Language and mobility: Discourses of migrants in Windhoek, Namibia

Full Name: 
Dr Julia N Indongo
This study investigates the multilingual profiles of recently arrived migrants to Windhoek, Namibia, and to the author’s knowledge, the study is one of very few to reflect on the relation between language and migration in Namibia from a sociolinguistic perspective. The research questions relate first to the vitality of multilingualism in an African urban space in that it surveys more than 400 respondents regarding their linguistic repertoires and language biographies. The respondents selected for this part of the study were either of foreign African origin or from rural and relatively isolated regions within Namibia, who had been in Windhoek for less than two years. The vitality of languages in a multilingual city such as Windhoek is of interest as the local language policy prioritises English, raising questions on the value of the linguistic repertoires of those with home languages other than English (LotEs) in such an urban context. Particularly, in the second part, the study enquires how migrants’ linguistic repertoires facilitate or inhibit their social and economic integration. Here, the study relies on 25 recorded interviews with selected respondents for more detailed information that develops insight into how migration trajectories contribute to shaping linguistic proficiencies, and also how knowledge of various indigenous or other language(s) shape the migrants’ life chances by providing them with access to different ways of earning a livelihood. This part of the study takes a qualitative approach.
Methodologically, information on the linguistic repertoires of newly arrived migrants was collected per survey among relatively vulnerable migrants who were making a living in informal settings such as in trading, security work or in construction. Second, from the group surveyed, 25 were selected for interviews in which more detailed data and a contribution of more depth could be gained. Survey data was used to give an overview of language vitality through the repertoires and biographies that respondents described. A thematic analysis of the interviews shows which kind of topics migrants introduced in connection with language, their mobility and their abilities to survive in Windhoek. In addition, the interview data is critically analysed, particularly relying on postcolonial theory.
The study reveals that Windhoek can indeed by characterised as a multilingual city in which indigenous Namibian languages are vibrantly used, and even foreign migrants still use their mother tongues in private as well as public domains. However, to secure economic opportunities, most agreed that knowledge of English is vital. Also, the study finds that different language repertoires are vital in different suburbs and areas of employment. For instance, Oshiwambo is mostly helpful for those operating in Katutura. For the vendors operating in Khomasdal, knowledge of Afrikaans is helpful, and in town suburbs English is the most facilitating language. Except for knowledge of Oshiwambo for those trading in Katutura, according to the migrants, the Namibian indigenous languages do not carry any benefit in settling and securing jobs in Windhoek. Foreign language speakers depend solely on English for settling and securing employment as they do not know Afrikaans or Oshiwambo and knowledge of their vernacular languages is hardly relevant in the employment sector of Windhoek.
The mobility of the migrants who know their first language (L1) only is limited to Katutura. They work and are accommodated there. The migrants who know English well, especially the Zimbabwean migrants, move around the entire city of Windhoek to sell their products. Only the migrants (both Namibian and foreigners) who know English and/or Afrikaans find formal employment, while those whose linguistic resources are limited in the economically dominant languages are street vendors who do not even attempt to seek further employment. The study finds that postcolonial perspectives persist that afford little value to African cultural capital. Not only do the former and current powerholders perpetuate ideologies of European languages’ superiority; even the indigenous language speakers themselves, in given circumstances, internalise the perception that their first languages are of lesser value. In spite of such tenacious views of the lesser value of certain languages, the vibrancy in use and maintenance of local languages is remarkable.
The study concludes that if English remains to be officially promoted, at the cost of Namibian indigenous languages in public spaces such as education and formal workplaces, as well as at the cost of recognising the value of other African languages that migrants from neighbouring countries nurture, there could be detrimental effects. Indigenous language speakers may, as parents, choose to raise their children in English only, to improve their life chances and upward mobility in Windhoek. Also, L1 speakers of indigenous languages may currently and continuously, on the basis of their linguistic repertoires, be denied access to educational and employment opportunities to which they should have a natural right. Therefore, this study delivers a strong message to language policy designers and those implementing a restrictive language policy in a linguistically diverse community. The community is multilingual – this should be seen as a valuable resource, and should not be used as a discriminatory measure.