The other day in campus during a journalism club meeting, I was asked to lead the group in a traditional Luhya song to kill the monotony of a humdrum evening. I was the only Luhya in the crowd, and my friends in attendance looked up to me with alacrity eager to learn a song from another tribe.
“I’m sorry guys,” I half-whispered. “But I do not know any Luhya songs to teach you tonight.” I actually knew a couple of Luhya tunes from my days in the Sunday school, but at the club they always ask for the song’s translation. Since I don’t know much of my mother-language, it would have been easier to draw blood from a stone than to relay the meaning of whatever song I’d choose to teach the group.
Later that night, my friend Auma followed me to my room and the conversation drifted to the disappointing moment an hour earlier. “How comes you cannot speak your mother tongue?” She wanted to know.
“My dad is a Luhya, born and bred in Bungoma, our ancestral land,” I explained to her. “My mother, on the other hand, is a Kikuyu from the Mt. Kenya Region. Growing up, Swahili, our national language, was the common language spoken in our household since my parents could not communicate to each other in their native dialects. It thus became my first language, and hence I’ve never learnt either Kikuyu or Luhya.”
“I see,” Auma remarked. “Does it bother you that you cannot speak your mother tongue?” She pressed further.
“I get by comfortably speaking Swahili, but life would certainly be easier if I knew either Luhya or Kikuyu. When I visit my relatives in Nyeri, it gets really tough following proceedings in social functions such as weddings and funerals as they’re all conducted in Kikuyu. Likewise, when I’m in Bungoma, the communication barrier continues as people who’d be more comfortable speaking Luhya have to switch to Swahili or English when I’m in the room.”
“That’s unfortunate,” she remarked as she took a bite of the ugali I had just prepare for supper. “But at least you can learn your native tongue. As for me, I can never speak my mother tongue even if I really wanted to.”
“What are you talking about?” I wondered. “I’ve heard you speak perfect Luo countless of times before!” I was getting slightly discombobulated because my friend Auma was a Luo through and through. She not only spoke the language with admirable fluency but also cooked the tastiest omena (a traditional Luo delicacy) and was a dyed-in-the-wool Gor Mahia (A football team whose fan base is anchored in Luoland) fan.
“It’s a long story Lukorito,” She said.
“I’m all ears,” I remarked as I pushed away the bowl of omena we were having with ugali for supper and moved closer. Since Luhyas are famous for their ugali and Luos are known for omena, she always prepared the stew while I made ugali whenever we shared meals in my room, which was quite often.
“All my life I have grown up believing I’m a Luo,” She started. “I was brought up in Kisumu and everybody in our homestead spoke Dholuo. It is only when I visited my grandfather last August that I discovered we’re not really Luo. We aren’t even Nilotic.” She paused for effect and took another bite at her food, just at the right point leaving me boiling with anxiety. She was a master story teller, this girl Auma. From past experiences, I had learnt that hanging on her every word only made her pause for much longer. So to mask my eagerness, I fidgeted with my phone to check the time. Nine fifty five pm. In five minutes she would need to be leaving, because hostel regulations prohibited hosting visitors past ten pm. However, when I noted she was in no hurry to complete her narration, I decided to urge her on.
“What do you mean you aren’t even Nilotic?” The Nilotes are a cluster of ethnic groups who trace their origins to the Nile Valley and are predominantly fishers. They include the Luo and Kalenjin of Kenya, and Nuer and Dinka of Sudan. They are the second largest groups of people in Africa after the Bantu, who include Luhyas, Kikuyus and Swahilis, among others.
“Grandpa told me that our tribe is originally Bantu. The Suba. Have you heard of them?”
I had read about the Suba people long ago in primary school, and I told her so. They were a Bantu community who settled near Lake Victoria in Kenya and Uganda. They then intermarried heavily with their more aggressive neighbours, the Luo. What followed was an insistent assimilation that saw the Suba surrender their traditions and customs for those of the Luo. Instead of circumcising their men as they had originally done, they now resorted to knocking out a few front teeth for initiation in aping the Luo. They abandoned farming and took to fishing for a livelihood. Slowly and steadily, they lost what made them Suba and eventually they lost their language too.
“So you know. My language is dead, as dead as a dodo! There are no records of it anywhere, no Suba songs left for future generations to learn, not even a single proverb was salvaged!” she lamented bitterly.
Later that night as I lay on my bed after seeing Auma off, I counted myself lucky because unlike her, I could easily pop into my motherland and learn Luhya. A more terrifying factoid is that out of Kenya’s 42 indigenous languages, 16 of them have either become extinct or are seriously endangered. This is according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, UNESCO.
According to UNESCO, a language is considered endangered if it is no longer learnt by at least 30% of its children. A language often disappears when its speakers shift to speaking another language, most often a larger language used by a more powerful group. It is estimated that in the world over, one language dies every 14 days.
According to Ethnologue, a web-based application that lists the data and statistics for about 7000 languages, the fate that has befallen the Suba might soon descend on more dialects here in Kenya. The most critically endangered languages are Elmolo which had only 8 speakers in 1994, and Yaaku and Omotik which had 50 speakers each at the last count in 1983.
With over 2000 languages, Africa currently stands out as the most linguistically diverse continent in the world. However, linguists project that unless quick measures are employed, 600 of these languages may not survive for long.
Its richest country linguistically, Nigeria, has already lost 14 languages in the recent past according to UNESCO. Having only 100 speakers in 1994 and the numbers dropping sharply, Yangkam language of Nigeria is on its deathbed. Cameroon has already lost Bikya and Bishou, Ethiopia is losing Ongota, Somalia is eulogising Boon and South Africa is mourning Korana and Xiri.
Why should the death of a language be of concern to us? The extinction of a language results in unrecoverable loss of unique cultural knowledge embodied in it for centuries. This includes historical, spiritual and economical knowledge that may be essential not only for its speakers but also for the survival of others.
Faced with such grim consequences, governments in Africa should strive to revive languages on the death-list. A case study can be found in New Zealand, where the Maori language was tittering on the brink of extinction. The community established nursery schools called “language nests”, which were staffed completely by elders. All lessons were henceforth conducted in Maori.
A linguistics professor at The University of Nairobi, Prof Okombo, told The African Review that language is like a reservoir of culture. Most of the cultural wealth of a community is stored in its language: their philosophy of life, their stories, and their medicinal practices.
“The death of a language is like the burning of a library,” remarked Prof Okombo.
Jowal Jones is a Kenyan journalist with Daily Nation