Friday, September 10, 2004

Towards A Language Policy for Kenya

An Open Letter to



Najib Balala(originally written in July 2003 when Mr Balala was minister dealing with cultural matters)

By Onyango Oloo



Dear Minister:

I am writing to you on July 1st, which is the Canadian equivalent of Jamhuri Day. There were lots of celebrations in this city of Montreal(despite the fact that it is located in Quebec which wants to separate from the rest of the country). I did not attend any of the celebrations because even though I have lived in this land for close to fifteen years, I have yet to feel welcomed enough to consider myself a flag waving Canadian patriot. Or maybe I should say that I am still too Kenyan to be North American. Do not get me wrong: I consider Montreal and Canada a real warm home away from home and I will fight tenaciously for all my rights as someone who has every right to belong here and be accorded all the respect that is due to me….

Instead of joining in the Canada Day parades(and I also missed out on the revelry of St. Baptiste Day, Quebec’s National Day held this past June 24th) instead of the pomp and splendor celebrating Canadian nationalism, I found myself musing deeply about Kenyan languages.

Now, one does not need an inducement to muse about languages in Montreal and other parts of this province (or country in waiting depending on who you talk to).

We are dominated by the politics of language in Quebec. This province has got one of the world’s most draconian policies to protect what is seen to be the national language- in this case we are talking about French(or Quebecois as the French from France sneeringly call it at times). Without boring you with the details, it is a punishable offence here in Quebec for a store owner to display the outside sign outside his establishment in a language other than French. Long story short, the francophones of Quebec are rabid about their native tongue; the Anglos in the province try to position themselves as a ”cultural minority” something that doesn’t quite wash given their considerable economic clout; other communities like the Jews, the Italians, the Greeks, properly speaking Allophone are sometimes inexplicably grouped with the “Anglophones”, depending on their political affiliations at certain points in time. Go figure. Meanwhile so called “visible minorities” such as immigrants and refugees from Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Asia find themselves floating in the background somewhere, useful as pawns to the anglo and franco elites who alternate in dominating the politics of the province. In the meantime, no one seriously addresses the concerns of the original inhabitants, the Indigenous People (the Iroquois, the Mohawks, the Cree, the Inuit etc) who are cordoned off in so called Native Reserves like Kahnawake, Kahnasatake and so on.

Just to say that it takes very little encouragement for someone in Quebec to start going on and on about language.

Let me return my focus on Kenya.

What kind of language policies should the NARC government of which you are a member pursue? I am writing to you because you are the Minister in charge of Culture and I assume that languages fall in your docket.

As we all know, Kenya is a very diverse nation of nationalities. By that I mean that our nation is peopled by ethnic and racial communities that together make us one of the most multi-cultural, multi-faith and cosmopolitan communities on the African continent. Altogether we have at least 42 nationalities(that some people prefer to still call tribes) all the major races and religions of the world in addition to visitors, immigrants, refugees, expatriates and transplants from all over the world. If you add to that mix the Kenyan communities abroad with their inter-racial and inter-cultural marriages you end up with a global Kenyan community that truly, is a microcosm of the world itself.

You ask almost anybody in Montreal if they have ever heard of Kenya and frequently you hear four or five clusters of things: the elephants, the lions, the gazelles and their animal cousins; the breathtaking Mount Kenya and the beautiful beaches; our world famous runners; the Mau Mau; Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi and Kiswahili….

Yet, it is often very difficult, in conversations among Kenyans to pinpoint what exactly it is that makes us have this common identity as Kenyans.

It certainly not in a national dress, because we do not have any to speak of.

And it can not really be Kiswahili, because unfortunately(and I will get to that in a moment) our country’s educated elite and their associate chattering buddies have been inculcated with this ghastly mentality to this, the most widely spoken language on the African continent. I have witnessed, mouth agape, very well educated Kenyan men and women, argue, without a hint of irony, that Kiswahili is NOT an African language. Some have gone further and berated Kiswahili as the biggest enemy of comprehension in English.

