I am a linguist and an author, and therefore, I subscribe to the view given by the Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, among others, that I am not only fascinated by words but also care about words because words are our tools. We all know what happens when tools are misused.
Try using a surgeon’s scalpel to cut through a metal bar. Or a frying pan to weed the garden. They don’t work, and you only destroy the tool. The same is true of words. We can use, misuse, or disuse words for positive and negative reasons.
Oppressed groups can deliberately take words used against them negatively and turn them into words of positive identification or even pride.
For example, African Americans and even Tanzanians, in the language of the streets, can use the N-word among themselves. Still, non-blacks cannot use that word because of its inherently racist meaning.
However, it is very inappropriate when members of the privileged groups try to ‘appropriate’ words and turn negative into positive. An excellent example at present is the way the group of sycophants of power attempted to appropriate the phrase chawa.
I have to laugh. Chawa, or lice, are tiny little insects that attach themselves to a human or animal and then suck their blood as their survival strategy. Is that really how they want to identify themselves until they even form a group of Chawa wa Mama to organise supporters of President Samia Suluhu Hassan?
That is a perfect description of them as they have attached themselves to the leader to ‘suck the blood’ to make their living. It seems they have also forgotten the Swahili saying, kikulacho ki nguoni mwako, which means what is ‘eating’ you, is on your clothes!
Once again, these chawas are signalling their real intentions. Look in your clothes if you want to identify the real ‘eaters’. No wonder the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) told them to disband their blood-sucking union!
Political correctness has outlawed many words, often for excellent reasons, though it seems most of us have a balance within ourselves which says, “No, that has gone too far.” I don’t wish to enter that particular controversy today, so let’s leave it at that.
I dislike the word ‘whitewashing’ – more political correctness? – to try to describe an attempt to remove the stains of reality. Should we try ‘omofication’? I love the words ‘development partners,’ for example. Typically, partners refer to people working together equally for a common goal.
Even if they are a ‘junior partner,’ they still work together. Still, in my vocabulary, you cannot have one partner monitoring and controlling the other, taking most of the resources for themselves and expecting the other partner to do all the work.
Similarly, when these people use the word ‘development,’ one wonders whose development they are discussing. Such misuse of words actually destroys their meaning.
Another example is how we insist that, as a country, we continue to follow the ideology of socialism and self-reliance.
The truth is, we are heading full tilt into becoming a peripheral capitalist country, dependent on ever larger sums of ‘aid’ – another euphemism – with the ‘revolutionary’ party having revolutionised itself into the party of merchants and capitalists.
Maybe that is a deliberate strategy to hide the truth of capitalist exploitation and convince the people that the problem is socialism when it bears no resemblance to socialism. Blame it on socialism when it is capitalism at work!
Then there is from positive to negative. Give a dog a bad name, and then you can hang it, a favourite game of politicians and their bloodsuckers.
Our leaders change the meanings of words to suit their wishes, hiding an inconvenient truth or twisting it to fool people and turn them against a positive group of people. I would like to mention two words: uanaharakati, or activism and uchochezi, or incitement.
In everyday parlance, an activist works to achieve political or social change. Generally, activism is thus a positive word since no society is perfect, and there is always a need for positive changes.
You can agree or disagree with the particular changes, but we are all activists in some sense. Even members of the ruling party who attack activists are themselves activists but with a different activist agenda.
I remember very well the point when the word activism was turned positive to negative by the pronouncement of a leader. It was during the last doctors’ strike when there was little sign of a solution.
The doctors had valid grievances, but state-linked people abducted their leader, Dr Steven Ulimboka, and severely tortured him before they dumped him in the Mabwepande forest on the outskirts of Dar es Salaam.
People were concerned that the dispute was dragging on and people were suffering, so activists blocked Selander Bridge to pressurise the government to sit down with the doctors and solve the situation.
At that point, the leader criticised ‘activists’ for causing a disturbance, claiming that the government was rapidly and peacefully working towards a solution. Although many believed that action raised awareness of the doctors’ plight, authorities sallied activism forever.
Indeed, from then on, the rulers have continued convincing the people that activists are the enemy. It became particularly ironic during the time under President John Magufuli.
Activism as negativity
It was ironic because Magufuli, who died on March 17, 2023, was the very definition of an ‘activist’ in his determination to wage an “economic war,” even single-handedly, against what he described as “the enemies of Tanzania’s development.”
However, only those who questioned his manner of doing it were then labeled negatively as activists. Thus, from rulers’ perspective, ‘activists’ have now become a word to mean anyone who disagrees with the policies and activities of the ruling class.
More recently, government and ruling party officials and their supporters have been using the word mchochezi to describe people who express alternative views or expose misbehaviour, corruption, illegal use of force, and negligence on the part of people in authority.
The old phrase, mjumbe hauawi, or don’t kill the messenger, has been discarded to silence the messenger as they are inciting people against the government or the ruling class.
This is not only at the national level but is more common at the district and sub-district level, where the local leaders are frightened stiff of being exposed and use their security committees to hide whatever sins they have.
Now, that is the real uchochezi right there. Authorities are supposed to welcome people bringing to light abuses that those in power need to address. Silencing dissent, hiding misbehaviour and negligence, or problems facing the people are precisely the ways of turning people against the government or causing them to lose faith.
Of course, no government or leader likes to be exposed. They want to see themselves as benevolent representatives of God on earth – omniscient, omnipotent and omni-correct. Who are you to dare criticise them?
But words are more active than we think. They have a nasty habit of coming back to bite those who like to misuse or abuse them!
Richard Mabala is an educator, poet, and author. He is available at firstname.lastname@example.org or on X (Twitter) as @MabalaMakengeza. These are the writer’s own opinions, and they do not necessarily represent the viewpoint of The Chanzo. Do you want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at email@example.com for further inquiries.