Nairobi — Kenyan presidential candidates should conduct the second debate on Monday (February 25th) in Swahili so that all citizens can understand, scholars and citizens are saying.
Professor Clara Momanyi of Catholic University of Eastern Africa said Chakita, the organisation she chairs that promotes Swahili in Kenya, has written a letter to the debate organisers asking them to change the language to Swahili, the most widely spoken language in Kenya.
Both Swahili and English are listed in the Kenyan constitution as official languages, but only Kenyans who have gone through formal education study and speak English.
"The choice of using the English language for the entire debate [on February 11th] was biased," Momanyi told Sabahi. "It locked out a huge segment of Kenyans who are not familiar with [English]. This is a form of discrimination that is contrary to our constitution which guarantees every citizen the freedom not to be treated unfairly based on language or ethnicity."
"Therefore we demand that in the coming debate the hosts ask questions in Swahili and the presidential candidates answer using the same language," she said.
Wachira Waruru, managing director of Royal Media Services and chairman of the presidential debate committee, said non-English speakers have a genuine concern.
"Many Kenyans who followed the debate on their radios and televisions sets might have missed out due to the language barrier," he told Sabahi. "We received the complaint from the scholars and we are looking for ways to work with the rest of the organising team on how to incorporate the Swahili language in the debate."
Breaking the language barrier
Peter Otieno, 39, a taxi driver in Nairobi's Westland neighbourhood, told Sabahi he was not satisfied with the first debate.
"I waited for the debate anxiously because I [thought] I would become more informed on the presidential candidates and what they mean for Kenya," said Otieno, who never went to school. "But when I tuned on my car radio to listen to the debate, I was disappointed that for the entire three hours, I could not grasp what was being discussed because I do not understand English."
He said he had to rely on his friends who know "a bit of the language" to tell him what was discussed in the debate.
"This is the reason I prefer the second round to be held in Swahili so as I can get first-hand information," Otieno said.
Salome Nduku, who works with Google Kenya as a language specialist, told Sabahi most Kenyans shared similar frustrations on social media.
Nduku, who translates Swahili messages into English, said Google monitored social media postings after the first debate and found that most "Kenyans want the [follow-up] debate done in Swahili so they can understand".
Kithakawa Mbiera, a Swahili lecturer at the University of Nairobi, said the presidential debate represents the only opportunity for many Kenyans to learn about important issues regarding land and resource sharing and to gauge candidates running for office.
"Politicians address the public in Swahili [in campaign rallies] because they appreciate the fact that many Kenyans do not understand English," said Mbiera, adding the same should be done during the debate.
He said that failure to embrace Swahili in such popular forums will amount to the loss of Kenyan identity and unity.
"We are who we are because of the language we speak, and this is Swahili, which we also use across the ethnic divide as a tool of communication. Therefore, such debates should give it priority as a symbol of our nationhood and unity," he said.