Our so called “tribal languages” have been abused by the powers that be over the years to divide rather than bring Kenyans together. In any case, our mother tongues and Kiswahili ranked a distant third and second respectively compared to the real Royal Language- the Queen’s Tongue.

English was not just a tool with which the British colonized and administered us for close to seventy years; it is the language that has been used by the KANU dictatorship to keep Kenyans alienated from their very rich cultures.

I was fortunate to grow up in Nairobi, in the western Kenyan countryside and of course in warm Mombasa and I saw first hand, especially when I was a primary school pupil at AC Luanda in Kisa sub-location in Kakamega District (a district you know well since you did your secondary schooling there) the teachers terrorized us LITERALLY in a bid to drum English into us. Having started my schooling in Nairobi, I could already speak Kiswahili and English with relative ease. It was terrible to witness what happened to the local kids who spoke either Luo or Luhyia because that part of Kenya is also very diverse with a lot of “inter-tribal” harmony and intermarriage.

The headmaster and the English teachers made it a punishable offence if you were caught speaking what in those days was called the “vernacular” in other words, the language you would naturally speak at home with your parents, siblings and grandparents. Note that all these teachers, with one or two exceptions were themselves all Luo or Luhyia in terms of their ethnic backgrounds.

Now if you made the mistake of being the first dunce to open your mouth and blurt out a greeting in Luo (Oyawore!) or Luhya (Mrembe!) within earshot of a teacher, you were bestowed with the much feared DISK- I am sure you are also familiar with that piece of wood that you had to carry around until you heard the next sucker mouth something in their mother-tongue at which point you dumped the thing on the shocked victim.

At the end of the school day, the teacher would come to you and ask you who you had passed on the DISK to and so the journey of this piece of wood would be traced until it would stop with the last linguistic criminal of the day. Your names would be taken down meticulously, marked for imminent punishment. This punishment varied: it could be a brutal flogging during the morning school assembly in full view of all your friends, younger siblings and secret admirers from the opposite sex; or it could graduate to hard labour, missing out on entire school days as you carried out the sentence of cutting down a jacaranda tree and chopping it up before you built those mounds from which charcoal is made- for the private sale of these corrupt teachers who appeared to be oblivious to the damage they were committing against the environment and their young charges(sometimes as young as 9 or 10 years old!).

Today I see many of my fellow kinsmen from the Luo community very proud of the flawless English they write and how eloquent they sound when they speak this European language. But I often wonder at what cost.

I am saying this as I remember a sad spectacle involving one of my Luo friends, much younger than I who had gone to school in Nairobi but relocated to Mombasa to take up a professional appointment. This friend of mine is very intelligent, very cosmopolitan and quite family oriented person- has three or four kids. At the time they were living not too far from where you used to stay in Mombasa, near that school famous for its basketball teams over the years- I do not want to say more kwa sababu najua wanipata tena unanimanya…..

His youngest daughter who had been born in Mombasa spoke Kiswahili fluently but could barely understand Luo. This bothered him a great deal. Not because she could not speak Luo-now that did bother him in the least. Rather he fretted that the more she spoke Kiswahili, the less she would be able to comprehend English and that therefore she would do poorly in class and not follow the path of academic excellence that both he and his wife had pursued with considerable and tangible success. He informed me that every time his daughter spoke Kiswahili at home, she was physically punished. I observed it myself once or twice during the weekend I visited them.

Now, I am not commenting on parenting issues here but rather the wider tragedy of associating the speaking of certain languages with punishment and others with rewards and promotions.

Is it not a tragedy that English, a language of foreign domination is in 2003, the MOST IMPORTANT language in Kenya, despite the lip service we pay to Kiswahili?

Is it not sad to recall that in order to master English, millions of Kenyan kids have to have their mother tongues beaten out of them?

Are we then surprised to see young educated Kenyans in Nairobi and other urban areas of the country converse almost exclusively in English with the exception of a smattering of Sheng patois here and there?

