“Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”
– Frantz Fanon
My heart thumping loudly against my chest, I looked around the noisy hum of the dining hall contemplating where to sit. I noticed a group of girls seated on the far end of the room and despite my shaky hands, I balanced my dinner tray and hesitantly headed for the edge of their table. Close enough so that I didn’t seem like a loner, but far enough that I didn’t have to interact with them. As i placed my tray down they all stopped to stare at the new kid. You see, we were all new- at least to the school. But I, as luck would have it, missed the entire two weeks of orientation; the small window freshmen get to make pseudo friendships before school starts. So not only was I a foreigner to this country, but i was also the new kid in the residence and i downright reeked of nerves and low self esteem.
I lowered myself into my chair slowly as all their beady eyes watched me; and managed to croak a brief hi. No response. My keen sense of situational awareness had failed to warn me that these were the ‘mean girls’ (yes that’s definitely still a thing). But perhaps i also gravitated that way because, just a few months ago I was one of them. Making peoples lives horrible and taking names. This i only realized in retrospect, that my group of friends was actually quite horrible; we instilled fear and loved it. I can’t even believe i was that person. I kept my attention focused on my food, but i could still feel them staring at me. So I mustered the courage to turn and smile. One, definitely out of curiosity, looked at me suspiciously and asked for my name. I replied. They could smell the foreigner on me which immediately led to questions about where i am from. ‘Kenya’ i replied. They turned around disinterested and continued speaking in- what i figured was isiXhosa. By the way, they were speaking English when i arrived there.
This was the beginning of many months of observing the South African youth. You’re probably wondering where this story is going.
During my observations, i realized that not only South Africans, but the collection of youth i came across from different countries very proudly speak their language. Their own individual languages/ mother tongues are their first languages. Meanwhile in Kenya….
If you look at the national statistics, our National languages are Swahili and English- not in that particular order. But i know people, so-called millennials in my age group (or younger) who do not even know Swahili leave alone the rumour that is their mother tongue. That, i find unacceptable if you live and plan on continue living in Kenya. I could go into a whole rant about being brainwashed by our colonial past; but that will be a post for another day. But i have to ask, very seriously, why were Kenyans I think more than any other African country, so willing to adopt and immerse themselves in the colonialists language placing lesser importance on their mother tongue? Why do we insist on holding onto the notion that speaking the white-mans English is a marker of intelligence? And we seem even more impressed with ourselves if you can manage the language with the accompanied accent. (For the Kenyan readers here just listen to Capital FM on any given day and you will see what i mean. Also, when did people start picking up American accents from USIU? Just because it is called United States International University does not mean the accent is part of the curriculum). Yes i can be quite scathing. And i am unapologetic.
Our Ugandan brothers and sisters round the corner, are so proud of their mother tongues. I had quite a few Ugandan friends in uni, and often they would start banter in Luganda and despite my lack of understanding of the jokes, i’d watch them smiling silently. I thought it was beautiful. All my Ugandan friends were from significantly wealthy backgrounds; so despite your economic background they were fully fluent in either Swahili, Luganda or both. Their knowledge of their local languages did not make them ‘lesser’. Here in Kenya, you will rarely find children from the wealthier strata of society speaking anything but English, they barely know Swahili leave alone Sheng or their mother tongue. But they will willingly opt to learn other languages like Spanish or French. How did we get here?
My dad is extremely (and hilariously) racist to white people. You can actually see the anger bubbling under when you talk about caucasians; or anything resembling race is mentioned in a conversation. And i understand him because he grew up in a time in Kenya when colonialism was still very much alive. And he witnessed his own family being segregated into ‘mild’ concentration camps. So he experienced colonization at its best. You really cannot blame him. Because of this, I was never given a baptism name to accompany my Kikuyu name. Even though it is “custom”. His reason being ‘his daughter will never ever carry the name of a white man. Does the white man also receive a Kikuyu, Kisii or Luo name?’. Well can’t argue with that logic can you? So yes i was baptized, but i retained my very Kikuyu name which i was named after his mother- which i now carry like the crown it is. As a result, by the time i was selecting Political Science as one of my majors in uni, i already had a wealth of historical information on colonialist history and the African continent. Solely imparted by my father. Circling back to mother tongues, it is because of his bias that i decided i must learn my mother tongue and use it fluently- despite my being in international schools all my life- so that i am never a slave of my colonial past. You cannot cite your colonial past and still use the language the white man colonized and brainwashed you with. And i know people like this- who are so called ‘afropolitan’ but don’t know a whisper of their language. Are you not essentially still colonized then?
Because of this, late at night i wonder about the future of our country- of the current youth. Beautiful but polarized Kenya. I wonder if we will be the only country on the continent who’s people do not know their ethnic languages. Some may argue that perhaps, to curb ethnic violence, it is best our language is homogenized- sanitized. You can’t blame them for this argument. But nevertheless i still vote that your mother tongue is important. It is tied to your roots, in the strands of your hair. That no matter how much English you learn, your mother tongue will still be there, lingering in the background of your words. And we should hold onto that; we need to unlearn whatever told us that our mother tongue is unattractive; uneducated.
Because it certainly is not.