Have you ever stopped to think about language? It’s this thing that allows us to communicate. We tell stories, we laugh, we convince, and we persuade all through language. Clearly, something that occupies such a significant part of our daily lives deserves a bit more time and thought than we give it. During my time at UWC, a place where there were almost as many languages spoken as there were people, I came to see how language occupies such a central part in one’s identity, and hey presto came my own identity crisis with language.
The beginnings of my confusion
Born in Mombasa, I grew up speaking Kiswahili as my first language. At two and a half when I entered school I began to learn and speak English. Soon enough English became the dominant tongue in my mouth, given that I was spending most of my active day speaking English. In fact, my entire academic career has been in English apart from the few Kiswahili classes I took when I was schooling in Mombasa. Nevertheless, when I was asked at UWC what my native language was, I really didn’t know what to say. One, because I don’t think I had ever been asked that question before and two, I didn’t even know which language to answer; English or Kiswahili. To add to the confusion, we Kenyans consider our mother tongues to be the first languages of our parents, usually the local languages unique to each tribe. For me, Kirabai and Kitaita. I don’t speak these languages, I have never learned these languages, and chances are I probably never will. So back to the question what is my native language? I first said Kiswahili, then sometimes I would say English, eventually, I just used to say both, much to the confusion of my interlocuter.
Anyway, whichever response I gave I was met with interesting responses. I remember that some teachers of mine struggled to understand how I was a native English speaker (I wasn’t of British, North American, or Australian origin). Heck, even some of my classmates struggled with this. When I responded with Kiswahili, I was met with “Wow! But your English is so good,” as if one can’t speak a second language to native fluency. When I responded with English and Kiswahili some would say “But how? You can only have one.” I was confused, couldn’t people just be content with whatever answer I gave? In trying to make sense of my confusion (I know it sounds ironic, but I think you get the gist of what I am trying to say), I began to think more about language and identity, politics, and the role it plays in society.
Language in the Kenyan context
For us Kenyans we grow up with two dominant languages, English and Kiswahili. English is predominantly used in business and government whereas Kiswahili is more social. If I am not mistaken nearly all Kenyans speak Kiswahili, English not so much, even though it is the language of instruction in schools. English is widespread in urban areas far more than rural areas. To understand the cultural spaces that these two languages occupy like many things in Africa we go back to colonialism. English was the languages of the British Imperialists, Kiswahili was the language of the Swahili people on the coast of East Africa. Kiswahili was written in Arabic script, but because that was not understood by the British, the language was transcribed into the Latin Alphabet. Kiswahili was turned into the language of the Africans, and English remained what it was, the language of the European settlers.
As we were conditioned to think that the West was best, people aspired to behave, and act like the British. Adopt their way of dressing (suits were NOT made for our hot tropical sunshine), adopt their food and drink, and adopt their language among many others. We were told that in order to escape our supposed savage and subhuman nature, this is what we needed to do. We would emulate them in every way possible, but we would never be exactly like them because our skin colour was different. The humanity of an African was controlled. Today the shackles of this mentality have not escaped, and language is one of the ways we continue to be bound to the colonial legacy.
The hierarchy of language
“To speak means to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilisation”
This quote was brought to my attention by a very good friend of mine who featured in my last blog post. Fanon’s quote reminds us that language is an incredibly powerful tool, for “until the Story of the hunt is told by the Lion, the tale of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” Little do we know that language is being used as a tool against us. A measure of intelligence in this country is how well you speak the English language, but just look at some of the verbal diarrhoea our politicians spew on national television and you will see that this is far from the truth. We still believe that those who have mastery of the English language are those that have made it. English is the language of prestige in this country and I mentioned this in the last blogpost, the 9pm English news bulletin is one hour, and the 7pm Kiswahili news bulletin is a mere half an hour. We only have one national Kiswahili newspaper -all the rest are in English. When Kiswahili words find their ways into our newspapers, they are written in italics and a translation promptly follows within brackets.
We shame those who shrub (when words are “mispronounced” due to the influence of one’s mother tongue), but look at it like this, shrubbing is those little instances when that piece of yourself that you have suppressed for so long tries to come out, but it is beaten back inside by the laughs of others. I have been guilty of this. Shaming those who shrub is how we reinforce the hierarchy of language and accents in this country. With the increasing popularity of international schools many of whom don’t make it mandatory for students to learn Kiswahili we have a situation where Kenyans only speak English. We lose the one language that unites us as Kenyans.
I could continue listing examples of how we have internalised this hierarchy of language. With this internalised hierarchy we have internalised structures of oppression, and we continue to define ourselves and discuss our problems in a language that isn’t even ours. We underestimate the power of Kiswahili and how significant it is as a language. It is the only African language that is an official language of the African Union, and it is the most widely spoken African language. If the dream of a united Africa is to be realised the lingua franca will not be English, French, Portuguese, or Arabic, it will be Kiswahili.
So what now for us Kenyans?
The challenge for us Kenyans is to figure out what in the world do we do with the quagmire we are in. How I navigated this conundrum is through code-switching. Code-switching is the use of switching dialects of a language for different social contexts or situations. Only in this case, it isn’t even dialects, it’s using entirely different languages. Kiswahili occupied a different context for me, compared to English, or Swanglish (a mix of Kiswahili and English). I have been doing this my entire life, the only thing is that I didn’t know I was doing it, hence probably why I was so damn confused. At the end of the day, English is not our tongue, and so long as we speak it, as Fanon says, we are assuming the weight of a civilisation that is not ours. So long as we are speaking English in the form it was dumped onto us, there will be an inherent distance between us Kenyans and it.
The issue is, I don’t think it is within the realm of possibilities to say that we should stop speaking English outright, in today’s world English is by and large the language of international communication. However, language is not just a way to communicate, it also is a carrier of culture and values and we can’t carry our culture and our values with a language that is not ours. Ideally, every Kenyan citizen is trilingual, their mother tongue, Kiswahili, and English. In that order of being learned, and in that order of importance. This should be official language policy, but it isn’t, and our mother tongues are dying. I don’t know the solutions to the issues I have raised, but I am hoping that by bringing awareness to these issues and maybe allowing these issues to mature in my mind something tangible may come out of this.
Looking back, it is no wonder I was so confused when it came to determining my native language or mother tongue, there are so many nuances to language politics in this country that we just don’t address or talk about in public discourse. I for one would not be able to write this post in Kiswahili a language I claim to be fluent in. Language is such an integral part in the formation of an identity
I will finish with a quote I found in Decolonising the Mind by Ngugi wa Thiong’o (read it), and I won’t translate it ;D.
“Titi la mama litamu lingawa la mbwa, lingine halishi tamu… Watu wasio na lugha ya asili, kadiri walivyo wastaarabu, cheo chao ni cha pili dunia”