Once upon a time our mother-tongue was, supposedly, ‘less than’…

Just before I returned to the UK from holidays, I met one of my high school classmates for afternoon tea. She works at the magnificent KICC, and she took me to the roof top to view the beautiful city under the sun. We were so happy to see each other, but as if on cue we spoke English to each other. Then (as if experiencing a light bulb moment) we switched to our mother-tongue. We collapsed with laughter when we realised just how well we knew and spoke the language. With nostalgia, we reminisced how we were not allowed to speak it in school.

In high school (catholic missionary girls only school set in some beautiful grounds in the magnificent Rift Valley), it was a criminal offence to speak in any vernacular or Kiswahili unless it was during Kiswahili lesson. We were forced to speak in English at all times whether we wanted to or not. If one was caught speaking a single word of the offending vernacular or dialects they were made to walk around wearing a wooden rectangular slab around their necks, the infamous monitor. It happened to me and it was humiliating. One of the monitors of the monitor overheard me say ‘sijui’ [don’t know] to a question and issued the monitor there and then. Sijui is not even an offending word, it’s just how we speak (see – Beloved Kenya, Sand sea and sun), and they knew it too. The black coloured slab had the words ‘mother tongue speaker’ inscribed in bold white chalk. To offload the monitor, you had to catch someone else speaking their language and pass it on. I walked around for hours listening to deathly silence before someone sneezed in a dialect and I passed it on. Arguments never ensued because it was too difficult to argue in English as well as you would in the mother-tongue. We simply accepted the monitor and went on the hunt. Serial offenders were handed down harsher punishments like slashing overgrown grass, digging and planting trees in the school farm, or worse (much worse) scrubbing the ablution block – bear in mind this was girls only school, teenage girls no less, there were times in the month you didn’t want to be cleaning that block.

It disturbs me now that we didn’t question this practice; we did not fight as hard as we fought for extra portions of badly undercooked ugali and overcooked meat. I reckon we might have been brainwashed to think the only way to amount to anything was by speaking nothing but English. Speaking in our mother-tongue did not make us ‘less’ or inferior although the oppressive Irish headmistress [we baptised her without water Jemima – pronounced Jeymaima] implied so. In those days, our self-esteem was so low we wouldn’t trust our natural instincts to do what came naturally – for example – one day my friends and I were caught at the seminarians’ quarters by the headmistress, and instead of running away like most people would, one girl pulled her sweater over her head to conceal her identity and stayed rooted to the spot – it only took Jeymaima, who ruled with an iron fist, one sleek motion to reveal her face and shame her into the next decade.

Besides the monitor, there was the humiliating divide and rule practice where Jeymaima paraded girls who came from English speaking families (? Huh ?), and presented them as of superior intellect, and girls from non-English speaking families (double huh??) who would undoubtedly (asfaras Jeymaima was concerned) live a life of servitude to the superior girls. This was a psychological warfare waged on girls who in most cases had never spoken English in public. If Jeymaima had visited my village primary school, other than freak, she’d never have made me speak English. Our primary school teachers spoke nothing but their mother-tongue, and to hell with those who did not understand. For the first year, it was a constant battle because it was almost impossible to articulate things you needed to say in your mother tongue or Kiswahili, and now you were faced with the difficult task of translating stuff in your head and speaking and listening to responses and translating back – the ensuing saga was that no one found humour in anything because some things are harder to say humorously in English if they are meant to be said in Kikuyu or Kalenjin (and its various dialects) or Maasai or Luo or Luhya just to mention a few of the different languages in my class, never mind the school.

The upside to this was that Jeymaima for all her disrespect of Kiswahili or any other non-English language, never bothered to learn any of it, so if we were asked to bring parents for various infractions we brought great aunties who needed translators, and we translated to suit us. Imagine an offender having to translate to a jury what the prosecutor is alleging! Lost in translation does not even cover it.

Today I take backhanded compliments like “your accent hasn’t changed one bit” or “you still speak fluent kikuyu and Kiswahili” gladly, because I know once upon a time some young-mind-colonisers tried to discredit our languages and make them less than. There’s nothing wrong with speaking fluent English, there’s everything wrong with pretending you don’t have a mother-tongue. And when I see a president’s son reading in Kiswahili, albeit badly, or presidential candidates addressing rallies in their mother-tongue, I don’t think of this as tribalism but language as an integral part of our identity and heritage. We should be proud. We should, however, try to recite readings from memory than a mobile phone…. just saying!

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