NDERITU: Mother tongue dies, and so does your essential identity

Monday August 19 2019

Kenyan literature writer Ngugi wa Thiong'o (right) claps during the launch of his book 'Wirute Gikuyu Kiega' at Kirinyaga University on February 14, 2019. He has urged Kenyans to embrace their mother tongue as a way of strengthening their culture. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NMG


The International Day of the World’s Indigenous People’s was commemorated on August 9. The celebration was dedicated to the International Year of Indigenous Languages, which, many may not know, is 2019.

On the same day, a court of law heard an incredibly tragic story connected to language.

In Kenyan schools, teachers set strict rules banning pupils from speaking in their mother tongues while in school. Teachers strive to ensure pupils speak in Kiswahili and English, both examinable subjects.

A prefect overheard a 14-year-old boy speaking in his mother tongue in a Kericho school. The prefect said he would not only report the boy, he would also ensure he was punished for breaching school rules.

The boy flew into a rage, and began raining blows on the prefect. A 16-old elder brother of the 14-year-old, also a pupil joined the fight. The two brothers kicked and boxed the prefect until he lost consciousness. One would hope the story would end there but it did not. The prefect was rushed to hospital where he died.

When the brothers were hauled before a court of law, the 14-year-old said he started the fight because the prefect wanted him punished for speaking in his mother tongue.


The brothers pleaded guilty and in mitigation said they were remorseful. They were convicted of manslaughter and placed on two years’ probation.

The brothers committed the most terrible of offences and were lucky to get off with a fairly light sentence. However, the energy expended in stopping pupils from speaking mother tongues has far-reaching effects.

I wrote earlier in the year of a Nigerian professor, Oludamini Ogunnaike, from Harvard University’s Department of African and African American Studies, who told me about an interesting study he carried out on African children unable to speak in their mother tongues. What I did not write then was the highest proportion of such cases, which kept increasing, came from Kenya.

Approaches by educators matter. Not too far away from Kericho, the Freedom School in Nakuru, with a philosophy grounded in Afrocentrism and citizenship, emphasizes a strong African identity.

Not only are pupils required to know their own mother tongues, they are also taught another African language alongside Kiswahili and English.

The prioritising of Kiswahili and English has seen a steady march. Both languages open up opportunities in the job market.

Ironically, more progress has been made prioritising of the two languages post-Independence when colonial policies of discriminatory laws on mother tongues no longer exist. Not even in a playground can a pupil speak their mother tongue.

Till the 1990s, it was fairly common for any Kenyan child to speak three languages fluently — mother tongue, English and Kiswahili. Increasingly, it is now Kiswahili and English. Some parents only speak to their children in the two languages.

The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues estimates that out of the world’s 6,700 languages, an indigenous language dies every two weeks.

There has always been a debate on whether the classification of indigenous people in Africa as being mainly hunter-gatherers and pastoralists by the UN is correct. Those who disagree with this definition ask the question, which African is not indigenous to Africa? The issue remains unsettled.

Could this narrow definition be restricting the protection of all African mother tongues as indigenous, which would be a better option than investing in language revitalisation?

Ironically, language revivalists expend huge amounts of resources, human and financial in research on indigenous languages that are dying or have died.

With six months to go till the end of 2019, the International Year of Indigenous Languages, will the UN prompt governments to introduce legislation and policies to boost the speaking and teaching of mother tongues? When will speaking in mother tongue become the symbol of pluralistic expression it should be?

Wairimu Nderitu is the author of Beyond Ethnicism, Mukami Kimathi: Mau Mau Freedom Fighter and Kenya: Bridging Ethnic Divides. E-mail:  [email protected]