their husbands. This influenced WASN’s decision to focus its programmes on married women and women in stable relationships, who were at higher risk than commercial sex workers. The sad reality is that such a large number of women became unwitting victims of the consequences of other people’s choices, that is, their husbands. Although the research is more than a decade old, this reality still applies to some women, particularly those who are economically dependent on their spouses and have very little say.
These examples and my current situation illustrate how one person’s decision can negatively affect other people. The people whose decisions affect us seem to have difficulty learning from life’s experiences, yet we cannot wish such people off the planet. So perhaps, the best to do under such circumstances is first to empower oneself. This may be difficult for the child whose parents make unwise decisions. However, for adults, don’t place yourself in a position of vulnerability where someone’s decisions affect you negatively. If you are economically dependent on that person, find something to do so you can earn your own money and have a say.
Secondly, where possible, always have a contingency plan. Indeed not everyone is a good planner and unfortunately sometimes we are affected by other people’s failure to plan. However, when we know the people we are working with, it is possible to predict the consequences of their inability to plan and therefore incumbent upon us to come up with a contingency plan so that we do not become victims when the inevitable happens.
Lastly, I hope in the choices we make, we take time to think about how our decisions have a downstream effect on other people, be it family, friends, colleagues, business associates or strangers. If we try to think of others, perhaps, in a small way, we will make wiser decisions and the world will be a better place.