This week I was listening to the celebrated Nigerian author and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaking during an interview with The Economist’s public policy editor Sacha Nauta in October 2019. Asked when she first became aware of being a girl, Chimamanda said, in one of her answers, it was when she was in grade three. The teacher one day told the class that whoever performed best in the test would be appointed the class monitor. Chimamanda was the best in the test but the teacher said she could not be the class monitor because she was a girl and only boys were allowed to be class monitors. Accepting her fate, she began to realise that girls were treated differently from boys, but she could not understand why.
What attracted my attention was the position of class monitor which during the colonial days at school in the rural areas was viewed with apprehension. The class monitor’s principal duty was to report those who were talking in class and specifically those who were talking in their mother tongue.
Although indigenous languages (depending on the location of your school) were the medium of instruction in lower classes, English and Kiswahili were adopted in intermediate and upper classes at which point the indigenous was looked down upon as being primitive and backward; the language of the unschooled.
Last week on Thursday, renowned author Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o was awarded the 31st International Catalonia Literature Prize by the Catalan government “for his distinguished and courageous literary work and his defense of African languages, based on the notion of language as culture and collective memory” in a ceremony chaired by Catalan president Quim Torra. By prior arrangement, Prof Ngugi addressed the ceremony in his native language, Kikuyu, with simultaneous translation being scrolled on a wide screen. He was well received by the audience. However, back home in Kenya, while many were impressed that Prof Ngugi had walked the talk with such an international audience, it being the first time, others were shocked that he dared. Cynics questioned why he did not address the ceremony in our other national language Kiswahili.
I do not blame those who were shocked by this courageous act because in the course of our colonial experience we were socialised to believe that our native languages were backward. It was not just our languages but our culture, religion, and history. In order to completely overwhelm the colonised you must not only take away his land and livelihood, but you must also take over his identity. It is clear that we are still carrying the hangover of this colonial mindset. Prof Ngugi has tackled this subject exhaustively in his book Decolonising the Mind.
And it is not only in Africa. When the British conquered Ireland they promoted the English language and denigrated Irish. The same happened in India while African slaves in America were not allowed to speak their native languages being forced to adopt the language and identity of their owners.
While it is not in doubt that English is a predominant language, we should not relegate indigenous languages into oblivion. Language is a vehicle that carries the identity of a people, their culture and history. Prof Ngugi has championed this cause for many years by writing in his native language for the posterity of his people. I wish many more Kenyans would follow in his pioneering footsteps.
I recall a rather amusing incident from my younger days. While at Alliance High School, I and three other friends who were collectively known as “The Avengers”, named after the eponymous TV series, organised a party one Saturday afternoon in school. We managed to smuggle an assortment of drinks including wines and aperitifs. The deputy headmaster JFMW, who was a friend, generously contributed a bottle of rum and one whisky strictly on the understanding that his name would not be mentioned.
On the appointed day the girls we had invited from Alliance Girls High School came over and we had a wonderful time. The school captain made a cameo appearance and warned us not to get caught. As usual, I was the DJ for the occasion. We escorted the girls back to their school at about 5pm. On the way back to school we decided to make a detour to the local shops at Maa ya Ihii where we topped up with some local brew from Karanja’s sheben. This was to be our undoing because some eager beaver, perhaps envious of how much fun we seemed to be having, reported us to the acting headmaster who happened to be JFMW, as the substantive headmaster, ACES, was away for the weekend.
We were severely reprimanded and JFMW took me aside and told me he was very disappointed for having let him down. The following day, Sunday, JFMW and the school captain reached an agreement to punish us with hard labour, uprooting tree stumps in the school compound.
The matter did not end there because the eager beaver and the deputy school captain felt that we got off lightly. As soon the headmaster ACES got back to the office on Monday the two disgruntled elements took up the issue with him and our punishment was revised to suspension. The letter to our parents read in part “your son was caught drinking local brew….”. We were required to return with our parents.
I have often wondered whether our crime was drinking local brew or drinking alcohol. But the inference from the letter was that we had disgraced ourselves by stooping so low as to drink local brew, the refreshment of the wretched of the earth! Anything local was not to be entertained in a school with such a colonial pedigree as Alliance!
Without mentioning names, I can assure you that the other three Avengers turned out to be distinguished members of society. As for me, I will let you be the judge!