Love of home language leads to research uniting people of Zimbabwe and SA
Writing a thesis entirely in Xhosa is rare, but Rhodes PhD recipient Hleze Kunju has done just that. Calling his thesis a milestone for Xhosa academic writing, Kunju collected his doctoral degree, written completely in Xhosa, at Rhodes University last week.
Kunju, 31, an Eastern Cape born cultural activist and academic, has always had a passion for his mother tongue.
“Academic institutions should really encourage the use of African languages,” he said.
“We need more academic material written in Xhosa.”
Kunju’s PhD, IsiXhosa ulwimi lwabantu abangesosininzi eZimbabwe: Ukuphila nokulondolozwa kwaso [Xhosa as a Minority Language in Zimbabwe: Survival and Maintenance], looks at the amaXhosa people living in Zimbabwe and highlights the growing concern that there is almost no literature at all written about them.
“In the thesis, I have tried to let them tell their own stories rather than me talking about them,” he said.
“This thesis is for them as well, so it’s important for them to be able to access it in their own language.”
Kunju said he hoped his research – taken from an ethnographic standpoint after he stayed with the people and participated in cultural activities – would bring people together and connect them through language.
“It will further connect the amaXhosa of Zimbabwe with those of South Africa,” he said.
“There will be more awareness about the existence of the amaXhosa in Zimbabwe.
“There are Xhosa cultural aspects that have been lost in both countries.
“The Xhosas from these countries will be able to learn from each other and enrich the amaXhosa culture.
“This was one of the first steps towards the important conversation about decolonisation as well as transformation.”
Kunju said he had been inspired by African writers such as Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Kwesi Kwaa Prah and Russell Kaschula because they promoted the use of African languages.
He plans to produce more academic articles in Xhosa.
Growing up in the rural Eastern Cape and attending schools in Cofimvaba, Kunju said he had never been given the opportunity to focus his studies on his language of choice.
“Throughout junior and senior school, my favourite subject was always Xhosa,” he said.
“During this time, Xhosa was not a popular subject at all.
“There was pressure to do well in mathematics and English. Parents and teachers always emphasised that we would succeed in life if we excelled in those subjects.
He said his fellow pupils would always laugh whenever they saw him reading a Xhosa book.
After matriculating, Kunju did a BA, passing with distinction, at Rhodes. After completing his honours, he taught music and drama at the Peterhouse Group of Schools in Zimbabwe, where he learnt to speak Shona, a native language in Zimbabwe.
“I have always had a passion for African languages,” Kunju said. “There’s a lot of research that needs to be undertaken in African languages.”
He also taught Xhosa at Rhodes and at Victoria Girls High School in Grahamstown.
“Considering my rural background, I felt that learning in English was a huge disadvantage,” Kunju said.
“I really felt that it was not fair to suffer [when] Xhosa is an official language [in the province] and the majority of people are Xhosa speakers.”