Seeking a New Identity

Fiona Ngarachu

Nairobi, Kenya - Aug 2007

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“We Mwega” a grandmother says. Her voice is young and melodious belying the wrinkled face and crooked back that she presents. Her ten year old grandson to whom the common Kikuyu greeting is directed stares blankly. He does not understand a word of his native tongue and his cucu (grandmother) sighs in exasperation.

This is a common occurrence in everyday life in Kenya. The indigenous languages of the forty two or so ethnic groups are rapidly disappearing, such as that of the ancient El Molo people, whose language is virtually extinct. Much of the current generation speak their neighbor’s tongue. Learned scholars and pundits all groan in collective desperation at this loss of identity and say it bodes no good for the African continent.

Everyone seems to agree that this loss of native speech bodes no good for the region and has in a large part contributed to the identity crisis now facing the continents youth. “They don’t know where they are coming from, therefore how can they know where they are going?” This is the question many raise when they see idle youths. But, isn’t this a one sided argument? Is there another side to the coin? Is there anything positive that can come out of this? I think there is.

I am one of the guilty parties so I am speaking from some experience. I can hardly string together a coherent sentence in my mother tongue ‘Kikuyu’ although I can understand a fairly slow conversation. As a result of this, it is true, I have had difficulty communicating with my grandparents and fully understanding our cultural beliefs. I have felt left out when we have a family get together and my cousins are happily chatting away as I am left trying to follow discussions, but there have also been benefits.

For one, this has enabled me to develop deep and meaningful friendships with members of other races and ethnic groups. That is not to say those who are fluent cannot do this but in my opinion there is a significant reduction in ethnic association. It is human nature to relate to those with whom we share certain common characteristics. It is little wonder that Kenyans, Nigerians and other Africans abroad will tend to congregate together whenever the opportunity arises, but when it is not possible to associate with ones kinsman an opportunity for further interaction with others arises.

Unity would also be further encouraged. Take the example of Tanzania as compared to Kenya. In Kenya, ethnic group comes first then country. I am a Kamba, Kikuyu or Luo before I am a Kenyan. However in Tanzania all the various ethnic groups have been consolidated under the Swahili language which, like English in Kenya, is the official language of their country.

Outsiders cannot be blamed for thinking that Tanzanians all share a common ethnic background because of the outward harmony that they display.
Generally speaking, languages, like all civilizations follow a cyclic pattern of evolution similar to a graph. They start with a steep incline as the language is born and develops, this is followed by a plateau where it is in common use and understood by the members of that particular society and finally it enters into a sharp downward curve as it enters its decline and perhaps eventual extinction due to various forces.

A case in point is Latin that for more than a thousand years was the language spoken across parts of Europe, Africa and Asia. Today, its usage if very much limited, even though it is still used by the Catholic Church, it is no longer learned as a first language by nation states (excepting State of the Vatican City).

There is perhaps hope for African languages in the future. In this age of globalization and rapid change, it is necessary to adapt in order to avoid getting swept away by the tide. Take an example from the English language, ‘Shakespeare’ would probably not recognize three out of ten words spoken if he were to come back today. That is because the English that was spoken in his day has evolved to that which is spoken today and it continues to evolve.

English has to adapt to survive, it regularly adopts words from other languages (e.g. ‘tycoon’ and ‘pyjama’) to keep up with the times. Perhaps it is time we did the same.