Rhodes University: African Languages student writes first-ever ChiShona PhD thesis at Rhodes University

A PhD student in the African Language Studies Section in the School of Languages and Literatures, Mr Ignatius Mabasa, has been awarded a PhD for the first-ever thesis written in ChiShona at Rhodes University.

His thesis, titled “CHAVE CHEMUTENGURE VHIRI RENGORO: HUSARUNGANO NERWENDO RWENGANO DZEVASHONA. The folktale in confrontation with a changing world: a Shona storyteller’s autoethnography.” encompasses his story as a Shona folklorist and creative writer, and the story of the Shona people.

Mr Mabasa named several reasons why he decided to write his thesis in his mother tongue. He said, “The elephant must after his nature trumpet and not meow like a cat. I am a Shona storyteller, filmmaker and author who started telling stories before I could read or write.”

His thesis is also a revolt against attitudes that systematically deny Africans an agenda in their own land and languages. “The choice to use ChiShona is a response to the exclusion and marginalisation of othered knowledges. By using the Shona language, I am rethinking pedagogy and targeting a disenfranchised audience. Brutal colonial conquest and forced acculturation have disturbed and created insecure conditions for Africans. Africans have had other people tell their stories for them – othering them, judging them, labelling them, misrepresenting them. My thesis in Shona is part of unthinking Eurocentrism and searching for alternative epistemologies. The African cannot continue thinking as if he is still living in a colonial world, perpetuating colonial discourses and perspectives.”

At its core, the thesis rests on a Zimbabwean foundational narrative called Chemutengure that indigenous people sung when the British colonised them in 1890. “It is a song of resisting disruption, and talking about it in the very language and culture that was being resisted, namely English, is some kind of betrayal,” he explained.

According to Mr Mabasa, his use of ChiShona also acts as a challenge to gatekeeping in academia where research and the language it uses marginalises certain classes, creating dangerous dominant narratives and pseudo-realities.

In his thesis, he makes use of autoethnography, which is a methodology that deliberately seeks to make research and knowledge accessible. “I think academics usually forget that we do research in order to share information and knowledge so as to bring about positive change. My thesis is an attempt to decolonise the mind and democratise knowledge – such that our people, starting with young learners, can read and reflect on the importance of indigenous knowledge as a powerful pedagogical tool, and the power of storytelling to bring about consciousness in a cocacolonised world,” he said.

Supervising the thesis was Professor Chimhundu, a well-known ChiShona scholar from Zimbabwe, and Professor Russell Kaschula, NRF SARChI Research Chair for the Intellectualisation of African Languages, Multilingualism and Education and Professor of African Language Studies at Rhodes University.

On the idea of theses written in an author’s first language, Prof Kaschula stated, “Not only is it an international linguistic right, but it also helps to grow one’s own language intellectually. The benefits are that one is able to express oneself best in a language one understands best and that is normally your mother tongue or the language to which you have had most exposure, both academically and socially.”

He anticipates first-language theses written in African languages growing as a trend in education in South Africa. “Already we have Grade 12 students in the Eastern Cape writing their exams in Sesotho and isiXhosa. Many universities now allow theses to be written in languages other than English. The unfortunate political fallout of higher education language planning is that the efforts to demote Afrikaans as a language to be used at tertiary level makes it difficult for African languages to flourish – this knee-jerk reaction strengthens the role of the other colonial language, namely English. One wonders how such a narrow-minded view can contribute to debates of transformation and decolonisation.”

He believes universities need to prepare for this shift, rather than to assume English will remain the dominant language in perpetuity.

Regarding Mr Mabasa’s ChiShona thesis, Prof Kaschula said, “Mr Mabasa is one of the most accomplished storytellers in Zimbabwe – hence we decided his thesis should be written in his own language, ChiShona. The contribution of this thesis is ground-breaking, as it brings intellectual strength not only to the tradition, but to the people of Zimbabwe as well, at a time when we are still grappling with the role that African languages, cultures and indigenous knowledge should play in a decolonised educational curriculum.”

Mr Mabasa hopes that his thesis will bring about a decolonial movement that gives birth to diverse and inclusive multicultural theories. “I believe it will make the marginalised aware of identity politics and start engaging with, and speaking to experiences shrouded in silence. Decolonisation is part of the solution to the problems Africa is facing today. I hope our academic, economic, cultural and political institutions will cease to be ivory towers and come to value and mainstream indigenous knowledge as a relevant framework.”

Mr Mabasa will be awarded his PhD at Rhodes University’s virtual graduation ceremony in April 2021. He currently lectures at the University of Zimbabwe’s Department of Creative Media and Communication.


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