Pronouncing a stern warning to world and learning a harsh lesson from a teenage girl

Wednesday March 18 2020
By Austin Bukenya

With the world warming up so fast, it is time we got a new voice pointing out what we have done wrong

Two international personalities have lately been on my mind. One, of whom I had not even heard until a few months ago, is a plucky Swedish teenager called Greta Thunberg. The other is the venerable nonagenarian, Sir David Attenborough, the eminent nature historian best known for his beautifully narrated wildlife documentary films.


Those of us in the business of learning and teaching English would be familiar with the voice of David Attenborough. He is for our generation one of the best representatives of what we know as Received Pronunciation (RP). We also call it Standard English speech. This is the variety of utterance that all of us who wish to be understood all over the English-speaking community try to approximate.

Competent bodies, like London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) and some broadcasting centres, produce and propagate models of standard speech for study and emulation by professional speakers and all those who care about the quality of their spoken communication. Voices like that of David Attenborough are adopted by generations as exemplars of acceptable educated speech.

Maybe I should point out here that these are not matters of theoretical speculation. The way we speak matters, crucially, in all of our social and professional operations. Those of us in the speech jobs, like teaching, broadcasting, acting, preaching and law, need no reminders about this. But even in our private lives, the impact of our speech on those whom we meet can hardly be overstated.

We should not, therefore, trap ourselves in the smug and false assumption that we do not have to speak good English because “we are not black Englishmen or Englishwomen”. Neither colour nor nationality has anything to do with it. Ask David Oyelowo or Lupita Nyong’o.


Maybe the only thing that we Nairobians would miss about our “shrubbery” (English and Kiswahili) accents would be the tedious stock jokes we crack about one another’s regional variations. The National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) may have to look into that someday. But the ndugus to be truly pitied are those who are not even aware, in this age of plenteous information, that there is such a thing as standard speech. But I am digressing, getting carried away, as I tend to do when I think of the importance of speech.

I was going to tell you about the connection between teenage Greta Thunberg and 92-year old David Attenborough. The connection is climate change. It all started with my distressingly un-Easter-like observation last Sunday. You will note that I am not saying “celebration” because the conditions, specifically the weather conditions, around me this Easter gave me very little cause for celebration.

Here on the western shores of Lake Victoria and, indeed, over most of East Africa, April is always the greenest, youngest and most exuberant month of the year. The ttogo or masika rains would have started early March. The fields would have been planted and they, along with the pastures, would be dancing with a succulent, verdant luxuriousness, steadily irrigated by the gentle rains that urge them towards fruitful maturity.


None of that happened here, or in most places I have heard from, this year. The rains did not come. Most fields were not planted and the few that were have seen the miserable crops wither and die at the two or three-leaf stage. Famine warnings are crisscrossing the region. People and their livestock are languishing and suffering, or even worse, with thirst and hunger.

Even the few localised showers reported, like the latest in the Ugandan Nile valley, have come with such vehemence and viciousness that they have left death and destruction in their wake, reminiscent of what happened in Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe earlier this year. Things are just not what they used to be like. Climate change is real, and it is not change that augurs well for the future of humankind.

David Attenborough, at the World Climate Change Summit in Katowice, Poland, last year, warned us starkly that humanity is running out of time for redemptive action. “Our greatest threat in thousands of years,” he said, “(is) climate change. If we don’t take action, the collapse of civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.”

You know I am an optimist, and I do believe that all responsible citizens of the world, including you and me, will take appropriate action to save our planet and ourselves, and, especially, our children and grandchildren. But being optimistic does not mean burying our heads in the sand and hoping that things will somehow sort themselves out.


Even worse is the mendacious campaign of those who either explicitly deny the disastrous process of environmental degradation and its negative impact on our existence and quality of life. Whether out of ignorance, indifference, greed or opportunism, we all seem to be indicted and on trial for what is happening to our world.

This, indeed, seems to be the opinion of our new generations, represented by activists like Greta Thunberg, who are telling us to our faces that we are failing them and ruining their future by dragging our feet about taking decisive action to save and protect their future.

Sixteen-year old Greta, who jumped out of her Swedish classroom and went on a worldwide rampage, telling the rich, the powerful and the mighty that the time for empty words and hollow resolutions about our survival is up, is now being touted for the Nobel Peace Prize, alongside the likes of Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama and Wangari Maathai. But that is not the point.

The big question these descendants of ours are asking us is whether we love them so little that we are prepared to let them roast and burn to death in the uninhabitable inferno of the world which we will bequeath to them if we do not act positively and decisively now.

When did you or I last perform a consciously environment-protective act?

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]