Friday, February 11, 2011

(NYASATIMES) Chichewa in progress: Dictionary project

Chichewa in progress: Dictionary project
By Nyasa Times
Published: February 9, 2011

The Dictionary Project of Foundation Heart for Malawi offers important news for the 20 million native and expatriate speakers and users of the South-Central African language of Chichewa. By the way, let no one feel offended by the usage of the word Chichewa. The actual name of the language may be Chinyanja, but in this article Dr. Steven Paas, the leader of the Project, prefers to call it Chichewa, because under that name it has become universally known.

In January 2011 two events happened that signify the progress of Chichewa as a language in general, and of Chichewa Lexicography in particular. The one pertains to the origin of Chichewa as a written language, and the other refers to modern Chichewa history.

The first event took place in Mandala House, Blantyre, Malawi’s first and oldest building in European style. In the upper storey of the building the Archives of the Society of Malawi can be found. On 31 January 2011 on a somewhat forgotten shelf Librarian Dora Wimbush was happy enough to find a copy of the first-ever book that includes Chichewa in writing. It is entitled ‘Dictionary of the Kiniassa Language’. Of course the name Kiniassa cannot mislead us, being Swahili for ‘language of the lake’, which unmistakenly refers to Chinyanja, i.e. Chichewa in this article. In the years 1850-1860 the dictionary was compiled by a German missionary, Johannes Rebmann, in Mombasa (present-day Kenya).[1] Rebmann worked for the Anglican Church Missionary Society (CMS). He sourced the book, of some 180 pages in A5 size, from a Malawian slave, Salimini, who originated from Mphande near Ntchisi.

Here we have the historical bridge between oral and written Chichewa. The book was first printed in 1877, but before that year hand-written copies circulated and were used by the first European travellers and missionaries in Malawi.

If David Livingstone possessed a copy, it would explain why the famous explorer showed some command of Chichewa during his five journeys in Malawi in the years 1858 and 1867. Bishop MacKenzie and his party of the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa (UMCA) may have used Rebmann’s vocabulary at their first Anglican attempt for mission in Malawi in 1861. No doubt Robert Laws, Henry Henderson, Duff MacDonald, James Steward, Edward D. Young etc., who in 1875 were the first Scottish missionaries in Malawi, used the manuscript, and from 1877 they must have used the printed book.

When the Anglicans under bishop Tozer returned to Malawi in 1881 they must have used printed copies of the Kiniassa Dictionary made by Rebmann, who after all was an employee of a fellow-Anglican mission organisation. The book was printed in Basle and in London, but of course the copies were mainly destined for usage in Africa. Where are they now? There must be more copies around in Malawi at present.

D.D. Phiri once saw the book in the National Archives in Zomba, but unfortunately later he could not trace it anymore. Another copy is with Menno Welling, a Dutch anthropologist of the Catholic University of Malawi. The book in Mandala House is the second copy Paas has ever seen, after the one he discovered in the Archives of the Basler Mission in Switzerland, where Rebmann trained to be a missionary.

Fortunately today the book is accessible to the general public on the internet, as Google has published a digitized version. On 27 and 28 January at Zomba Theological College Paas was given an opportunity to lecture on the origin of written Chichewa to an audience of students, theologians, and linguists. This marks a growing interest in the continuation of research of the history of Chichewa lexicography.

The second event in January 2011 pertained to the latest publication in the chain of lexicographical works of Chichewa. Through a process, which started in 1997 Paas in 2010 published the second edition of a combined Chichewa-English and English-Chichewa Dictionary of 858 pages (size A5). The book has been in shops in Malawi and Zambia since mid-2010. In January 4000 copies were distributed for free to pupils, teachers and libraries of some 30 secondary schools in Malawi.[2] Namikango Mission and the Tithandizane Educational Programme provided for the logistics of the operation. The Nation has covered the campaign by including a series of adverts during the months October to December, and two articles in their paper of 30 January 2011.[3] By free distribution to learners who have no economical means of their own the Dictionary Project of Foundation Heart for Malawi wants to provide a tool for communication to Chichewa spoken Africa, thus promoting education and development. This is being enabled by those who buy the book for themselves and for others, and by those who sponsor the Project. Apart from the book the Dictionary is accessible online.[4]

Although the process of compilation, edition and publication is led by an Azungu (= European) researcher, the dictionary’s position is quite different from its predecessors, which faded out from publicity sooner or later, especially when they were completely donor-driven foreign enterprises. The book is the result of the work of a team of Malawian contributors. Malawian institutions as the Centre for Language Studies and the Malawi Institute of Education have shown a firm interest in the continuity of the process and the book. These factors make Paas’ Chichewa Dictionary a genuinely Malawian enterprise that will last.

* Written by Steven Paas

[1] For further information on Rebmann, see:

[2] See:

[3] See: under: Latest News

[4] See:

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