A movingly dignified memorial service was held on Friday last week for Prof John Samuel Mbiti, the internationally revered philosopher and theologian.
It was at the All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi and it was presided over by Archbishop Jackson ole Sapit of the Anglican Church of Kenya.
My friend Prof Kivutha Kibwana, the governor of Makueni, led the distinguished congregation in paying glowing tribute to Prof Mbiti.
I was to learn at the occasion that Governor Kibwana actually holds a master’s degree in theology, in addition to his legal qualifications.
Being a good governor in Kenya is a tough job and probably needs divine intervention. But I did not get the opportunity to ask Prof Kibwana if his theological studies had something to do with this. I know, however, that he is a seriously spiritual man.
Anyway, a serious disappointment for me at the service was that, as far as I could see, there was not a single official representative of Makerere University or of the Church of Uganda. Prof Mbiti served these two institutions with dedication and distinction for the better part of a decade.
If I had noted the shortcoming earlier, I might have high-handedly claimed to be representing Makerere. You know how passionate I am about our East Africanness, and John Mbiti was a true East African.
But I particularly enjoyed a joke cracked by one of the officiating ministers at the service. He said that he had wanted us to sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” in Kikamba but there were too few of us who knew the words in the lingo! He should have dared us. I am sure we would have given a convincing rendering of “Yesu ni Munyanya Wakwa”.
But the language joke sharply reminded me of a concern that I have had about language education as new pedagogical systems begin to take effect in practically all of East African countries.
A heartening trend is the growing belief in the promotion and teaching of Kiswahili and our other home languages or mother tongues. I am an avowed and ardent advocate of Kiswahili, but I also write and publish in Luganda, my home language.
Indeed, I see no contradiction in my approach of both Kiswahili and mother tongue. In any case, Kiswahili is a home language to growing numbers of East Africans. But there is an error that dampens my joy at the respect and recognition accorded our indigenous languages.
This is the apparent assumption among some of our thinkers and policymakers that the learning and studying of Kiswahili and our other languages should stop or be made optional at certain levels of education. This is wrong and wasteful, on two main grounds.
The first is the simple fact that, for any normal human being, language learning is a continuous and lifelong activity. You can learn something new in and about a language any day, whether it is a word, a phrase, an idiom or a proverb.
As I keep pointing out to my Kiswahili students, ujuzi wa lugha hauna kilele (knowledge of a language has no summit). In other words, language is so rich and wide that no one can convincingly say that they have reached a point where they cannot or need not learn anymore.
Indeed, this is why even professors of languages and linguistics are always learning, studying and researching their languages. The best of them share their learning with us in lectures, articles and books.
It is, thus, ridiculous to assume that people who have studied a language for only the first three, five or eight years of their education have “enough” knowledge of it and need no further exposure to and training in it. No amount of linguistic knowledge is ever enough.
It can, and it should, always be systematically expanded and improved. This is particularly necessary in our multilingual societies, where we are constantly switching languages from one to another, like Luo-English-Kiswahili and back, even within the space of a single day.
If we do not keep getting training and guidance in each of them, our knowledge competence in using them will remain patchy or even confused.
My second ground for advocating continued language learning and training at every level of education, including university, is that every area of specialisation that we get into demands specific language skills not covered by the general language courses that end at the secondary school level.
We who are directly engaged in language-dependent professions, like teaching, preaching, mass communication and writing, clearly understand this.
Did you know that dictionaries occupy the largest section of my personal library? But every significant profession depends on competence in the languages of the community in which one operates.
In medicine, for example, a caregiver’s ability to listen to a patient’s account, understand it and then explain the medical problem to the patient is crucial in the healing process.
Indeed, coupled with the doctor’s clarification of the nature and purpose of the procedures, and assurances to the patient, good communication plays as important a role in the patient’s recovery as the medication and other technical procedures.
Another profession where good communication may literally make a life-and-death difference is the law. I often tell my friends in the legal profession that they have to be extremely careful with their use of language.
Whether judge, prosecutor or defence, the legal officer can send people to the gallows or save them therefrom through competent linguistic communication.
How, for example, do you explain to an accused person, in Kuksabiny, Ekegusii or any other language that they understand, the difference between murder and manslaughter or culpable homicide?
Maybe we need a little more than secondary school Kiswahili, Lubukusu or Rendille to be able to explain to our clients the difference between a felony and a misdemeanour, before we advise them on how to plead?
More language, anyone?