Lifestyle & Arts

Colonial era Bantu pidgin – Fanagalo lives on in urban centre

By Norma Tsopo

MUTARE – In a bid to bridge communication barriers with their Bantu servants, white colonialists cobbled together Zulu, English and Afrikaans to create a hybrid dialect – Fanagalo, a Bantu pidgin that would serve as their language of instruction.

Originating in South Africa, it was composed of 70 percent of Zulu, 24 percent English and six percent Afrikaans and remains the only Zulu-based pidgin language.

Enduring loyalty

Manuel Vhulande has served his employer Angelina Brescasia for over 70 years and their language of choice has been Fanagalo – a colonial era Bantu pidgin  

It is however a rare example of a pidgin based on an indigenous language rather than on the language of a colonizing or trading power, according to Wikipedia.

The name Fanagalo comes from strung-together Nguni forms fana-ga-lo meaning “like + of + that” and has the meaning “do it like this”, reflecting the purpose of its creation – ordering.

“Fifteen hours instruction was considered sufficient for an initiate to become reasonably fluent,” notes Wikipedia.

Being so simple and without any strict rules for gramma, its use spread in mines and farms across South Africa and further inland into Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Locally it is referred to as Chilapalapa, and has a Shona influence.

Its use in Zimbabwe was however most prominent during the colonial era which ended 37 years ago.

Rising literacy levels and mastery of the queen’s language among indigenous Zimbabweans which bridged the communication barriers saw the use of this linguistic colonial relic declining.

Without any deliberate efforts to preserve this pidgin encountering people who still rely on it as a primary communication medium was something maDzimbahwe Explorer crew never expected to encounter – particularly in an urban setting.

Here we were interviewing Angelina Brescasia, a 94-year-old-lady who owns an apartment right in Mutare’s central business district.

Our conversation was not getting along so well because she is increasingly losing her memory with her advancing age, she then invites her servant, 88-year-old Manuel Vhulande to sit next to her.

Brescasia fondly refers to him as her Kekeroni, the first sign that they were in a different linguistic sphere.

The interview was in English and Vhulande’ mastery of it is poor so we could only converse directly with Brescasia. But being Shona speakers though, we could also speak directly with Vhulande but that would again keep his boss out of the conversation – and potentially infuriate our host.

So we stuck with English, while the two consulted and conversed between themselves before Brescasia would give her responses – particularly those that required that she goes back in time.

It was, thus, only natural for our inquisitive crew to ask Vhulande what language the two were using during the interview as he walked us out. To our surprise, he revealed they were using a colonial era Bantu pidgin.

This has been their language of choice for the over 70 years that Vhulande has been serving this family.

They never bothered to learn each other’s language and remained on the neutral grounds of the hybrid language to get by and they understand each other fully well.

Fond of each other even!

“I have my Kekeroni here, he is like my son up to date l don’t need anything because he knows what I need, this one,” Brescasia said during the interview.

Vhulande who started working for them as a teenager also has no complaints having stayed with her since before she lost her husband in the 1950s.

“I could not leave my boss’s wife alone after all the good things they had both done for me. I helped her to raise both children, I would bath and take her boy to crèche and I watched him grow,” he said.

Brescasia has two children – a boy now based in South Africa, and a girl who relocated back to their ancestral lands of Italy, and they are now both grandparents.

Brescasia and her Kekeroni continue to live in their time capsule in Mutare without a care of what treasures their conversations have for linguists and language researchers.

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