Chido Dzinotyiwei moved to neighboring South Africa with her family when she was seven years old. She grew up in the rainbow nation speaking English and Zulu to the exclusion of her native Shona language.
She recalls going back to Zimbabwe with her parents to visit relatives and struggling to communicate in Shona, the dominant language in the Southern African country.
“When I was young, I could grasp English and isiZulu at school, but it became difficult to speak Shona when I went back home to visit because my vocabulary and accent were off. Fortunately, I had old Shona books and started reading and reminding myself of the language. Before I knew it, I was fluent in my home language again,” she told City Press.
Dzinotyiwei was frustrated by her inability to communicate in her native language because she felt she was losing a part of her identity and culture. Aside from her, she later discovered that there are many people like her all over Africa who are unable to communicate in their native languages due to urbanization and emigration.
In the case of Zimbabwe, she observes that economic upheavals since 1990 have forced many Zimbabweans to flee to South Africa and other parts of the world in search of greener pastures.
This means that many Zimbabweans and other nationals have not had the opportunity to learn the language of their parents’ birthplace.
Dzinotyiwei and fellow Zimbabwean Dorcas Kwaramba founded Vambo Academy in response to her frustration with her inability to speak Shona. The platform is an educational technology (EdTech) platform that provides language learning, translation, and knowledge services using digital resources. Vambo provides online instruction in indigenous languages as well as a dictionary, blog posts, and podcasts on cultural topics.
So far, the platform supports ten South African, Lesotho, and Swaziland languages, as well as two of Zimbabwe’s most dominant languages, Shona and Ndebele. The platform is currently web-based.
Vambo offers unique features that leading language teaching platforms do not have, like face-to-face tutorials with a human teacher, instead of a robot.
“It’s not just automated. You can actually sit [virtually] with a local, book a session, and speak about nuances around the language or something you want to learn,” Dzinotyiwei told La Prensa Latina.
The founders, on the other hand, are working around the clock to create an app that will mimic language learning platforms such as Duolingo, Memrise, and Babbel.
Vambo’s primary market is currently South Africa, but Dzinotyiwei and her team hope to expand it to include more languages across the African continent.
Vambo has provided 650 lessons since its inception. It provides one-on-one or group sessions for $10 per 45-minute lesson.