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Spare Kenyans foreign accents; there is little prestige in ‘twang’

Saturday September 8 2018


Effective communication. I have absolutely no problem with people speaking the way they want to so long as they do not inflict their affectations on me. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Before her “conversion” early this year, the quintessential City Girl Njoki Chege was on a warpath against those radio and television presenters whose acquired English accents have always grated on the nerves of many listeners who sometimes struggle to decipher what is being said.

Although she reportedly annoyed too many people by exposing their foibles, Njoki should have soldiered on because there is nothing as counterfeit as an African born and bred in the continent trying to ape an American or Briton in speech mannerisms.

Speech is about communication and if you can communicate without sounding like a linguistic transplant, the better.

Two weeks ago while on a tour of the United States, President Uhuru Kenyatta mesmerised many Kenyans with his eloquence in the English language.

He did not sound like a native English speaker, but the ease with which he departed from the way he normally addresses his fellow citizens was fascinating.



The switch was flawless leading to a peerless delivery that must have left his hosts impressed.

Yet, he did not set out to dazzle with his linguistic prowess; his main aim was to make himself understood by his hosts.

He was to repeat the same feat when he hosted UK Prime Minister Theresa May here in Kenya a few days later.

President Kenyatta was educated in the US for a number of years and is therefore expected to have picked up the accent, intonations, and even colloquialisms of foreigners, yet back home he speaks like any ordinary Kenyan.

How come our broadcasters, especially the female of the species (forgive the unintended misogyny), strive too much to sound like Wazungu?

Is speaking in a foreign accent part of the eligibility criteria for a job in the broadcast media? If so, then someone is not thinking straight.

I have absolutely no problem with people speaking the way they want to so long as they do not inflict their affectations on me.


Indeed, I will confess that my views on this topic are quite subjective, for anyone has a right to speak whichever way he or she prefers.

Even if people wish to clothe gibberish and banalities in the Queen’s English, their freedom to do so is enshrined in the Constitution.

However, it beats reason why anyone would want to display such odious inferiority hang-ups publicly, especially considering that many highly educated Kenyans — men and women who have spent half their lives studying and teaching in the US or UK — do not harbour such ridiculous predilections.

When you are in the UK, for instance, it is perfectly all right to try and speak as though you were educated at Oxford University.

That way, you will be easily understood by your hosts and there will be no room for misunderstanding.

But when you come back home, it would help if you immediately adapted to your surroundings and dropped the highbrow accent.

Doing so will not negatively affect communication. In fact, you will give a welcome break to those you are addressing.


Believe me, there is nothing as irritating as to be forced to listen to a former village-mate trying to impress you with his enhanced level of sophistication through other people’s language.

It is time we thought deeply about what author Ngugi wa Thiong’o meant when he spoke about the need to decolonise our minds.

Despite perceptions to the contrary, no language is superior to another and no accent is inferior to the other.

This reminds me of a gentleman who came back to Kenyan from the diaspora and wanted to run for the presidency.

Although he had many sensible things to say and his manifesto was wholesome, he immediately became the butt of jokes.

He probably had little idea how he put off voters every time he opened his mouth. Many people do not take kindly to any sort of artificial twang.


Anyone who has listened to Dr Richard Leakey or Dr Tom Wolf speak Kiswahili can never claim the two ever tried to do it like natives of the Kenyan coast.

No, they speak Kiswahili like Wazungu, and yes, they do a better communication job than many of us.

Fellow Kenyans, nobody really gives a damn whether you speak English through the nose.

The days that this sort of anachronistic linguistic behaviour conferred any form of prestige are long gone.


On a very personal note, two members of my small “clan” have a good reason to congratulate themselves for a job well done.

Creative producer Kevin Gitau of NTV and his sister Mary Wangari, a budding pharmaceutical engineer, have achieved a milestone in their academic careers.

Today, they will jointly celebrate this feat during a graduation party to be held at their parents’ humble abode in Ongata Rongai.

So, if you see a couple with fixed smiles on their faces, don’t ask why.

It is not because they have finally figured out how to do the Odi dance without missing a step; it is because they are very proud parents.

Mr Ngwiri is a consultant editor; [email protected]