Fables that keep us apart: I don’t speak in mother tongue, that’s a conscious decision

Sunday August 18 2019

mother tongue

A signboard pinned on a tree discouraging mother tongue speaking at school. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

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Names carry such a tremendous identity in Kenya. I normally find it difficult to respond when someone asks me what tribe I am from.

A strange question, but on a daily basis we find ourselves navigating through tribal identities. Whenever people ask my name, I have become used to the response.

First, they wonder whether Nerima is foreign, then there is the group that insist it should have an "l." Then people from Busia immediately know my name is from that region and they begin to speak to me in Luhya, then look at me shocked when I don’t seem to understand what they are saying.

"How can you not know your own language? Such a disgrace!"

And the most interesting part about all this is the confusion on their faces. Like I have to explain myself. Where am I really from... because I do not look like I am from there? But what do "people from there" look like?

A Tanzanian, Rwandan, Ugandan, heck I would not really be able to tell the difference until you tell me where you are from.


At what particular point do we start to learn these stereotypes? Do children have these thoughts, especially when they are making decisions.

There was a friend who was moving houses, and he was so upset because his soon-to-be landlady mentioned that Luos don't pay their rent, she was hoping he was different.

Or jokes that are made, when selecting a course in university, look for where the Kikuyus are, because it's probably going to be money-making.

Isn’t culture a lot more than just a language? Communication? We identify so greatly with the ability to communicate and speak a language.

Friends who speak their tribal language tell me they get embarrassed when people who understand know their accent.

Our politics, not the politics of pushing for policies in parliament or boardrooms...the one where our leaders speak at funerals, the important functions where people gather, where they want the people to receive a clear message... it is always in a vernacular language.

Our social events speak volumes. The more I attend weddings, the more I realise that it is rare to see a couple marrying and they are from the same tribe. More and more, families are integrating.

But what stands out even more is the kind of humour that masters of ceremonies display at these functions. Encouraging intermarrying, but we somehow go into what each tribe is negatively known for. And it is hilarious.

On a recent weekend, an MC at a function I attended talked about how he, a Luo married to a Kikuyu, he was warned that he would not survive the marriage. That she would end up harming and abusing him, and he bowed to show that he had no scars, though people had said that he would lose his neck.

"I am still okay," he said.

The fact that I do not speak my tribal languages, for that matter there are two...I am sick and tired of people looking at me in pity. That I missed something extremely important in my childhood and currently missing something important now.

I belong in a bigger circle of identity. However, there has been a growing trend, where young people opt for names that keep their identity ambiguous.

Is the tag in relation to tribe too heavy for some to bear where, when it comes to job applications, some will remove their surname depending on the organisation, and others will put it first depending on the organisation?

It is an interesting time we are living in, we are taught to view people based on stereotypes. This affects how we relate, the decisions we make and why certain individuals are part of our inner circle...

And we are beginning to realise that these are fables to keep us apart. And more and more, I see youth do that, change their names to be delinked.

Nerima Wako-Ojiwa is executive director, Siasa Place. Twitter: @NerimaW