Dr Hleze Kunju wrote his doctoral thesis in isiXhosa, Rhodes University’s first isiXhosa authored PhD thesis. The act has been described as a milestone for Xhosa academic writing and a glimmer of hope in the quest for decolonisation, and transformation in South Africa’s education system.

Dr Kunju  graduated from the department of African Languages, writing his thesis in his mother tongue. He was quoted as saying, “I’d write (in English) and think this is it. But it would come back marked in red and they (lecturers) would ask what are you trying to say, and I eventually put it in a way that made sense to them.”

The 31-year-old further said, “I constantly felt I was lost in translation.”

In 2014, the Rhodes University launched a revised language policy at an annual multilingualism colloquium. The Rhodes Language Committee, with help from those at the African Language Studies department revised the University Language Policy which was launched at the Annual Multilingualism Awareness Colloquium. According to the African Languages Association of Southern Africa report (ALASA) the colloquium addressed the challenges universities across the continent faced in effectively making use of multilingualism in lecture halls. The revision of the policy mainly had to do with the equitable use of official languages in Rhodes University.

Read: How can African languages be protected?

This was good news for Dr Kunju who then wrote his thesis in isiXhosa therefore putting the language on par with English, which has been the main language used in writing academic writing.

The use of indigenous languages as a medium of instruction has been a long battle. The advantages of using indigenous languages to teach has often been emphasised, and seen as the key to development, with countries such as China, South Korea, Finland, Germany often cited as shining examples.

In a study in 1986, the Yoruba Six Year Primary Project sponsored by the Ford Foundation conducted an experiment with the goal of using Yoruba as a medium of teaching. The experiment was conducted across schools in urban and rural areas. Groups of the students were taught in Yoruba while others were taught in English. The study’s findings were quite interesting. The students taught in Yoruba did better than those taught in English.

Although Yoruba is not used as a medium of teaching in Nigeria, the study reinforced the intended message on the value of adopting indigenous languages as the medium of instruction. Prof Ngugi wa Thion’go has been a major champion of this cause.

Kenyan author, Ngugi wa Thiong’o is one of Africa’s foremost champions of indigenous languages. Photo: University of California, Irvine

Dr Kunju said, “I wanted to show that isiXhosa can do what the English language and others can do. As a language activist, I always try to elevate isiXhosa, but many people think to elevate isiXhosa is to suppress everything else and we might be getting it wrong that way. We should be saying, look, this is what English can do and also what isiXhosa can do.”

Read: Ngugi wa Thiong’o calls for preservation and inclusion of African languages in learning institutions

Dr Kunju’s thesis looked at the amaXhosa living in Zimbabwe and provides a new knowledge about them. More about his thesis can be found here. We wish him all the best and hope more academics make use of their indigenous languages.