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Language as a site of resistance to physical and mental borders

Our guest writer examines her childhood filled with many languages and a plurality that resisted colonial imaginations and borders.

Joshua hoehne Y Pg Tov Ti Uv4 unsplash
Unsplash/Joshua Hoehne

Zambia, my birth country, has over seventy different linguistic groups. My mother and father belong to two different groups. My late father had a Namwanga mother and father. The Namwanga people are an ethnic group from the North of Zambia, said to have descended from North East Africa. In fact, Namwanga people can be found in Tanzania because of the erroneous way borders were placed in the 1800s. There was no thought given by colonisers to the manner in which indigenous people wished to be organised. However, in Zambia Namwanga people are led by the sister (kin) of the Namwanga King. She is known as the Nawaitwika, Chieftainess, or Queen. In Tanzania Namwanga people are led by the King or Mukoma. The shared language and the cultural implications of the language keep us together despite the colonial crusade against our own delineations. Dissimilar to my father, my mother had parents from two language groups and one from outside of Zambia’s borders. My maternal grandfather was Chewa from Zambia, while my grandmother is said to be of the Sotho people of South Africa with ties to the Xhosa kingdom. The home I grew up in was thus linguistically diverse, making me glaringly aware of how borders shape human life and relationships.

When frustrated, my mother would speak to her sister or herself in Sotho or Tswana. Among his own people, my father spoke eloquent Namwanga. At his job in parliament as state counsel, he spoke English. That is to say that my experience in a linguistically diverse household also demonstrated that language is not only important as an identifier of belonging, but as a form of self-expression and one which allows people to bond in ways they cannot in English. Language shapes cultural institutions like schools, where I have spent most of my life, and political institutions, such as the ones my father spent most of his life, and these shape our understanding of those social relationships and our relationship to these institutions.

Scholar Ngugi Wa Thiong'o (1994) argues:

The choice of language and the use to which language is put is central to a people's definition of themselves in relation to their natural and social environment, indeed in relation to the entire universe. Hence language has always been at the heart of the two contending social forces in Africa of the twentieth century.

Use of language

Whilst a native of Zambia, I moved with my parents to South Africa where, during xenophobic flare-ups, failure to name body parts like the elbow in a local language would result in assault as it was evidence of foreignness. Whatever language was coming out of my mouth clearly wasn’t South African, nor European. I was a foreigner, and Black. The anti-Blackness that came about as a result of the apartheid regime which meant that only Black foreigners would be questioned about their language and subsequently abused. Here I learnt that language can be used to include but it can also be used to other people, narrowing the conceptions of who belongs and who does not belong in the country or the community.

In South Africa these linguistic borders also defined tribes. These differences were used to segregate people into homeland settlements where they would have not had the opportunity to develop their own culture or learn from other cultures outside their borders beyond the limits of the pass that allowed them to go into the city for work. The colonial spectre of English in work spaces, with home spaces associated with native language is a binary familiar to many in the Global South. Just as wa Thiong’o outlined in his seminal work, oppressive colonial conventions enforced linguistic violence through the drawing of arbitrary borders. Those same systems sought to stifle and kill imagination through a denigration of linguistic plurality - and it is this very same site where borders are subject to critique through play, art, and life itself.


When speaking of what many consider how we define ourselves or our identities it is impossible to ignore gender. Much as language is an expression of interiority, so too is gender. In The Invention of Gender Nigerian Yoruba scholar Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí (1997) argues that gender is specifically defined in relation to other people. She describes how this process happens through language, and notes that in the language of the Yoruba people there are no gender markers. Rather, difference is mostly denoted by seniority. The same can be said of Zambian language (lingua franca) like Nyanja where definitive pronouns for he and she are not used but instead you may find that people who are older are given an honorific. In Namwanga culture, the Chieftainess/Queen is in fact referred to as Ba Taata (father) to denote her authority. This suggests that gender is associated with power in some African cultures but once one has access to that power as a woman one can in fact be addressed as a man would be either through an honorific denoting seniority or a gender position such as Father. However, Oyewumni notes that in Yoruba society, gender is not an organising principle in any real sense. Rather, the use of honorifics in language suggests that class and age is what organises some non-Western societies.

If language is important in constructing or deconstructing gender identity (whilst also being reflective of the way a society is organised) then it is important to look at language to understand a society's conception of gender. Coloniality of the mind, as wa Thiong’o argues, is “central to a people's definition of themselves”. When people are able to define themselves, and break past colonial restrictions on language, gender, and thus imagination itself, borders become less like boundaries and more like sites of resistance.


Language in this instance creates political narrative but also challenges the narratives that make resistance necessary. Language is crucial to how we share stories as it is a medium that easily encapsulates time and denotes perspective in a way that may be hard wrought in other mediums of communication. Through a system of excluding and dividing people through language, colonialism’s fixity of both physical borders and mental borders is intertwined. Linguistic borders that privilege the language of colonisers at every conceivable turn can be threatened with linguistic plurality. In doing so, we must hope to equip the flourishing of indigenous cultures, and in turn cultivate a boundaryless conception of gender, language, and identity.

As an African woman, language was important in my education or, rather, miseducation. As I have grown older I have learnt to understand that it could limit me or it could expand my horizons depending on when and how I used it. As someone who grew up in a linguistically diverse family, I especially came to appreciate that there was no single coloniser language that I could or should arrange my life in deference to.

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