Last year I spent two weeks in Zambia’s Western Province, training a group of people to survey the languages of their vast province as they sought to start developing their languages and translating the Bible into them. Since then I have been excited to see the rapid and encouraging progress that the team has made.

Recently the project was featured on BBC World Service, and on the BBC website, with the website article particularly focusing on the Shanjo people and their language, ciShanjo.

“It’s like a miracle,” says Hastings Sitale, recalling how he felt when he saw a booklet written in ciShanjo, a language he had only ever spoken before.

 Mr Sitale, who describes himself as “just a farmer”, is part of an estimated 20,000-strong Shanjo community in Zambia’s remote Western Province.

Over the last few months, he has been part of a group of amateur linguists, mostly fellow farmers, who have been creating a spelling system for their mother tongue.

For the first time stories passed down through the generations by word of mouth are being written down.

“We decided to do this so, as the older people die away, the younger people will see the language,” Mr Sitale told the BBC World Service.

‘Sheer excitement’

Mr Hastings and his team of village translators are one of five teams developing a written language for their tongues in the Western Province.

They attend translation workshops in the regional capital Mongu – a round trip which can take up to 32 hours, travelling by oxen, car and bus.

“They call us people from the bush or forest people,” says Carol Mushali, who is the only woman on the ciShanjo translation team.

She sees the potential for primary school lessons using ciShanjo now that siLozi and English can be translated in written form because, many researchers say, children learn best in their mother tongue.

There are also benefits for adults learning this new form of their language.

“Once they taste a bit of knowledge they want more. It opens up learning to take place – a foundation that teaches them to read and write opens up the mind to further learning of every type,” says Ms Mushali. Read More…

Read the rest of the BBC article to hear more testimonies from the Shanjo people of what it’s like to read and write their language for the first time. You can also read a couple of posts that I wrote when I conducted a workshop with the team last year, and visit the project website for regular updates on their progress.

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