12 August 2015

Kenya: Our Vernacular Languages Good for the Country

opinion

A call by the National Cohesion and Integration Commission and Parliamentary Committee on Cohesion to ban speaking of vernacular languages in public offices contradicts our constitution in as far as promotion and development of linguistic diversity is concerned.

NCIC chairman Francis ole Kaparo and Johnson Sakaja, a member of the cohesion committee, opine that by banning vernacular languages in public offices, the nation will eventually vanquish and put to rest hate mongering, exclusion and tribal dominance and bigotry.

Whereas this call appears plausible on its face value, a deeper interrogation will reveal that the proponents don't seem to appreciate the role of our indigenous languages in the development and preservation of our cultural diversity.

Indeed, their call appears to validate the unofficial notion in most African countries that seems to elevate foreign languages, particularly Indo-European languages such as English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and German.

This school of thought argues that Africa unity is dependent on the use and practice of languages of their former colonial masters. It is assumed that use of these languages will make African countries stable, cohesive and peaceful.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Cases abound of monolingual countries in Africa where civil strife and turmoil is the order of the day. The 1994 Rwanda genocide was not caused by the use of different languages by the two main protagonists, Hutus and Tutsis. The two ethnic communities use Kinyarwanda as their vernacular language. The fall of Somalia as a modern state in 1990 was not precipitated by different linguistic orientation among the warring factions. Somalia is a monolingual state, yet for a quarter of a century the country has been in a state of anarchy.

If we look back at world history, it is evident that most bloody conflicts over the millennia were never caused by linguistic diversity. Ideology and other political considerations played a major part. This is true from the times of Oliver Cromwell's England, Napoleon Bonaparte's France, Vladimir Lenin's Russia, Adolf Hitler's Germany, Josef Stalin's purges, chairman Mao Tse-tung's China, Pol Pot's Kampuchea, Idi Amin's Uganda, Jean Bedel Bokassa's Central African Republic and Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

As we pursue national unity, we should guard against abandoning our individual and community linguistic and cultural heritage. Our constitution appreciates and recognises this diversity. Indeed Article 7 (3) as read together with Article 44 of the Kenyan Constitution states that 'the State shall promote and protect the diversity of language of people of Kenya and promote the development and use of indigenous languages..."

We must appreciate and acknowledge the role that our vernacular languages play in promoting and developing our national cultural diversity and identities.

It is important to note that indigenous language is an essential part of, and fundamentally linked to, indigenous peoples' ways of life, culture and identities. Languages represent many indigenous values and concepts and contain indigenous peoples' histories and development. They are primary markers of indigenous peoples' distinctiveness and cohesiveness as peoples.

Suppressing them will only help to disempower people, give them an inferiority complex, kill their self-confidence and destroy their creative energy mien. It will minimize indigenous knowledge and expertise, make Kenyans and to a greater extent Africans perpetual students of the glorified foreign ways of life and encourage them to despise their own culture and values. Suffice to say that when an individual person is denied pride in anything indigenous such a person can only degenerate into a shuttle that anyone can influence and manipulate.

South Africa seems to have realised the potency of its linguistic diversity. The South African Constitution recognises eleven national languages, by doing this; the Country seems to be coming to terms with its own heritage. It does not matter whether you speak Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu.

The issue of national cohesion or lack of it should not be attributed to linguistic diversity of people of Kenya. The current problem that NCIC seeks to cure will not be eliminated even if Kenya becomes a monolingual state. Kenya will continue to experience these problems as long as it does not address and confront its social evils such as corruption, nepotism, tribalism, favouritism, cronyism, selective application of laws of the land and lack of national values.

The writer is a PR and communications practitioner. 

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