In Kenya, no matter how eloquently you speak the Queen’s English, you won’t pass muster as a politician unless you are also able to address your constituents in their mother tongue. As the pithy truism by Nelson Mandela goes, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
A few weeks ago President Uhuru Kenyatta’s son, Muhoho Kenyatta, found himself in hot soup. The scion of the Kenyatta political dynasty (his grandfather was a president as well), Muhoho is widely expected to run for political office in the near future. President Kenyatta has not made it a secret that he is grooming his son to take over after him.
The acid test for the junior Kenyatta came when he was tasked with addressing his father’s supporters on the campaign trail. At two rallies, young Muhoho found addressing Kenyans in Swahili, the country’s lingua franca, an extremely hard row to hoe. He had to read the short speech from his phone with great difficulty and his heavy American accent did not help matters.
The realization that the President’s son couldn’t speak Swahili caused Kenyans to run around with their hair on fire for weeks on end. It even gave birth to the #MuhohoChallenge, an online trend where people hilariously imitated the greenhorn’s incoherence. Variations of the ‘challenge’ have since garnered hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube.
While we collectively made fun of Muhoho for not having a grasp of the most widely spoken language in the country, the incident brought to fore a disconcerting counter-culture where parents purposely prevent their children from learning their native tongues. African languages (Kenya has 42 of them) are increasingly being seen as a speech impediment that only serves to prevent kids from acquiring a perfect grasp of English. When a child can speak fluent English at the age of 7, their parents will certainly flaunt them ostentatiously to other parents.
I grew up in a home where my parents hailed from different ethnic backgrounds. English was, therefore, the main language of communication around the house, and I never got to learn either Luhya or Kikuyu—my parents’ respective tongues.
At the age of 10, teachers at my primary school noticed that my English was pretty good, and I was thus appointed the ‘Language Prefect.’ My job description entailed shaming any of my schoolmates whom I’d chance upon communicating in their mother tongue by making them wear a nylon sack-cloth. I would then present the offending students’ names to the Deputy Headmistress at the end of the day for further punishment.
Though I made my parents and teachers proud with my impeccable English, it pained me every time I had to attend social gatherings at my grandparents’ village and the speakers were asked not to communicate in Luhya because “we have the boy from the city with us”. It was a dagger to my heart each time my maternal grandmother would struggle to pray for her grandchildren in English, a tongue she has barely any grasp of, just so I could feel included.
It hurt even more when I discovered literature by Ngugi wa Thiong’o who claimed that “In colonial conquest, language did to the mind what the sword did to the bodies of the colonized.”
I have a reasonably good grasp of English, Swahili, and Spanish, but it hurts when my icon Ngugi visits Kenya from his self-imposed exile and conducts public lectures in which he declares, “If you know all the languages of the world but you do not know your mother tongue, that is enslavement. If you know your mother tongue as well as all the other languages of the world, that is empowerment.”
It hurts when I’m called a slave simply because I can’t speak my mother tongue.
Shades of Culture