I was discussing a story idea with a younger colleague recently when I pointed out that Wambui Otieno’s story would be good background for the feature we were brainstorming on.
“Wambui-who?” she asked, looking puzzled.
I thought she was joking — who doesn’t know Wambui Otieno? Well, it turned out that my colleague, a millennial in her mid-20s, genuinely had no idea who Wambui Otieno was. I was appalled, and have been teasing her about it since.
For the sake of millennials reading this, and who have never heard of such a person, Wambui Otieno was a freedom fighter and activist who made headlines back in 1987 for bravely taking on her late husband’s clan when she sought to bury his remains at their farm in Ngong, in the outskirts of Nairobi.
His clan, on the other hand, wanted the remains of Wambui’s husband, SM Otieno, who had been a prominent lawyer, buried in his ancestral home in Siaya.
The court would eventually bring the legal dispute to an end when it allowed SM Otieno’s tribesmen to carry out the traditional burial, arguing that it was impossible for an African to disassociate himself from his tribe and its customs.
Wambui would make headlines again in 2003 when she threw convention out of the window and married a 25-year-old man — she was 67 at the time, 42 years older than her new husband.
It was a scandalous thing to do, by Kenyan standards anyway, but Wambui, who evidently lived on her own terms, did not give a hoot, even going ahead to enjoy a bold kiss with her beau on their wedding day, as photojournalists clicked away.
That this colleague had no idea that such a colourful woman existed in Kenya’s history books was disappointing.
True, millennials are more educated than the generation before them, more enlightened and, therefore, socially progressive, not to mention tech savvy, but when it comes to history, various studies and polls from all over the world reveal that many of them are ignorant, even of major events that shaped the world, such as World War II, The Renaissance, The Holocaust, and closer home, the Mau Mau Uprising.
LOSING OUR ROOTS
But perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on our millennials regarding their sparse knowledge of history because the fact is that as we seek to become a more modern society, we are gradually abandoning our roots, in the process losing touch with our history — where we came from, what distinguishes us from others and what connects us to our countrymen.
We are also abandoning our languages, hence our customs and traditions.
If you have children, can they hold a minute-long conversation in their mother tongue? I ask because most families, especially those in urban areas, communicate in either Kiswahili or English.
Interestingly, the parents will communicate in their mother tongue, but when speaking to their children, they unconsciously (or consciously) switch to English or Kiswahili.
This December holiday, I bet there will be hundreds of grandparents struggling to communicate with their Kiswahili and English-speaking grandchildren since they don’t understand a word in their mother-tongue.
Our languages are dying, and with them, our history and sense of belonging.
The writer is the Editor, Society and Magazines, Daily Nation; [email protected]