Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o urged African writers to express themselves in indigenous languages in order to reach the African masses and preserve their languages
The rate at which indigenous languages are dying in Kenya is alarming. Although the most literate of the three East African states, this literacy has come at a price. Educated Kenyans are abandoning their vernacular in preference for languages like French and English. This has made Kenya to lead Tanzania and Uganda in the language mortality rate. OGOVA ONDEGO reports.
United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) warns in its Extinct and Endangered Languages report that 16 of the 42 languages spoken in Kenya are threatened with disappearance. In fact, UNESCO has certified Yaaku, the language spoken by the Yaaku tribe who lived in the Mukokodo Forest in Central Kenya, dead. The report, published in February 2002, lists six languages in Uganda and eight in Tanzania as being at risk. UNESCO classifies any language without people who only speak that language as headed for extinction. Only a few people use such a language as it is held in low esteem and despised by the majority; native speakers avoid using it or passing it on to their children. This aptly explains the scenario in Kenyan.
Professor Daniel Everett of the Department of Linguistics at Manchester University argues that it is a tragedy to lose a language. Author of Threatened Languages, Threatened Lives, Prof Everett says “A language is the repository of the riches of highly specialised cultural experiences. When a language is lost, all of us lose the knowledge contained in that language’s words and grammar. That can never be recovered if it has not been studied or recorded.”
As the world moves closer to globalisation, experts are predicting the going back to the time before the Tower of Babel when God thwarted humanity’s plans to rival his supremacy. The concept of the global village as predicted by the late American communications guru, Marshall McLuhan, is built around the mass media which cultivate a common world view among humanity making them to have similar tastes, purchase same goods from same multinational corporations, makes them conversant with same language of advertising and popular culture which happens to be that of the upper social classes. Experts say humanity’s aspiration to globalisation began at creation when humanity who were then using one language (Genesis 11:1-9), planned to build a tower as high as the heavens. Displeased, God said, “If as one people speaking the same language nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.”
So He gave them a multiplicity of languages that not only confused and divided them but also led them to abandon their ambitious project. Today, the plot appears reversed as the languages die to pave way to a situation similar to that before the Tower of Babel. This time round, the one language they are gravitating around is English. Is God about to intervene in world affairs again?
A 1997 TIME magazine issue reports that mass tourism is shrinking the world, bringing once distant peoples face to face as telecommunications technology and the Internet provide all people with access to identical information and entertainment. Asiaweek magazine reports that a boy returned home to announce to his father in a conservative Asian country that he wanted to learn English urgently. Surprised, the father asked him why the urgency to which the boy responded, “The computer speaks English.” A computer expert in Nairobi says one must strive to learn English as “you may never communicate with your French, German or Italian in today’s global village. Although some computer programmes are in Arabic, one cannot use them unless one understands English as instructions are usually given in English.” Such a setting could well have been a home in Nairobi. Of the 6000 languages spoken in the world, experts say over 50 per cent of them will either be extinct or endangered in the next 20 to 50 years.
By 2100, over 90 per cent of the languages could be extinct. The dominance of English, the language of the computer and urbanisation, is to blame for this. The computer and the Internet, born in the USA, is dependant on English. People are adopting English not out of brotherly love but necessity. TIME estimates that 80 per cent of the online messages and three quarters of the world’s mail are written in English today. The use of other languages, says Awake! magazine, is slowed because of the difficulty in adapting them to the English-based keyboard.
But perhaps nothing illustrates our language dilemma more than the situation at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in the remote Turkana District of Kenya. Here, English is considered a survival tool. It is the language of communication among the over 86,000 refugees of nine nationalities, among aid agencies based here, and among Non-Governmental Organisations and refugees. It is English which can help them get resettlement through United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or get a part time job with the aid agencies operating here.
English is also essential in obtaining rapid treatment at the clinics and hospital in the camp. For self-development and entertainment, refugees need English to follow news on British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) World Service radio and Cable News Network (CNN) and to appreciate the videos available in the camp. Refugees from southern Sudan who knew no other language other than Arabic, non-English speaking Somalis and Francophone Congolese, Rwandese and Burundians, have been forced to learn English in order to survive. Without realising it, the vernaculars of these people are threatened. Their children may never use them as they have no economic and social value. Of the 1500 languages spoken in Africa, between 500 and 600 of them are endangered and could fall into disuse. Prof Stephen Wurm, editor of Atlas of the World Languages in Danger of Disappearing, published by Unesco, says, “There is often a belief that you should forget the ‘small’ languages, the languages of the minorities, because they have no value.”
Not wishing to see Kikuyu extinct, novelist Ngugi wa Thiong’o tried to preserve it in his writing but he soon realised he was in a futile war. The literature had to be translated into English for university students and lecturers. He discovered that the so-called “common man and woman” he was writing for in the Kikuyu language could not, nay did not, read the literature. But this did not deter him from urging African writers to express themselves in indigenous languages in order to reach the African masses by publishing his views in Decolonising the mind:The politics of language in African literature (1986). People who write in Kiswahili in Kenya have an uphill task selling their ideas as few people read their writing. In fact, they have to fall back on English to appeal to readers. To make readers aware of what to expect in their Kiswahili publications Taifa Leo or Taifa Jumapili, the following day, the Nation Media Group uses English: “Coming Tomorrow in Taifa Leo.”
It is estimated that 500 million people use English as their native (first) language. For an extra 1.1 billion, English is an essential second or third language as it is the main medium for socio-political, economic, military and technological communication. But how has this come to be? Ask Kenyans.