History Of Malawi

Petition to Parliament on Indigenous Languages.

Dear Honourable Members of Parliament;

Introduce the use of indigenous language (s) in Parliament to complement English and officially recognise other indigenous languages as national languages

Member of Parliament Hon. Yusuf Nthenda receiving the Petition on 6th October 2020 at Parliament.


  1. This Petition requests you the Honourable Members of Parliament to take the necessary actions towards repairing the negative impacts of Malawi Government’s policy directive of 1968 on indigenous languages (chiYao, chiLomhwe, chiSena, chiTonga, chiLambya, chiNgonde, chiNgoni etc). The scientific, cultural and historical basis of our petition are highlighted below.


  1. As you may agree, languages are integral to development of any nation. There is a huge chunk of cultural knowledge and values which can only be expressed through indigenous languages. This information is at the brink of extinction due to the suppression of other indigenous languages in Malawi. We believe that there are many issues of national importance (culturally, morally, politically, socially etc) not ably and fully discussed in Parliament due to the requirement to use the English language only. As a result, active participation for some Members of Parliament is heavily limited. Effective communication on the part of the constituents most of whom are not able to speak and write English, is also hampered as far as parliamentary deliberations are concerned. This has been the problem since the colonial era right through to the present democratic dispensation.


  1. As at independence in July 1964, the most commonly spoken language in Malawi was chiNyanja which was also called as such, as well as spoken in Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe and other parts of Southern Africa.
  1. In September 1968, the Malawi Government started implementing a policy directive to change the name of chiNyanja language to become chiChewa and made it as the only officially recognised national language for the country to be taught in all schools by compulsory. ChiTumbuka was immediately removed from the country’s only public broadcaster the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) and in schools as a language of instruction (in the North), and in print media besides the confiscation and wanton destruction of chiTumbuka literature. Furthermore, English was officially declared the only formal institutional language while the other indigenous languages (except chiChewa) were restricted to familiar and intra-ethnic interactions.
  1. Research reveal that the Malawi Government’s decision to rename the language as chiChewa from its original name chiNyanja and to give it all the attention to the exclusion of other indigenous languages, is perceived by others as unjust decision which has perpetrated the same grave mistake by the colonialists when they imposed English as the only official language of the land, thereby thwarting the growth and development of indigenous languages.
  1. Without wide consultations and basis on systematic socio-linguistic appraisal of the indigenous languages, the adoption of chiChewa as the only officially recognised national language in 1968, was considered by the Government of Malawi as a tool for national unity. Multilingualism was rejected as a serious threat to national unity. We contend that this directive was a terrible mistake by the Malawi Government which caused some indigenous languages to become vulnerable for extinction.
  1.  Whilst some independent African countries were pursuing policies aimed at promoting their indigenous languages as official languages e.g. Tanzania and Kenya, Malawi Government took the opposite direction:
  1. The President of Malawi Dr. Kamuzu Banda himself always spoke English in public with an interpreter for local languages even when addressing the rural people.
  1. During Dr Kamuzu Banda administration, candidates for parliamentary elections were required to pass an English Proficiency test before being vetted to contest.
  1. The third cycle of Parliament was prematurely dissolved on 18th April 1978 and fresh parliamentary elections were called simply because most parliamentarians were struggling to speak English.
  1. The 1994 Malawi constitution (Chapter VI as Section 51. b) stipulates that one cannot qualify as a parliamentary candidate unless he/she “is able to speak and read English language well enough to take an active part in the proceedings of Parliament.”
  •  Subsequently, at the expense of the rest of the indigenous languages, the position and power of English were strengthened such that even today, English continues to be erroneously associated with being intelligent and socio-economic privileges and prestige while the state of indigenous languages was weakened and continues to be perceived as inferior. However, it is a well-known fact among linguists that no language is inferior to any other let alone incapable of incorporating modern knowledge.
  •   Furthermore, chiChewa being the only national language, at the expense of the rest of the indigenous languages, resources were devoted towards the development and preservation of chiChewa i.e. setting up of chiChewa Research Committee (1970), establishment of a parastatal called chiChewa Board (1972-1995); inclusion of chiChewa in primary and secondary school curricular; degree courses in chiChewa at the University of Malawi; chiChewa teaching programmes on MBC radio (Tiphunzitsane chiChewa and chiChewa cha kumudzi). All this entrenched a hegemonic preponderance of chiChewa over the rest of indigenous languages which continues to the present time.


