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Italian: Celebrating cultural diversity

This week, October 19-25, Italy and Switzerland celebrate the 20th Settimana della Lingua Italiana nel Mondo (Week of the Italian Language in the World).

Carlo Perrotta & Niculin Jäger

This annual international cultural event promotes Italian as a language of classic and contemporary culture in various fields of literature, cinema, music, education and science.

The theme for this year’s celebration is “Italian Between Word and Image: Graffiti, Illustrations and Comics”. The theme is informed by the idea that visuals/images and words increase the memorability of a message.

The 2020 theme coincides with the 700th anniversary of the death of Dante Alighieri — the father of the Italian language and a great poet who was the first to enrich the Italian language through the literary images of his timeless Divine Comedy. Dante’s masterpiece continues to inspire the creative imagination of visual artists to this very day and establishes an intimate and integral relationship between the written word and images — linking very well to this year’s chosen theme.

The Week of the Italian Language in the World was launched in 2001 through the joint action of the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Accademia della Crusca, a Italian society of scholars of linguistics and philology, and various Italian cultural institutes and was subsequently joined by the Swiss Confederation, where Italian is one of the country’s official languages.

The week-long cultural event further accentuates the traditionally good relations between Italy and Switzerland and the other countries around the globe where Italian is spoken and promoted.

This year’s edition also reflects the values and richness of the Italian language and how it has evolved largely through the influence of images in various mediums such as film and television. We hope that this year’s celebrations will further strengthen awareness of the value of language as a tool for promoting the image of our two countries and continue to influence a cultural exchange characterised by a constant sharing of knowledge and exchange of ideas during these difficult times caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is worthwhile to note that the Italian-speaking community has a long history in Zimbabwe with a strong footing in the health, education and cultural sectors. For example, a number of Italian soldiers made Zimbabwe their permanent home in the 1940s — bringing the benefit of the Italian culture and language with them to the country.

In mission schools and hospitals, the Italian-speaking community have infused their cultural influence in this hybrid cultural space and are proud to be in Zimbabwe and continue to be closely connected to the Italian culture.

The special expressiveness of Italian culture through images is very visible in church buildings that exist in most Catholic mission schools around the country, epitomised by Italian art and architecture such as the intricate painted murals in the Chapel of St Francis of Assisi in Masvingo.

Besides, through the Dante Alighieri Society — whose goal is to encourage the learning of the Italian language — Italy and Switzerland have continued to offer a variety of activities in Zimbabwe through traditional courses in language and cuisine, as well as the projection of films in Italian.

Our two countries have also been offering scholarships to Zimbabwean students so that they can study in prestigious Italian and Swiss universities and learn Italian and other fields of expertise that these universities stand for in the academic world.

Zimbabwe has also benefited from the role of Italian-speaking missionaries in the education and health sectors. As early as 1938, Swiss missionaries from the Bethlehem Mission Society answered a call to serve when they established Bondolfi Mission in Masvingo, with well over 100 members engaging in the establishment of the local parish, a school, medical facilities and handwork training for the locals.

In 1993, three Italian sisters, Luisa Marchetti, Teresa Navaro and Leda Bagni, founded the mission of the Sisters of Our Lady of Sorrows in Mashonaland West. The Sisters established a primary school in Chegutu in 2010 and a children’s home in Mhondoro in 2011 providing help, accommodation and education to orphaned and underprivileged children. The growing presence of local sisters in the congregation is also evidence of its full integration in the local environment and its crucial impact on integral human development.

In 2007, the Don Bosco Technical College was established by the Salesians of Don Bosco in the mining town of the Hwange district as a catholic tertiary educational institution, first offering short practical courses on tailoring, computers and building studies to marginalised youth. Under the long-term rectorship of Italian father Bruno Zamberlan, the college now offers a wider choice of courses, including wildlife management, as well as boarding facilities for boys and extra-curricular activities such as sports, music and dance.

Alongside education, Italian-speaking missionaries have always stood out in health care. The All Souls Hospital, founded by Jesuits in Mutoko in 1931 and renamed after the Italian Doctor Luisa Guidotti in 1983, has been for many decades the medical reference point for local people, thanks to the relentless work of Italian doctors who, besides providing medical assistance to patients in everyday life, are also training local doctors and nurses in long-term projects.

In a rather original way, Italian has been spreading and is now learnt and spoken by a growing number of people inside the hospital.

In the building sector, there is an Italian hand in the architecture and construction of the great Kariba Dam built between 1955 and 1959. The construction was done by an Italian company called Impresit.

Our countries are also equally proud hosts of Zimbabwean artists with a close relationship with sculptors, fine artists and painters, among others, who have performed and exhibited their work at such prestigious international platforms such as the Venice Biennale Arts Festival in Italy and other annual arts platforms in Switzerland.

As we celebrate the Week of the Italian Language in the World, we would like to emphasise that in this shrinking world, our cross-border connections are more important than ever.

Speaking another language opens up understanding as well as doors to opportunities arising around the world. It offers explanations of that culture’s history, its traditions and its national narrative. It is truly a gateway into another culture.

Goditi la lingua italiana! (Enjoy the Italian language!)

Perrotta is the Italian ambassador to Zimbabwe and Jäger is Swiss ambassador to Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia.

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