By Vangile Gantsho (@Vangi22)
“I had to admit, for the first time, how deeply scarred not being fluent in isiXhosa had left me. Beyond being embarrassed, it has separated me from completely understanding my cultural rituals. From having rich and full conversations with my grandparents and cousins and great aunts and uncles. I had to come to terms with having spent my whole life surviving a deliberate attempt at erasing who I am as a human being.”
As a writer, constantly in pursuit of my voice, I have always been embarrassed by my inability to speak isiXhosa fluently. Although my command of the English language is something I pride myself on, that it comes at the expense of my home language has never warranted any celebration. In fact, if anything, it is something I have been deeply insecure about for as long as I can remember now.
Recently, after enrolling in a MA in Creative Writing programme at Rhodes University, I found myself in a position where I would be required to attend isiXhosa seminars and reading groups for four months. The thought of what this meant practically filled me with anxiety and when I received my first readings, I sat on the phone with my mother in tears because it dawned on me that I would have to read something out loud in class, and that this may be followed by a writing-sharing exercise.
As a child, my family moved around a lot. Although I didn’t know it then, I grew to understand that my father’s political choices meant that we could not stay in one place for too long. When I began school in Beaufort West I could speak isiXhosa fluently, but our move to Windhoek a year later forced me back to Grade1 (Sub A) where I had to learn English so I could be “teachable”.
When he was still alive, uTata used to tell me how the teachers said they could not teach me because I didn’t know English, to which he responded: “then you can’t teach.” This anecdote would always be followed by a fond reminder of how I walked into that school not speaking a word of English and within six months I spoke it better than all the children in my class.
From that year onwards, the bulk of my formal education has been an unlearning of my home language. Replacing isiXhosa with a “You’re so articulate”- kind of English. A linguistic displacement I could never, ironically, articulate until my thirty-one year old self sat holding back tears in her first Xhosa lesson ever. As we began going around the class, each reading a paragraph from Witness K Thamsanqa, I felt like I was on the verge of an anxiety attack, trying to follow what was being read while figuring out where I would have to read and wishing for a chance to practice the words out loud first.
The thing is, I could not remember when last I had been required to read isiXhosa out loud before. Not an excerpt from Waphucuka Umnt‘omnyama, my one and only half-Xhosa a poem – which I had spent lifetimes working on and bouncing off my mother and aunt before releasing into the world. Here, I would read something that was real Xhosa. From an author whose work has always been something out of reach that only 1st Language Xhosa speakers could attempt.
The real breakthrough came from the free-writing. We are given five minutes to put pen to paper. No thinking, just writing. And for five minutes, I wrote more than half a page in isiXhosa, using only two English words. I wrote in my home language instinctively! Without my mother or my aunt! And as I read my free-writing piece out loud to my classmates (now completely unable to fight back the tears) I felt akin to someone who had come home from years of being somewhere they didn’t know. Like home had always known me, in spite of all attempts, my mother tongue knows me. And always has!
While sitting in the bathroom, completely torn to shreds, I had to admit, for the first time, how deeply scarred not being fluent in isiXhosa had left me. Beyond being embarrassed, it has separated me from completely understanding my cultural rituals. From having rich and full conversations with my grandparents and cousins and great aunts and uncles. I had to come to terms with having spent my whole life surviving a deliberate attempt at erasing who I am as a human being.
I remember the first time I met Mthunzikazi Mbungwana’s poetry, she said: “I write in isiXhosa because it is the language I dream in.”
How awe-filled it left me, the thought of being able to dream in your home language!
Scrabble fanatic; Professional feather stirrer: (Poet and Freelance Writer)
Vangi is a girl who couldn’t sleep
Then one day was told she was deep
The family thought she was crazy
Coz her visions for Africa were spacey
But now her scribbling, they all want to keep