  1.   Research has also confirmed that the elevation of chiChewa as the only officially recognised national language raised feelings of brutalisation, humiliation, resentment, and marginalisation among the speakers of the other indigenous languages who considered their own languages neglected. This unfortunately, has not served the intended purpose of national unity.
  1.  The acknowledgment in speeches by political leaders (as recent as the political campaigns for the 2019 General elections) during public rallies attests that strong and unhealthy ethnic affiliations still exist today. Results of almost all national elections held in Malawi since 1994, unequivocally indicate that Malawians vote largely along ethnic and regional lines. This is a further confirmation that the elevation of chiChewa as national language in 1968, did not foster national unity.
  1.   The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in its World Report of 2009, substantiates that the dominant indigenous languages and colonial languages which prevail in all areas of public and official life in most countries in Africa, have hampered the ability of speakers of other indigenous languages to preserve theirs as the domains of usage become increasingly restricted. UNESCO further concurs that the prestige of the dominant language and its predominance, lead communities to undermine the value of their own language in a process of symbolic domination.
  1.  In contrast, in the neighbouring Zambia upon independence in 1964, Bemba as the language of the majority of Zambians, was not adopted as the only national language at the expense of other indigenous languages as it happened in Malawi. Similarly, South Africa after 1994 also did not adopt siZulu as the language of the majority of South Africans to become the only officially recognised national language at the expense of other indigenous languages as it happened in Malawi. Unlike Malawi, in Zimbabwe, all indigenous languages spoken in the country including our own chiChewa, are officially recognised as national languages at par with Shona the most commonly spoken language in Zimbabwe.
  1. The indigenous languages in Zambia, South Africa and Zimbabwe are therefore unlikely exposed to threats of extinction as it is the case in Malawi. Hence unlike Malawi, feelings of brutalisation, humiliation, resentment, and marginalisation among speakers on other indigenous languages are unlikely prevalent in African countries like Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.


  1.  Moving forward, it is our proposal that the Honourable Members of Parliament should:
  1. Consider a law renaming our current national language of ChiChewa to its original name of ChiNyanja (so that the name ChiChewa is reserved and remains the name of the language spoken by the Chewa Tribe of the Central Region);
  1. Consider a law providing for the official recognition and equitable treatment of all indigenous languages spoken in Malawi as national languages so that all the languages can receive the equitable support by Government;
  1. Consider a law providing for the teaching of the indigenous languages in schools for the pupils/students to select as subjects to learn.
  1. Consider a law providing for the use of indigenous languages including sign language and brail in official domains.
  • In light of Chapter VI as Section 56. 5 of the Constitution of Malawi, formulate parliamentary standing orders to provide for the use of indigenous language (s) and sign language in Parliament (with translation facilities) to complement the use of English.  
  • Consider a law providing for any other measures Honourable Members may deem fit to champion the celebration, preservation and use of all indigenous languages in the country.


  1.   The linguistic diversity and multilingualism should be nurtured and promoted in Malawi as important tools for national identity, communication, social integration, education and development. In its World Report of 2009, UNESCO advises that linguistic diversity and multilingualism are critical in attaining quality education for all, strengthening cooperation, building inclusive knowledge societies, preserving cultural heritage. UNESCO further confirms that a guiding principle of cultural diversity is to strengthen and maintain the diversity of languages in a particular country.
  1.  Lifting the restriction on the use of English only in Parliament will enable the sitting members of parliament (MPs) to freely and more meaningfully participate in the parliamentary deliberations using the indigenous language (s) in which they are more fluent than English as it happens in other African countries e.g. South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya, Botswana. This will also enhance effective communication with the constituents as far as parliamentary deliberations are concerned.


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