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Mwangwego Script: A Legacy that never was.

A mark in the history of Malawi was made on this date, 17 April 1997. Nolence Mwangwego released the Mwangwego Script which was supposed to be Malawi’s exclusive writing system. Nonetheless, what is a writing script? It is essentially a way of visually representing a language. Writing systems use sets of symbols to represent sounds of speech, and may also have symbols for items such as punctuation and numerals. A more familiar example is the Latin script we use & is used to write most languages in Afrika & Europe.

Basic syllabic repertoire of the Mwangwego Script.

The script, which was to be used for writing Malawian languages and languages in the Bantu Linguistic group, including all native Zimbabwean languages, was to be incorporated into the school syllabi. Its inventor, Nolence Mwangwego said he had come up with the script since although Malawi had many languages, the country still used the Roman/Latin alphabet to write languages like Chichewa, Lomwe, Tumbuka, Ngoni, Sena, Yao and others. A unique Malawian style of writing, in his view, was necessary for the nation’s identity.

A script is not only a technology for writing the spoken word; it is also a cultural symbol of a people and their identity. The mere sign of Arabic script carries the power of Islam and the Arab/Muslim people. Every time we see Amharic written we see the might of Ethiopian culture.Writing scripts are also powerful political symbols used all over the world to show national identity.

Different symbols from various writing systems.

There is no doubt the every time we see Japanese script, we see Japanese’s culture, the Cyrillic script we think of Russia and other Slavic languages, every time we see Chinese we must think in terms of the culture, politics and identity of the Chinese. And by this same logic every time we see Latin we can almost map the history of conquered people and the politics of Western civilization on the world. There is a direct relationship (while not exclusive) to the presence of Latin and the power of Western imposition.

The Mwangwego Script would have possessed the same amount of political and cultural power. At a larger scale, it would have paved way for a cultural revolution; a script for southern afrikan languages which in turn would have reinforced unity and a strong identity within Afrika, especially Southern Afrika. It is also worth noting that the latin alphabet that is used to write bantu languages does not accurately represent the unique qualities of our languages. This is true for any other Afrikan language that uses the Latin Script thus special adoptions are needed to accurately represent every Afrikan language.

A sample of the Mwangwego in use.

In Afrika, the Bantu languages need one, because it has none of its own, Nolence Mwangwego realized this and invested his life’s work in creating a solution; the Mwangwego Script, as a political statement, and as an improved representation for the unique qualities of these languages. Why use the English alphabet to write our own languages?

In one sense, the magnitude of his endeavour was recognized, at the launch, then Malawian Youth, Sports and Culture Minister Kamangadazi Chambalo commented: “If Government is going to do nothing about the script, I am going to be surprised.” Today, the government has done nothing, the corporate world has been silent, and the script that was meant to be a unique way of writing Malawian languages has been repudiated, and the sole man who invented it, is the only one keeping it alive. It is not surprising at all that Malawians did not and are still not acknowledging the script; any invention coming from fellow Afrikans will face resistance. We are only willing to learn and accept things that are given to us by the West.

Nolence Mwangwego

For Nolence Mwangwego, a teacher of French, the past 20 years have been a struggle, using personal finances to promote the system of writing by teaching a number of pioneers and holding lectures on the script at various institutions comprising of Secondary Schools, Universities and Teaching Colleges with the aim of teaching the script to at least 10 000 people. But maybe the script is not gaining national identification because Mwangwego is fighting the battle alone.

The government is doing little to help. It has turned political and they insinuate that the script is just for his personal identity because it bears his name but looking at the history of writing systems we learn that Braille, the system of writing used by visually-impaired people was developed by Louis Braille; the Cyrillic alphabet was developed by two brothers, one was Cyril. Malawians ought to be proud that one of them invented a system of writing. And, against all odds, maybe the script is just too difficult to learn.

Will Malawi’s greatest and probably most significant invention ever see the light of day? It is one level of achievement to create a new, consistent and workable writing system; to get it adopted is an entirely different challenge. While there is likely to be no mass movement soon to reform Malawi’s choice of writing system, regardless of how it will be interpreted by the public nationwide, the Script is expected to be a groundbreaking innovation in the annals of world history.

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