The debate over the use of vernacular in education, especially in the early years of learning, has occupied the minds of scholars and policymakers for decades.
For many African countries, the colonial experience and as part of brainwashing and controlling the minds, trashed local languages and convinced the colonies to adopt and adapt foreign languages, notably English and French, and Spanish to a lesser extent.
In recent years, however, research has demonstrated the vitality of local languages in scholarship. Way back in 1976, the Kenya government published a language policy that prioritised the use of vernacular in early years in school. This gave force to some of the recommendations of the Gachathi Report, which emphasised the use of local languages in teaching, arguing that vernacular formed the foundation for skills learning and acquisition.
To date, the matter is actively being debated and more so given credence with the new Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC) being implemented in lower primary and which places a premium on local languages and taking cue from the Constitution that promotes indigenous languages.
Into this debate has been the concern of reading materials. True, literature is deficient but there are credible efforts already made. Renowned literary icon Ngugi wa Thiongo determined long ago that he would author books in vernacular and has vocally argued for a return of authorship in local languages. A number of authors have made similar attempts.
Even so, the books are few and far part. In this regard, Okumba Miruka and Jens Aagaard-Hansen stand out for promoting local languages. Their latest publication, Luo Proverbs and Their Meanings, is an important addition to the repertoire of literature in local languages.
They are filling a gap by recording, translating and interpreting Luo proverbs, giving them permanence through the written word and opening them up to comprehension through translation into English, making them accessible to many who would otherwise have been locked out if the rendition was restricted to Luo language.
The first feat the authors have achieved is to collect and collate the proverbs and sequence them alphabetically for ease of navigation. Second is to translate them and then interpret and give them contextual meaning. Most of these proverbs risk extinction because few remember them and even use them.
In total, the authors have catalogued some 382 Luo proverbs, a robust compilation by available standards and a pointer to the richness of the language and unexploited potential in that form of literature. The compendium is rich, varied, illustrative and dynamic.
Proverbs, like other genres of literature, are powerful tools for communication. African communities are awash with proverbs and such literature, but because they are oral, they are barely recorded for posterity and hardly interpreted, contextualised and explained in a manner that makes sense to large audiences.
Proverbs, and particularly in vernacular, are beautiful — poetic, expressive, insightful and dramatic. They demonstrate perfect mastery of language, including proper choice of words (diction) and use of symbols. Conversely, consumers are called upon to deploy linguistic competences to decipher meanings. Use of proverbs is both a cultural and intellectual (in the loose sense) exercise. Meaning is never straightforward and no less homogenous. Proverbs and such like take different meanings and constructions depending on the sociocultural and linguistic contexts, giving them life and applicability that defies geography and time.
Given the scarcity of dedicated researchers and competent authors on local languages, this work by Okumba Miruka (a renowned author and literary critic) and Jens Aagaard-Hansen (clinician and social anthropologist) is quite powerful and valuable.
They illustrate the fact that there is rich content out there within the indigenous languages that ought to be mined and turned into better use for the current generation and posterity.
At a time of cultural renewal like now and when technology brings challenges and opportunities, promoting local literature is a desirable undertaking that ought to be encouraged and supported.
It is not enough for the government, for example, to enact policies on use of local languages in schooling without corresponding support and promotion of the literature on the same.
This publication makes a major contribution towards the preservation and promotion of local literature and particularly what Prof Austin Bukenya called Orature.