Zimbabwean tech entrepreneurs create digital app to teach African languages

By Oliver Matthews

Harare, May 3 (EFE).- Two Zimbabwean entrepreneurs have launched a digital platform to teach people African languages at a time when urbanization and emigration are threatening the continent’s linguistic heritage.

Chido Dzinotyiwei, 25, left Zimbabwe for neighboring South Africa with her family when she was just seven years old.

She grew up learning English and Zulu in her adopted country, but lost the ability to speak her mother tongue, Shona, spoken by the majority of Zimbabwe’s 15 million people.

She said it became a problem when her family would visit Zimbabwe to see relatives and friends.

“When I came back home, I couldn’t speak with my cousins,” Dzinotyiwei, who is based in South Africa’s second city of Cape Town, told Efe in an interview in Harare.

“That just frustrated me — knowing you’re losing a part of your identity and culture.”

It was that frustration that led her and fellow Zimbabwean Dorcas Kwaramba to launch Vambo Academy, their online African language platform, in 2021. Vambo means “origin” in Shona, and speaks to the compelling need for many people living in the diaspora to return to their linguistic and cultural roots, with the help of digital technology.

In addition to Shona and Ndebele, the two most widely-spoken languages in Zimbabwe, the platform offers 10 languages spoken in South Africa, Lesotho and Swaziland.

Dzinotyiwei and her team are in the process of developing an app, similar to popular ones like Duolingo, Memrise and Babbel, to make their service accessible to as many people as possible.

But in its present online form, Vambo offers unique features not offered on mainstream apps. These include options to have face-to-face tutorials with a human teacher, instead of a robot.

“It’s not just automated. You can actually sit [virtually] with a local, book a session and speak about nuances around the language or something you want to learn,” she said.

Nuances and cultural history are important to Dzinotyiwei. Over the years, she says, learning a language has for her become much more than just memorizing vocabulary or learning greetings.

“I think now when I learn a language, even before I start learning the basic greetings and manners, I have to read up on the history of the people and understand where they come from and where they are today.”

Zimbabwe’s political and economic upheavals since the late 1990s, when the country was still ruled by the late Robert Mugabe, pushed hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans into neighboring South Africa and further abroad.

These included both unskilled workers desperate to earn a living in a country with a stable economy, or skilled workers like doctors, nurses and teachers looking for greener pastures where their talents could be adequately recognised and rewarded.

It means that a new generation of Zimbabweans has grown up outside their mother country, with little chance to become proficient in the language of their parents’ birthplace. Vambo Academy offers them a chance to reconnect.

Dzinotyiwei says that while the academy’s main market is South Africa, she and her team plan to add more Zimbabwean languages to the platform. These include Tonga, spoken in the country’s northern Zambezi Valley, and Nambya, spoken in the country’s remote north-west.

“It’s a great application that is easy to use,” said Davy Ndlovu, a Zimbabwean cultural and language rights campaigner.

For years Ndlovu has championed the rights of the minority San ethnic group in Tsholotsho, in the arid west of Zimbabwe. The group’s Tjwao language is dying out and is now only spoken by a dozen or so of its older members.

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