Are we surprised that this English linguistic conduit has in turn helped to open the floodgates of American and Western cultural imperialism as our young (and old) embrace cancelled television programs, ancient reruns of soap operas like the Young and the Restless, the Bold and the Beautiful etc; are we shocked when local DJs in Nairobi who have never traveled past Gilgil or Mtito Andei putting on faux African-American accents on the various FM stations? Are we dumbfounded when we see hip city slickers in Mombasa, Nairobi, Nakuru, Kisumu, and Eldoret look down at the washamba, washakes and other miros from ushago whose only crime is that they are still firmly rooted to the various Kenyan cultures?

My good friend Mwandawiro Mghanga once pointed out to me, when we were discussing this very issue at Kamiti Maximum many years ago- my buddy from Werugha, near Aggrey High School in Wundanyi observed that among educated Kenyans, you will notice that whenever they start speaking in Kiswahili they will make sure they sprinkle their speech with heavy doses of English expressions, just to underline the fact that they went to school and learnt the Queen’s language. He noted that these same Kenyans never make the same mistake when they speak in English- you will be hard pressed to hear one Kiswahili word entering the conversation kwa sababu hawa wasomi wenzetu wamechanjwa na kasumba cha ukoloni mkongwe na fikra, athari na itikadi za ukoloni mamboleo.

Today we are a really messed up country in terms of language.

Take this essay as a practical manifestation of the point I am trying to drive home.

Here I am, a Kenyan who is perfectly fluent in Kiswahili communicating to a native speaker of the language. And yet, because I want to communicate this open letter to more of my compatriots, I am forced to use a language like English which helps to promote very alien concepts and beliefs within the Kenyan polity.

Do not get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with English per se. Indeed, globalization has made English the lingua franca of the world-the language that we must all speak or perish.

I would not even describe myself as Swahili cultural nationalist.

Philosophically I consider myself an internationalist-a true citizen of the world. Living in Quebec, I not only have to deal with English, one must be able to communicate in at least some rudimentary French in order for one to survive. As a Luo speaker with Luhya relatives on both sides, I consider myself blessed by that dual ethnic heritage; as someone whose formative years and fondest teenage memories were created in Mombasa, I consider Kiswahili my preferred language of communication with my fellow Kenyans.

What can Kenyans do to develop our national identity using language as a tool?

I like what the Tanzanians did in developing Kiswahili and using that as a glue for national harmony.

But with all due respect to marehemu Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere, I think the ruling Chama cha Mapinduzi missed the boat a little on how they went about their well-meaning task.

I saw some of the effects of what my Luo friend in Mombasa was talking about when I lived in Dar es Salaam as an exile between 1987 and 1988. I was shocked at the gap between Kenyan university students and their Dar counterparts when it came to speaking English. The Tanzanians were relatively speaking, not as in command of English as their Kenyan brothers and sisters. Not surprisingly, they spoke Kiswahili flawlessly. This of course posed problems when some of them were accepted for graduate school in America, Canada, the UK and elsewhere.

But my main beef with the Tanzanian approach is with the way the government aggressively promoted Kiswahili AT THE EXPENSE OF THE 250 or so local languages. It was common to hear Tanzanian nationalists talk of Kiswahili as a “lugha” and the other languages-Kisukuma, Kidigo, Kiyao, Kichagga, Kinyamwezi n.k. as “vilugha”- the diminutive “vi” implying that these local languages did not quite cut the mustard when compared to Kiswahili.

Mheshimiwa Waziri Balala, I do not think we need to travel along either of the two cul-del sacs cited above- that is ignoring the development of English as a language of instruction or denigrating local languages which collectively form one of the strongest threads to the glowing tapestry of a vibrant national culture.

In any case, we are Kenyans, not Tanzanians and we must shape our history, our culture, our future and our destiny based on what the Tanzanians like calling hali halisi nchini kwetu- the concrete conditions in our own country.

What are some of those realities?

One, Kiswahili is our most important vehicle for promoting national unity and national development, even though IT IS NOT SUPERIOR to ANY OTHER KENYAN LANGUAGE.

Two, our various nationalities should continue flourishing in terms of their specific, cultures, customs, beliefs and of course languages as a way of making our Kenya a diverse unity of many Kenyan nationalities, religions and ethnic groups.

