alexa BY THE BOOK: Bernard Chahilu - Daily Nation

BY THE BOOK: Bernard Chahilu

Monday January 20 2020

Author Bernard Chahilu. PHOTO | COURTESY

Author Bernard Chahilu. PHOTO | COURTESY 


The name Bernard Chahilu may only ring in the minds of those who have read or heard about his book “The Herdsman’s Daughter”, a novel he wrote when he was still young and admits was birthed [only] out of curiosity. He discloses that he writes at his own pace.

Bernard Chahilu is currently working on a novel [in] which he intends to explore the paradoxes of life and how they (paradoxes) work in the society.

The novel, which he is writing in English, is besides his project of collecting folktales in his community.

He hopes to develop the folktales, which are in his mother tongue, into plays. Chahilu does not hide his dislike for the way people have neglected their mother tongues.

Why are mother tongues so significant?
Mother tongues are the mediums through which children begin to perceive the world and relate to it.

They have deep impressions on the child’s formative years; the store from which children draw their linguistic tools and are the repository of all community wealth and wisdom.


There exists a crisis between our cultures and modernity.

We have to accept inevitable transformation. However, it does not mean that we destroy our culture and embrace modernism as a way of life completely without respect to our culture.

We were to embrace the colonialists’ language in order to make social and educational progress.

However, in doing so, we looked down upon our own languages as retrogressive and useless to the job market. We turned our children into subjects of ridicule for speaking mother tongue and made them feel ashamed of it.

What happens when one marries from a community that is different from his own?

Our definition of mother tongue should not be limited to ethnic languages. Kiswahili can be a mother tongue.

If the mother does not speak a given language as the father, and the family lives in a predominantly Kiswahili speaking community, then Kiswahili becomes the mother tongue as opposed to the ethnic languages of the parent.

Some in-laws intervene when it comes to the question of what language a child gets exposed?
If you live in a given community, there will occur a naturalisation. The children will respect both cultures of the parents but will identify more with the culture the family chooses to live in.

They will learn how to behave when they visit the father’s or mother’s place and respect the way of life. Should the child be raised in the urban, it is even easier.

The family will be cosmopolitan and will appreciate everything there.

Intermarriages improve national integration and the sense of belonging to a larger culture called the Kenyan culture becomes more real as we integrate in marriage.

You speak of the Kenyan culture. What defines the Kenyan culture?

Culture is a way of life which assumes certain values and attitudes, prejudices and tendencies that become more prevalent within a particular society

Culture involves behaviour and evolves through time as people have common historical and social experiences. We have a common colonial heritage.

We have picked up English idiosyncrasies and recently Americanism through pop music. Kenyans claim to be democratic and tend to ape the West in their way of governance.

The way we go to church and mosques on the holy day shows how terribly we are a religious country and that is a Kenyan culture.

We say we can do nothing about graft. If you are caught, too bad. If you succeed, live with it.

That attitude of mind defines Kenyan culture. We do not talk against God publically; subscribe to the law only theoretically and do not look elders in the eye.

However, allow me to clarify something.

Rites of passage are manifestations of culture; mere exhibition of rituals. Culture is the entirety of attitudes, the way we look at life, do things, and interpret our environment.”

How should we promote our mother tongues?
You cannot promote a language in this age without developing learning materials in the way of reading materials.

Under the newly introduced Competency Based Curriculum, grade one to three should learn their mother tongue and I have been involved in developing materials for my own community. We have written learning materials.

What role do parents have in promoting the vernacular languages?
When Ngugi came to launch Maragoli mother tongue reading material for grade one to three, the adults also wanted to learn from the same books.

When he was in exile in the United States, he lived in the middle of New York, a cosmopolitan but he put up a motto that in his family, Gikuyu comes first.

Parents must understand the role of mother tongue in development of a child’s personality. It is through language that we recognise our identities and understand who we are in the committee of nations.”

What about the problem of publishing the materials?
Publishers are basically business people but there is a vote head for cultural development and protection of cultural values in the counties.

The county government can pass laws protecting or defining the value of mother tongue and ways of growing them and allocate adequate financial resources for publication.

They can subsidise publishing. The authors can also do own marketing but only after costs of publication are subsidised.

We also need lobby groups to push the county government to help publish valuable materials in mother tongue which established publishing houses will not touch because of limited circulation.

The profit margin should not be the sole criterion for deciding what gets published.

How well do you think the education system is doing regarding promotion of appreciation of diversity?

Diversity of culture is supposed to be the way to demystify life and show our common human needs because you learn more about other people’s ways of doing things and the larger community from which we come as cultural entities, in addition to what you already know.

Out of the diversity, we have wealth of experience, knowledge and wisdom. The 8-4-4 thing had an exciting vision but the leadership forgot to do preliminaries before implementation.

We needed to build requisite teaching materials; to horn the skills of the teachers who were going to handle it and to prepare the industry which was going to absorb the graduates.

The CBC is a brilliant idea but again, the way we are going about it is wrong. You do not change the whole system all of a sudden without the means.

They are going to repeat the same mistake as it happened with 8-4-4. Before introducing a new system, you have to engage all the stakeholders.

Kenyans tend to gallop over very huge chunks of undigested information.

Do you envision the new education system becoming a success?

The leadership should not run it down our throats. We must be given time to digest it, so that we swallow it at our own capacity. There is no need for impatience to get it done. The implementation should be phased in such a way that it is not a problem to anybody.

What should contemporary writers focus on?
They should focus on the problems of our times which include honest engagements with ourselves on issues that prevent us from utilising our potentials.

We are using models of social engagements which do not suit our conditions and so, our problems continue to accumulate.

Joblessness is artificial. We lack resources to engage ourselves. And they are not necessarily financial. We lack attitudinal values and approaches.

What do we define jobs to be? What makes Kenyans think they are jobless? Trade unions help raise salaries of a few when millions others have no income to talk about.

Writers should concern themselves with our value systems. What is the leadership supposed to be doing to ensure sanity is restored in society?

Who controls the institutions that should bring up the economy? Are they doing it right? There is also the question of justice and inequities.

What is that one brave idea you hold?
There is a saying in my vernacular that ‘If you want to live longer, obey the powerful.’

I would rather worship a deity, something too powerful and beyond my comprehension than a being so vulnerable like me.