Sometimes one common language is the glue that binds communities

Friday September 25 2020

Tower of Babel: Strong bonds have sometimes been created by language. For instance, Kiswahili unites several African countries. FILE PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH


Writing in praise of mother tongue retention in addition to official and national languages last week triggered the memory of a book reading event I attended dubbed Nairobi, Maps of Exile where James Murua — a blogger, podcaster, editor, journalist and now a judge of the AKO Caine Prize for African Writing — read some of his work. Murua surprised me by saying he only spoke English and Kiswahili.

Murua grew up in a multi-ethnic Nairobi estate. Playing on the streets, the children communicated in Kiswahili and English. “I speak English and Kiswahili deliberately,” Murua said. “I bought into the dream of a Kenya that is unified by language. This dream was sold to me when I grew up in Buruburu estate, in the 1980s and I have never seen the need to change this stance.”

Chatting with Murua, I confessed to having entertained the idea that people who didn’t speak a mother tongue wanted to learn one.

Many people like Murua, are often expected to conform by mother tongue enthusiasts like me. As children, we often made fun of urbanite relatives who visited the village and spoke only rudimentary and heavily accented mother tongue. The laughter was tinged with envy.

We silently admired their shoes and use of cutlery as we normally ate using our bare hands. Some could sing along to a few songs in the mother tongue. When we were kind enough to translate metaphors, proverbs, cultural references, stories or jokes, much of what we said in the mother tongue was lost in translation.

Thinking of this, I anxiously asked Murua: “Knowing one’s mother tongue grounds a human being into culture through music, norms and taboos. How do you define ‘belonging’ if you cannot speak your mother tongue? Doesn't speaking a mother tongue go beyond the extension of communication and provide a view into a culture that supports better relationships?” “Not necessarily,” Murua said, "as Kiswahili and English play the exact roles you just describe the mother tongue as playing.".


"But language is important for identity,” I responded. “You are right,” he said, "the languages I identify with are English and Kiswahili.”

“If we follow your example,” I asked, “shall we not end up with one bland world, where everyone speaks just a few languages, submerging the richness of detail of different cultures?”

I suggested that maybe the difference between us was my being part of a Kenyan generation that grew up speaking three languages, the mother tongue, Kiswahili and English, with parents from the same ethnic group. Many parents of Murua’s generation not only brought up children in urban areas but were also in inter-ethnic marriages, meaning they too might have communicated with each other not in their mother tongues but in English and Kiswahili.

“Not really,” Murua said, smiling wryly. “My parents are from the same ethnic community” he said. “I and many others were defined by the urban space we grew up in. Our thoughts and personalities are shaped by Kiswahili and English, languages that are not our mother tongues," he said.

“This actually works very well particularly during the electoral season when Kenyans tend to identify with politicians based on ethnicity. It actually means a group of neutral Kenyans exists, which is a necessary ingredient for holding the country together.” This was a point I could not argue with.

“What will happen to the different languages and cultures, rituals, beliefs, traditions and identity they carry, if we all speak only English and Kiswahili?” I asked.

“It is all about personal choice,” Murua said. “I am pleased with the choice I made.” Murua’s words brought realisation that the world of mother tongue retention could probably be seen through many different lenses.

I am still convinced mother tongue retention, preserves language as a carrier of collective memory. The challenge for national unity and respect for difference is sometimes not met by sharing a common language. We learnt this from the Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslims in Bosnia, the Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda, Irish Protestants and Catholics and the Somali people.

However, strong bonds have sometimes been created by language. For instance, Kinyarwanda has strongly contributed in forging a nation out of a country torn apart by genocide.

Kiswahili unites several African countries and indeed, is now offered as an optional subject in South African schools. Elijah Mhlanga from the Department of Education said teaching Kiswahili would help address xenophobia and promote cohesion.

Kudos to South Africa, for with nine out of the 11 official languages being indigenous African languages, the country is a trendsetter in mother tongue retention too!