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Early Missionaries and the Ethnolinguistic Factor During the ‘Invention of Tribalism’ in Zimbabwe

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 January 2009

Herbert Chimhundu
University of Zimbabwe


There is evidence from across the disciplines that at least some of the contemporary regional names of African tribes, dialects and languages are fairly recent inventions in historical terms. This article offers some evidence from Zimbabwe to show that missionary linguistic politics were an important factor in this process. The South African linguist Clement Doke was brought in to resolve conflicts about the orthography of Shona. His Report on the Unification of the Shona Dialects (1931) shows how the language politics of the Christian denominations, which were also the factions within the umbrella organization the Southern Rhodesia Missionary Conference, contributed quite significantly to the creation and promotion of Zezuru, Karanga and Manyika as the main groupings of dialects in the central area which Doke later accommodated in a unified orthography of a unified language that was given the name Shona. While vocabulary from Ndau was to be incorporated, words from the Korekore group in the north were to be discouraged, and Kalanga in the West was allowed to be subsumed under Ndebele.

Writing about sixty years later, Ranger focusses more closely on the Manyika and takes his discussion to the 1940s, but he also mentions that the Rhodesian Front government of the 1960s and 1970s deliberately incited tribalism between the Shona and the Ndebele, while at the same time magnifying the differences between the regional divisions of the Shona, which were, in turn, played against one another as constituent clans. It would appear then that, for the indigenous Africans, the price of Christianity, Western education and a new perception of language unity was the creation of regional ethnic identities that were at least potentially antagonistic and open to political manipulation.

Through many decades of rather unnecessary intellectual justification, and as a result of the collective colonial experience through the churches, the schools and the workplaces, these imposed identities, and the myths and sentiments that are associated with them, have become fixed in the collective mind of Africa, and the modern nation states of the continent now seem to be stuck with them. Missionaries played a very significant role in creating this scenario because they were mainly responsible for fixing the ethnolinguistic maps of the African colonies during the early phase of European occupation. To a significant degree, these maps have remained intact and have continued to influence African research scholarship.

Colonial Zimbabwe
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1992

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