Wapendwa’ (dearly beloved) is how I address all my associates, regardless of which language we are speaking. Many are amused by it, partly because of my insertion of it in non-Swahili contexts and partly because of its apparent over-inclusiveness. It may also be because of the soft, intimate intonation with which I utter it, as I am told.
Anyway, wapendwa, rejoice with me and congratulate me. My broadcast from the seat of the Buganda Kingdom in Kampala went very well, proving all my fears and worries about my rusty Luganda unfounded. My fellow participants and I narrated, recited, sang and commented fluently for the better part of an hour on the culture and language programme, called Ekyoto (the fireplace).
In fact, many of you, like my friend and correspondent Amol Awuor, even wondered if I was not exaggerating my “ignorance” of my mother tongue. Amol hinted that maybe I was pulling the reader’s leg.
He was actually right. I have to admit that I have been luckier with my language than most of us are with our home languages. I studied it and earned a top distinction in it at the Cambridge O-level, which was the highest point at which it was formally taught at the time.
My first Makerere graduate dissertation was on ‘Literature and Kiganda Oral Traditions.’ I have also authored books in Luganda, including a text on public speaking, a dictionary and a serial novel, in addition to the radio and TV programmes of the 1960s, at which I hinted earlier.
So, you can say that I was uniquely advantaged as far as my home language was concerned. No other Ugandan language had the same status as Luganda in my days. In any case, I do not remember any of us being harassed or embarrassed for speaking Luganda at the schools I attended.
MULTI LINGUAL CONTEXT
But the point I was making is that it is possible to get out of the habit and practice of using your language even if you know it well. This is often compounded by the social and political environment in which we are raised and in which we live and work.
Many of us never had any formal teaching or training in our home languages, whereas, as one eminent linguist put it, it is a lie to say that we do not need to be taught our mother tongues.
We do, because language is used at many different levels and each level requires specific skills for optimal efficiency. The language acquired at mama’s fireplace, by the well and in the shamba and the pastures will not be enough for you to debate in the county or national assembly, transact international business deals or expound sublime theological hypotheses.
In our multilingual context, the tendency is to simply switch to second and third languages, like Kiswahili or English, when we are challenged in our home languages. Indeed, this is the prevalent reality in most of our post-colonial societies.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o is our main point of reference in all discussions of the importance of our home languages. Yet I believe that he has been compelled, probably from the time he entered Alliance High, to use English as his primary language of communication.
This has, however, not weakened his fight for the right of our indigenous languages to be recognised, respected, developed and used in appropriate contexts. Ngugi is particularly irked by many of us brainwashed “neocolonial” products who, like one of the ladies in Caitani Mutharabaini, believe that ignorance of and incompetence in our languages is a mark of sophistication. The lady proudly shows off her children who speak perfect English but cannot utter a word in her home language.
In a way, it is not the fault of the children, or maybe not even of the lady. Language is a powerful political tool, and those who colonised us for generations used it effectively to exert their influence on us. English was, and still is, touted as the civilising and civilised language while our languages were derided as shenzi (primitive), native “vernaculars”, for the use of which we were even punished as we were growing up.
Incidentally, as I told my friend Onchera, that was the sense in which I intended to use “vernacular” in my earlier piece, although I inadvertently omitted the quote marks around it. Those who used “vernacular” to degrade our languages meant it in the sense of “the language of the domesticated slave” (read colonised subject).
The situation remains extremely complex, because language is not just a tool for communication but also a deeply subtle cultural and psychological inheritance affecting the whole fabric of our existence. These are the problems with which linguists wrestle in specialised areas like sociolinguistics (isimu jamii in Kiswahili) and psycholinguistics.
But Ngugi leads the way in showing some practical solutions to our dilemma. Although inevitably caught up in a situation where he cannot use his language as a primary tool of communication (he certainly could not have delivered the 1996 Clarendon Lectures in Gikuyu), he takes every opportunity to read, write and publish in it. I do not know how frequently he listens and speaks in it, but I am sure he does his best along those lines.
Above all, Ngugi is always at pains to promote the home language, “decolonising our minds” to realise that our languages are legitimate, self-sufficient entities, capable of serving us and expressing us in any situation. There is no language that cannot express all the realities and concepts in its environment. Saying that we cannot talk about algebraic equations in El Molo simply means that we are ignorant and neglectful of the language and we are letting it die.
Incidentally, I remember asking my sister Prof Sheila Ali Ryanga to promote Sheikh Ahmed Nabhany’s Kiswahili label for psycholinguistics: isimu shunuzi. I wonder how far the project has gone.