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Kenya at home with vernacular and Chinese language and culture

The constitution of Kenya upholds cultural heritages, pride and sense of belonging to a culture. It is in Kenya that every person feels that he or she belongs to an ethnic group, a language group or some kind of culture. At the same time, it is in Kenya that some people have developed attitude against their own ethnic languages or mother tongue. It is along story to explain why is it so but my interest is to reveal how it works for the social relationships.

Some people are very quick to disclose themselves to a stranger. The way to do this in Kenya is to say one’s surname first as self-introduction. For instance, my name is Njeri or Kamau. Even if it is not intelligently right to refer to a person by his or her ethnic group, it is tacit knowledge that such person wanted self-discloser. Perhaps for the stranger to keep off. Sometimes it can be understood as respectful to tell someone who you are and the language you speak before you are asked to do so. Sometimes it can all be a sense of pride towards the other.

In Kenya, some ethinic groups, especially those that have never been in power, tend to hide their identity to any stranger. The tendency is to introduce yourself using Christian name, or first name. For instance, my name is Milicent, rather than, my name is Akinyi. Sometimes this is a sign of inferiority complex and hiding oneself. It can also mean some sense of fear to get the service you are looking for.

Those who are quick in disclosing or revealing their ethnic group are usually ready to speak the mother tongue with the stranger to create more trust, confidence, or privacy. Sometimes, it happens in public offices in Kenya that persons of the same language group prefer speaking in the language even in the presence of those who may not understand it. Such behaviour usually create a feeling of threat to others. It creates distruct and discontent especially in the public offices.

Many years ago, no Kenyan in public office would speak his or her mother tongue to a person seeking services. It was considered unethical, anti-social and misconduct. In public offices there are the official languages – English and Kiswahili. Speaking Luo, Kikuyu, Kipsigis, Kalenjin, Kikamba, Kimeru, Kitaita, Kigiriama, Kiluyhia, Kigusii, Kimasai, Kiembu, Somali, Kiturkana, any any other, dimonstrate a level of self-disclosure to anybody who does not speak it. But among the same language group it shows a lot of confidence, sense of belonging to a culture and perhaps certain pride.

I realised that even the educated elite, literate Kenyans, scholars and professors, still think and reason within the ethnic box. In social areas such as clubs meant for professionals, it is easy to identify selective sitting arrangement. Some individuals prefer to associate with their members of the ethnic group. The reason usually is linked to easy communication way and how to use shared jokes. It is entertaining to crack jokes in your mother tongue with those who understand the language.

Kenyans have stipulated two language use – that is, Kiswahili and English, but generally, the attitude is always negative. English used to be the language for the learned, the educated elites in Kenya, but today, this has been overtaken by events.

I find it disturbing to associate people by their surnames and ethnic groups in Kenya. It is not ethical to profile somebody because he or she comes from another language group. It is anti-social to exclude others from your jokes because they do not understand the language. I realised that one day inside the city buses, one person stood up to tell two passengers chatting in their mother-tongue to stop the language. This reaction is psychological and violent. It is not correct to offend others who do not speak and understand your language.

It is unethical to dismiss someone because he or she cannot express himself or herself in your language. This is arrogance, rude, unethical, bad manners, and illegal.

Most of the modern generation, or the digital children, are somehow different from the old clouts. Youth tend to tollerate one another and also to use Sheng-  a common language shared among the Nairobian youth. Speaking tribal language sounds negative and dishonourable among the youth today. Yet some parents insist that it is ideal to teach children the mother-tongue, or ethnic language. Such parents live in the olden days and must be corrected.

For the sake of national harmony in Kenya, we need to embrace a language for communication. Tanzania has overcome most of its ethnic languages and dialects. Tanzanians only speak in Kiswahili despite their differences. I congratulate the late Mwalimu Julius Nyerere for his endeavour. May be this was within the Germany colonial policy not to teach the colonised their language. English people did not force Africans into English but created a divide and rule system in which, the white were superior. In this trend, blacks thought, that speaking English would make you superior or like a coloniser. Kenyans themselves started to propagate the use of colonial language and embraced it as the instrument for development. Use of English is regarded as putting the speaker to another cultural group. It is seen as civility and looking a bit exotic. Some Kenyans have never been outside Kenya, but their accent is like the United States of America or United Kingdom. The late Hon. Kijana Wamalwa studied in England and was known for his polished Queen English.

These are stereotypes that may not help Kenya to be a better nation. Cultural identity is still honorable. Even the Americans adopted English language from their British colonisers but the accent is different. Nigerians speak Pigies English and we keep on watching their movies. Indians have their own accent and they are proud of their languages.

Kenya needs to address the issue of the vernacular languages. It has many values and also vices that may attract debates. Whether it is good to embrace only English and Kiswahili and abolish the vernaculars or promote the vernaculars for those who like them. What is surprising is that the Jubilee government is now proposing teaching of Chinese to pupils at school. What would this entail in future?

Kenya was colonised by Swahili, then the British and now the Chinese. This is a sign of being overpowered by foreign cultures and ideals. It is misleading for the government to impose any foreign language on Kenyans. I hope Chinese shall not become obligatory for my children. Let one choose freely which language to follow. The Jubilee government needs to pay close attention on what will become of Kenya as a nation? There will be no Kenyan culture in many years to come. But even this shall come with its consequences in the nation building.

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About Peter Onyango

Dr. Peter Onyango O. is one of our main contributors. He is a senior law lecturer, a writer, a consultant, peace ambassador, and a researcher. He assists so many professionals, legal minds, and debaters with his skills and scholarly wealth! He supports children and village community as a way of giving back to community. He edits, proof reads, and publishes various articles for our page!

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