In search of local language journalism training
By JB Wasswa
If there is anything the Uganda media industry has to celebrate this golden independence jubilee, it is the growing romance with local language media. It is not a revolt against the legacy of British imperialism, for English still remains the undisputed unifying language. But the rapid expansion of local media makes a major statement on the limitation of its English language counterpart in bringing the bulk of the citizenry into the ‘conversation.’
Often one listens to people struggling to make a point in English. Even some journalists are at pain asking questions in ordinary English. Media people know the hard work involved in cleaning up stories to make sense in good English.
Recently, there was the amazing news piece on NTV by Solomon Sserwanja, who sampled a number of people on the street to test their ability to sing the Uganda National Anthem. That was a splendid piece; an eye opener. None of those sampled could sing even the first stanza correctly. Most conjured up words some of which have never existed in the English language. The best of the lot mixed lines from the first and the last stanzas into some meaningless construction. Indeed these were ordinary townsfolk. I suspect many of our 30 million people are like these street people to whom the anthem, sang in English for the last 50 years, is still as foreign as its predecessor God Save the Queen.
After last year’s general elections, viewers watched dramatic incidents of many elected district councilors struggling to take the oath of office written in English, despite the fact that they had met the minimum educational requirements for the job.
Then there was the case of Ambassador Maurice Kagimu Kiwanuka, who embarrassed the country recently with an incoherent speech at an international event! A graduate who attended good schools, but who cannot deploy English to achieve coherence! (The video is no longer accessible on YouTube but a blogger published something out of it. Read it here).
Recently, Julius Mucunguzi, now a senior media officer at the Commonwealth Secretariat posted on Facebook a proposal for local language journalism training courses to boost especially rural radio, which broadcast predominantly in vernacular mixed with a few programs in English. Majority of journalists who work in these radio stations have not had tertiary education or formal journalism training. As a result, the level of English is low. Several Facebook commentators dismissed the idea as, at best, retrogressive.
The context is the persistent challenge of English language use, its declining standards especially in higher education, and the absence of mandatory English language classes after O’Level. Yet, English is constitutionally one of Uganda’s official languages. The other is Kiswahili.
This presents a pretty difficult challenge for journalism training and practice if the journalists do not have good command of the language. It is a challenge experienced at university especially with first year students.
English language is even more challenging to the bulk of the audience, who after O’level do not have regular encounters with learning it in more formal ways.
True, English language media has for long only served the more educated elite who benefitted from a wealth of foreign programs in English, widening the information gap between the elite and the grass root people. But current media consumption trends reveal the logic behind the proliferation of vernacular media outlets. The larger public will become information rich if communication is in local languages. That public follows you; it joins the conversation; it is empowered. There is a commercial benefit also attached. Where audiences grow, so follow the advertisers.
Local language leading to huge audiences
Vision Group CEO, Robert Kabushenga told me in 2010 that this is the wisdom passed to him by the Group’s founding editor James Tumusiime who later started Radio West, a pioneer and successful experiment in Runyakitara broadcasting. “Go local, you won’t get it wrong,” Tumusiime had told Kabushenga. Needless to say that Vision Group now has several local language radio stations and is introducing a second Bukedde TV, which will also broadcast in Luganda.
Modern media consumption habits proved this point especially when local broadcast stations and makeshift cinema operators started screening foreign movies and international soccer voiced-over in vernacular, hence attracting huge audiences. People just want to understand what is going on. And that is what local language mediation is all about. Today, simple but clever individuals are minting money selling voiced over texts of all types: Obama’s speeches, documentaries on Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, last moments of Gaddafi, Nelson Mandela features, and any ‘soaps’ that come on the market. Even ‘local language’ versions of wildlife documentaries from National Geographic are on sale on the streets. These ‘localised’ programs are now the staple of local television. They do not need to be very accurate, provided they enable the audience to follow the plot. The English-poor and the English rich will follow more or less the same way episodes of Beautiful but Unlucky or La Tormenta.
Judging from the popularity of these voiced over programs, it appears large sections of the public had been marginalized by English language media. Marketers discovered this long ago and they increasingly coin advertising messages with vernacular sloganeering to drive the point home.
Yes, English, our official language, that great language is still a big problem to the majority. And there is no government policy to popularize it beyond school. When the average person cannot sing even one stanza of the National Anthem available only in English, then as a country, we have to rethink how to communicate key messages; to ask whether we are not living in denial of the communicative impact of our local languages. (One interviewee suggested the translation of the national anthem into major languages people can understand).
Growth of local language media
The media industry in Uganda is growing much faster in the local language segments, as evidenced by the increase in local language stations, and performing arts. Leading stations in Kampala, for instance, have each acquired a Luganda station. The New Vision Group owns stations broadcasting in six different dominant languages; The Monitor Group recently acquired Dembe FM; Capital FM now owns Beat FM; Radio One has Radio 2 trading as Akaboozi ku Bbiri; CBS owns a second Luganda Channel. Citizen Media Group of Kenya bought over Voice of Teso and the trend continues. In print The Red Pepper Group has Kamunye and Entatsi in Luganda and Runyakitara respectively; The Monitor Group launched a soccer weekly, Enyanda; The New Vision still has its regional titles in Runyakitara, Luo, Ateso and the Luganda daily Bukedde.