Three, English will always be a part of the Kenyan national fabric for the foreseeable future.

Four, living in an interdependent world, and given the centrality of tourism to our economy, the need to pick up other languages other than English and Kiswahili is becoming more and more urgent. I am talking about languages like Arabic, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian, German, Urdu, Chinese, Russian, Japanese, French, Swedish, Norwegian, Hindi, Gujarati, and Korean etc.

Five, we are an African country and we should promote other African languages, starting with those spoken in neighbouring Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Seychelles, Mauritius, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, and of course, Tanzania.

How can these realities help us forge a forward looking National Languages Policy?

I think we should develop what I call the Kenyan Multi-National Approach to Language Development.

What does this entail?

It involves starting with a core that revolves around the aggressive promotion of Kiswahili and the respective mother tongues of each and every Kenyan. It should be a goal of the NARC government that within the next 10 years, each Kenyan pupil on completing the primary school education can read and write in their mother tongue and Kiswahili. They are also free to learn another Kenyan language of their choice. In this endeavour the schools must work very closely with the parents and the local community centres.

The second plank in this approach involves maintaining the existing excellence in English instruction. We certainly have no problems in promoting this language, do we now?

The third aspect is to introduce at least one international language early in the school curriculum so that Kenyans can speak at least one of the languages I cited above, in addition to Kiswahili, their mother tongue and English. This aspect can be further enhanced through cultural and educational exchanges.

The fourth element is to embark on a deliberate policy of setting up African Language Centres in the major urban areas like Mombasa, Nairobi, Nakuru, Eldoret, Kitale, Kisumu, Kakamega and elsewhere and working hand in hand with various African embassies through their cultural attach├ęs in introducing beginners, intermediate and advanced courses in Wolof, Mandingo, Hausa, Kisomali, Amharic, Tigrinya, Shona, Zulu, Xhosa, Herero, Bemba, Lingala, Kikongo, Kinyarwanda, Arabic, Kirundi, Yoruba, Ibo, Ceshwana, Sotho, Twi, Mossi, Kimakonde, etc.

The sixth ingredient is to develop a full-scale Kenyan National University for African Languages and Linguistic Research that will develop Kiswahili, Kenyan languages and other African languages technically and otherwise. This is the place that will make sure that there is a dictionary for each and every Kenyan language and of course a Kiswahili Advanced Learners Dictionary, Thesaurus and Encyclopedia.

The seventh key is setting a practical example by having ALL Public officials in Kenya being competent at least in Kiswahili and making attempts at promoting all Kenyan languages through drama festivals, grants to upcoming writers, poetry contests, more radio broadcasts, television programs and culturally specific websites. We should for example, do more to develop Kiswahili search engines for those surfing the internet. Another innovation which should be actualized is what I saw in the Arab world. Knowing that post- September 11 the West and the Middle East is quite interested in Arabic language content, one entrepreneur and software designer in Saudi Arabia( I believe that is where) developed this program that provided automatic translation of Arabic text into English and vice versa. Sometimes, like other electronic online translators, it gives a hilarious rendition of the original; it helped many of us who are non-Arabic speakers to access alternative information during the just concluded Iraq war.

Of course in all these endeavours, NARC’s natural allies and partners are the Kenyan people starting of course with our country’s distinguished linguists like Alamin Mazrui, Ruo Kimani Ruo, Chacha Nyaigoti Chacha, Kinene Mutiso and my good friend Mwandawiro Mghanga. Kenya can learn a lot not just from the Tanzanian experience but also from GERMANY which has done wonders in preserving Kiswahili believe or not. We need to see what the South Africans are doing because they are already implementing more or less what I am recommending in this essay. And of course we need to travel to places like India with its hundreds of languages and Scandinavia where you find Swedes, Danes, Norwegians and Finns speaking a multiplicity of tongues.

I would avoid America because of its navel-gazing xenophobic English jingoism.

There are 10 pages that I could add to this piece, but it is already 8 pages long and I do not want to push your threshold for pain any higher so I will stop right here.

Onyango Oloo
Montreal, Quebec
Wednesday, July 2, 2003
12:51 am

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