Write and speak in indigenous languages to Combat Xenophobia


Molefe Pilane* argues for the need to write and speak in indigenous languages as a means to concientise people, to bridge the gap between people of different languages and cultures; and to preserve indigenous knowledge systems.

Xenophobia is defined as the ‘fear or hatred of foreigners’. Xenophobia is documented as a common response to the migration of people in receiving countries. This occurs particularly when immigration is sudden and massive, and especially among sections of the population for whom newcomers pose the greatest threat, whether this is real or perceived.

Millions of people abandon their homes due to natural disasters, war, political and economic crises. Recent research revealed that anti-immigrant sentiments have increased the world over. It is vital that issues such as xenophobia and crimes against migrants are addressed by using all kinds of interventions including educating people in the receiving countries through writing in their own indigenous languages.

Why write in indigenous languages?

Centuries of colonial domination of weak nations by the powerful ones resulted in not just political conquest but also cultural domination. In the process most indigenous knowledge systems and values linked to a particular way of living were either lost or forgotten.

Inherent in many indigenous languages were proverbs and idioms which promoted solidarity amongst people. Some folktales and oral education included the rules of conduct, conflict resolution and mediation. Communal values often emphasised the importance of unity and peace within a community and with neighbouring communities and groups. Across cultures common values promoted the need to share food, land, wealth, resources and shelter. Visitors, refugees and strangers were generally treated with respect. Within indigenous societies women, children, the elderly and the vulnerable were protected. Without romanticising precolonial and precapitalist societies, for there were wars and conflicts, many indigenous societies reflect an attempt to live in harmony with nature and one’s fellow human beings. For example, this can be found in languages like IsiXhosa, IsiZulu and Sesotho, which talk about the concept of Ubuntu/ Botho (meaning ‘humanity’ and ‘togetherness’, that is, a communal attitude towards society as opposed to an individualistic one. The saying ‘Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu’ in Zulu means that we are dependent on each other for the survival of the human race.


Writing in indigenous languages contributes to their preservation and the preservation of indigenous knowledge systems inherent within them. Research indicates that unless this is done 90% of indigenous languages worldwide will become extinct or die out by the end of the 21st century.

Reading and writing in indigenous languages also assists in:

Promoting the process of reconciliation by increasing cross-cultural understanding;

Providing insights into the relationship between language and culture;

Developing an interest in learning different languages; and

Assists individuals in refining the level of their knowledge and skills like listening, reading, speaking and writing in indigenous languages.


The earliest oral traditions were tales about migrants, migration and movement among warriors, nomads and farmers. In pre-colonial times, extensive networks were established among traders and merchants. This emphasised the mobility of people even before the advent of the slave trade and colonisation. The causes of this history of permanent, circular and seasonal migration include reasons that are economic, ecological and related to increased urbanisation. There is therefore no basis or justification for xenophobia. However, this message has to be communicated to people in the languages they understand best since one of the legacies of colonialism remains high illiteracy levels amongst the majority of the population especially in colonial languages such as English. For the struggle against xenophobia to be successful, the concept of anti-xenophobia and its explanation needs to be written or told in indigenous languages in order to conscientise people and to fight the scourge of xenophobia.

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