He realised as an impoverished teenager that if he could get an education and become a primary school teacher, he would at least be able to afford a cup of tea in the morning.
But when Dr Peter Msaka from Nkhotakota in Malawi walked on stage today at the ninth graduation ceremony of Stellenbosch University (SU) to receive his PhD in General Linguistics, his bitter memories of going to school barefoot on an empty stomach, while wearing his only pair of shorts were far from his mind.
“After I realised that I needed to do something to change our poverty-ridden status, I applied myself with fierce intensity towards education. I continued to work like that for all the years that followed," Msaka recalls.
Many factors led him from Malawi to SU. “I was looking for a high-quality scholarship and also a university that had a linguistics department with a bias in favour of syntax. Of the three top universities that have this, it was only Stellenbosch that did not ask application fees. In those days, it wasn't easy to wire money abroad," he says.
He joined SU in 2013 to study towards his Honours, followed by his MA and PhD. “One great thing I will always cherish is the excellent supportive academic environment. In my entire time at Stellenbosch, there was not a single academic resource that I failed to access. I enjoy working with intensity and the physical study spaces were excellent. I will also forever cherish the 'jogging' trails in Stellenbosch," he says.
The topic of his thesis is “Nominal classification in Bantu revisited: The perspective from Chichewa". The choice of this topic goes back to the time when Msaka was introduced to Chichewa grammar in Grade 5.
“When my teacher introduced the rules for the noun class system, I effortlessly came up with counter examples. At one point in the higher grades, this annoyed my teacher and I remember very well being punished for insubordination. It was rude to doubt your teacher's knowledge – but the problem wasn't his knowledge: The rules had actually been proposed by some German scholars such as Wilhelm Heinrich Bleek (1862, 1869) and Carl Meinhof (1899, 1906, 1932). I challenged these scholars formally in my PhD," he says.
His research will have an impact on language teaching in Malawi. “It pains me to see the school curriculum that teaches misleading information. Anyone learning Bantu languages as a foreign language will tell you that learning the noun classes is a nightmare. With the proposed system of learning, the noun class system will be more natural now," he says.
Msaka has already returned to his workplace at the University of Malawi. But he has new, sweeter memories to cherish now. One of these is the amazing feat of having a shortened version of his PhD thesis published in the internationally renowned Oxford Studies in Comparative Syntax journal that showcases the best work of established researchers.