The finalisation and approval of the Culture Bill by the Cabinet now paves way for effective implementation of constitutional provisions related to culture. Parliament will need to move quickly to pass this important legislation. Considering the symbiotic relationship between language and culture, the government should then move with speed to pass the Languages of Kenya Bill.
Article 7 of the Constitution is clear that Swahili and English are co-official languages. Swahili, also, is recognised as the national language. Under the same article, the state is required to promote and protect the diversity of language of the people of Kenya. Furthermore, it is expected to promote the development and use of indigenous languages, Kenyan Sign Language, braille and other communication formats and technologies accessible to persons with disabilities.
One would expect that the implementation of these constitutional provisions would be smooth and simple. However, this is not always the case because language matters are not prioritised. When they are discussed, the focus is on global trends rather than what languages can do to genuinely transform lives.
If we take the view that development for Africa must be located in rural areas, where the majority of the people live, then community languages would have to be at the core of any social or economic interventions. These are the languages spoken by fishermen, smallholder farmers and pastoralists. Swahili is the main language of production in interethnic settings and in the very vibrant jua kali sector. Those of us who speak English are a clear minority. We contribute minimally to the production process although the language gives us higher status and provides opportunities for social mobility.
It is for this reason that language workers in Kenya have for decades argued that safeguarding and promoting the linguistic and cultural rights of communities is good for all of us. Community languages are not only markers of identity and belonging but also vehicles for change at all levels of society. By failing to recognise them as important and building mechanisms for their enhancement, we deny many citizens critical knowledge. We also minimise their roles as decision-makers, policy-shapers, producers of wealth and protectors of household livelihoods. We undermine the principles of inclusive governance and minimise the value of public participation in inclusive development. When we deny community languages their rightful place in society, we perpetuate inequality. Minority languages such as Ilchamus, Ogiek, Endorois, Njemps, Burji, Gabra and all endangered languages are as important as any other. They should occupy their place in the national consciousness.
Recognising the central role of language in the formation of nations, Kenyan linguistics advocated for the entrenchment of linguistic rights in the Constitution. Those rights are now enshrined under Articles 7, 10, 11, 35, 44, 53, 54, 55, 56, 59 and 159 and the fourth Schedule Section 5 on promotion of official and local languages. Moreover, Articles 6(2), 21(3), 27(4), 46 (1) b, 57 and 232 also rely on the proper handling of the linguistic diversity of Kenya.
Sadly, despite much work done towards developing the Languages of Kenya Policy and Bill, little progress has been made in giving life to these provisions. The absurdity of this scenario is that despite the Constitution providing for Swahili as a co-official language, the Supreme Law is only available in English. We had hoped that it would be easy to have our Constitution translated into Swahili in order to demystify governance, but an advisory by the Attorney General that translation awaits the passage of the Languages of Kenya Bill effectively stalled this process. An official translation of the Constitution will pave the way for the availability of the Laws of Kenya and other critical documents in our national language.
Language is the principal means through which individuals are socialised into groups. It facilitates meaning-making, solidifies behaviour, enhances free expression and supports the construction of community practices and cultures. When language is broadly shared, communities are able to build structures and institutions for the promotion, expression and protection of their political, economic, social and cultural life.
When we become fully conscious of the possibilities of language we are able to address key societal issues such as inequality, access to education, access to healthcare, freedom of expression, the rule of law, respect for diversity, protection from violence, and environmental sustainability. Through language choices we can, collectively, embark on building the nation. This is because the nation is born when community members collectivise the meaning of life and how individuals will relate with each other. They build structures to capture this understanding. In reality, the nation is a work of labour; it is not self-constructing but is, rather, a political process pursued deliberately and rigorously by citizens through effective language use.
The Languages of Kenya Policy and Bill were initially drafted at the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Arts. They were then transferred to the Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology. In the initial stages, language advocates believed that the shift would help speed up the legislative process. This, however, was not to be. The East African Kiswahili Commission is already operational but Kenya is still unable to set up a National Kiswahili Council. Meanwhile, Tanzania, which established Baraza la Kiswahili la Taifa in 1967, is opening the language in Namibia, Gambia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
By safeguarding and promoting Swahili, community languages and the Kenyan Sign Language, the Bill does not deny English its place as the language of wider communication as certain members of the elite fear. Instead, it provides a window for national confidence through the celebration of our languages and cultures. We become better, richer and inclusive through linguistic diversity. But who is listening?
Prof Kimani Njogu is a director at Twaweza Communications.