Local language journalism training
Where industry goes, training institutions often follow. This brings me back to Mucunguzi’s proposal to start local language journalism training courses at university or other tertiary institutions, in addition to the current programs. It is a proposal I personally support because the industry has proved there is a trend, a huge audience, and a business potential. It will also empower practicing journalists not proficient in English.
Prof. Monica Chibita, who has done several studies on complexities of broadcast language in Uganda, alludes to difficulties of writing skills among African journalism students (largely because of poor English – emphasis mine), and she makes some proposals on how universities can enable students to improve these skills, like taking extra courses in languages. Her doctoral thesis also makes powerful arguments for promotion of local languages to enable citizens participate more in the public sphere. Chibita poses a pertinent question:
How do we provide sound journalism training while keeping an eye on the realities of the majority of our audiences, or grapple with the big political and economic questions while at the same time meeting the needs of indigenous language media and rural communities?
Chibita does not provide answers but this is where I share Mucunguzi’s view that given the circumstances described above, it is time to consider a type of journalism training that specifically targets those people whose calling is in local language journalism; a journalism not so much loaded with theory but praxis; a training that enables journalists empower local language audiences.
Should photojournalists be proficient in English?
I must add that all newsrooms have had potentially very good journalists but who are handicapped by low levels of English language. These people manifest the journalistic instincts, the guts, nose for news and often have useful contacts in the corridors of power. Photographers generally suffered this handicap. When Illakut Ben Bella was training editor at the New Vision, a mandatory English language course was introduced for all staff and ‘freelance’ reporters and subeditors. Photographers and Bukedde staff were excused. In the case of photographers, the editorial committee argued that competence in English was not critical to the composition of a good photo.
The Daily Monitor attempted to address this language deficiency in a more authoritarian way. The Human Resource Manager preferred to sack all photographers (she called them wedding photographers) who could hardly express themselves in English. As editors, we resisted this because we would not have any left. In any case, these photographers often brought good pictures, some exclusive, and stories from very good sources that they would narrate in Luganda for the editor to pick it from there.
Another reason necessitating the intervention of local language journalism training is because vernacular media, though growing at a fast rate, has been treated with a lassez-faire attitude, with much casualness in content, delivery and ethical standards. The professional rigours associated with English language media are largely lacking in the vernacular segment.
Vernacular media, especially print have been allowed unlimited levels of creativity and appropriation for public consumption of content culturally reserved for the bedroom estate. From Bukedde’s Ssenga, Orumuri’s Shwenkazi and Akaboozi we now have more daring products such Kamunye’s Kabojjamuti, and even a program on Bukedde TV that features two music artistes Nandujja and Halima Namakula discussing in Luganda finer details of making erotic love, the Ganda way!
Benefits for J-Schools if they adopted local language training
The time is ripe for journalism scholars to design ways of delivering appropriate training that organizes local language media practice and enriches the trends we already experience. There are many benefits for journalism schools if they elect to go this route. Indeed there will be challenges to confront.
Some of the benefits include opening a complete new area of study and research to understand the strengths and challenges of local language media and identify areas of intervention.
- These may include word engineering to standardize descriptions of phenomena for use by media practitioners of a given language. For now every station, every journalist is at liberty to use any level of language. In Luganda, a professor, for instance, is variously referred to as Ssabakenkufu, Ssabayivu, Kakeensa etc. Similar latitude of word use is present in Runyankole, Lusoga and many other languages.
- Studies might also lead to a consensus on usage of imported words to explain new things like ‘network, airtime, sports betting, music launches, beaches’ which have come to describe lifestyle phenomena. Luganda newspapers have already Gandanised these phenomena as “Eyatayimu, netiwaka, betingi, loonki, biichi, bipingi’ and many more.
- Local language journalism training might enable journalists to come up with standard ways of describing parliamentary ,or court processes and even styles of describing scientific and technological mysteries in ways that empower the ordinary person to understand and follow.
- Such training may also address codes of decency and decorum especially for vernacular tabloids, where previously discreet word usage is now headline fodder.
- Indeed, local language journalism courses may find ways the wealth of proverbs in our languages can inform the understanding of news and issues, picking cue from the way Wamala Balunabba of CBS radio uses Luganda proverbs in news presentation or from President Yoweri Museveni’s frequent reference to Runyankole proverbs to increase understanding and domesticate issues at hand.
- New news and program formats may be designed to suit local contexts leading to development of more content for local audiences.
- More important, local language journalists, many of whom have not benefitted from formal journalism training, will have opportunity to learn other appropriate aspects of the trade in a familiar language and local context.
To achieve this, journalism schools need to cope with several practical issues: course content and design, teachers, books, and eligibility of applicants. They will also have to work hard to change attitudes towards local language instruction— attitudes that have been shaped since primary school. (A serious warning hanging on the notice board of Kalinabiri Primary School front office reads: No Speaking Vernacular Here!!). In addition, training institutions must have the humility to learn from industry and work with it.
But there is also another option of doing this through modulated short courses leading to a certificate. The bottom line is that such training starts.
I see this as a good starting point for media development leading to a new job market for the local language media segment. There is, however, need for more debate and input especially from local language media houses themselves.