Fwd: "Experts Worried As 16 Local Languages Are About to Vanish" (Kenya)
dzo at BISHARAT.NET
Tue Feb 7 18:55:17 UTC 2006
--- In AfricanLanguages at yahoogroups.com, "Donald Z. Osborn" <dzo at ...>
The following article from the Nairobi paper The Nation was seen on
AllAfrica.com at http://allafrica.com/stories/200602010868.html . It's
another excellent discussion of aspects of the situation of African
languages, including the role of colonial policies and neglect of
current governments. DZO
Experts Worried As 16 Local Languages Are About to Vanish
The Nation (Nairobi)
February 2, 2006
Posted to the web February 1, 2006
On September 10, 1953, a Mr Ojambo arap Kishero wrote to the Bungoma
district officer asking for a licence to hold a meeting that would
help trace Bong'om people's history. For, he claimed, they were
"losing their language". He copied the letter to the local district
education officer and the "Nyanza district commissioner"
Eliud Mahihu, then a PC, congratulates Kurume Lenapir following his
appointment as chief of the El Molo ethnic group.
At the time, the Bong'om tribe had only 39 educated people - 15 men,
six women and 18 girls. "Sir," he wrote, "fearing that their language
is disappearing, the Kony-Bok-Bongoma-Sabiny students have suggested
they should lose no time to meet and research their language. "
The Kony or El Kony are the people whose name has been corrupted into
"Elgon", sometimes called Terik, Bok and Sabiny and, in Uganda, Walagu
In his reply, the DEO, while stating the official policy of promoting
vernacular languages, said "textbooks would be produced only if it was
commercially viable. The case cited was not," he said.
In a letter to Bungoma DO, the Nyanza DC, a Mr E.J.A. Leslie,
declared: "There is great need to preserve the folklore and history of
all tribes, whether traditional or based on research."
"But there is the obvious danger of their misuse and of false claims."
This was during a period of heightened natonalist politics. The DC's
fear was that, once given state recognition, the small tribes would
move fast to stake claims to political leadership.
Rather than focus on small dialects, the colonial administration
decided to promote Kibukusu as the medium of communication among
surrounding tribes. The Bukusu elite - among them a Mr J. J. Musundi -
were called upon to craft the "Bukusu Orthography". Examinations, such
as the Competitive Entrance, were translated into Bukusu.
Rally and truly, the move sounded the death-knell to the Bong'om
tongue, though it is the people's name that has given us the term Bungoma.
There was little focus on vernacular languages, says Dr P. Kurgatt, an
assistant professor of English at the United States International
If a language helped to serve colonial interests, the colonialists
would promote it. But they preferred that people speak in the
preferred language of the colonialists.
Now, more than half a century later, Unesco classifies Bong'om (also
known as Ngoma, Ng'oma, Ong'om and Bong'omek) among 16 Kenyan
languages that are either extinct or moribund or endangered.
They are listed among Africa's 300 languages consigned to extinction.
A language is endangered if it is no longer learned by children or, at
least, by a large part of the children of that community, according to
the Unesco Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger of Disappearing,
published in 2001.
The key factor is the number of speakers of a language. Those
languages spoken by large groups are unlikely to be endangered. Small
languages are threatened by the more aggressive surrounding languages.
Unesco has thus declared 2006 the Year of African Languages, to
promote the use of vernacular languages - what are claimed to be
An El Molo teaches her children how to slaughter a goat. The El Molo
is one of the languages facing extinction, says Unesco.
"It seems remarkable and rather strange that, in contrast to the great
concern shown by many people for animal and plant species threatened
by extinction, there are, with relative few exceptions, few organised
groups concerned about the fact that about half of humanity's most
precious commodities - language diversity - are also threatened by
extinction," says Unesco.
According to Dr Kurgatt, Africa has an estimated 2,000 languages,
almost a third of the world's linguistic heritage.
Even with the emergence of new languages, such as Sheng (initially, a
distortion of Swahili and English but now a murky concoction), the
future of Africa's linguistic heritage is ominous.
Six Kenyan languages are extinct, five are "seriously endangered", at
least three are "endangered", and a host of others are "potentially"
endangered, according to the Atlas.
The Suba language is either "extinct" or "moribund", according to it.
Endangered languages include Boni, Kore, Segeju and Dahalo at the
coast; Kinare, Sogoo, Lorkoti and Yaaku in the central parts; El Molo,
Burji, Oropom in the north; Ongamo, Sogoo and Omotik in the south;,
and Bong'om, Terik and Suba in the west. El Molo, with only 300
speakers, is classified also "extinct".
In Tanzania, seven languages are threatened and in Uganda six are
either extinct or endangered. Nigeria, the Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya,
in that order, are countries with the highest incidence of
Yet the question is: Does it matter if Africa's indigenous languages
are dying out? Yes. As Dr Kurgatt says, language "is the carrier of a
In other words, a people is recognisable as such only if it has a
distinct language. "If you lose a language, you have lost the
worldview," says Dr Kurgatt.
He is one of two Kenyan scholars expected to give keynote speeches at
an international conference in London next month to focus on Africa's
Unesco says languages highlight the roots, philosophy, culture,
heritage and communication of a tribe or ethnic community - or a
speech community. Vernacular, or mother tongue, helps people to trace
their ancestral roots, cultures, heritage and traditions. And this
helps promote unity among a community.
Indeed, evidence shows that people understand things better if taught
in their first language.
Dialects die once exposed to more ascendant and prevailing languages
in their surroundings. The aggressive languages could be either
foreign or local. But even they could die if exposed to harsh
conditions, for instance, if the neighbouring communities are
intolerant,as happened to the El Molo of northern Kenya.
In Africa, English and French are perceived languages of prestige and
well-being. People incapable of understanding them are labelled
"primitive" and given low esteem. Thus, foreign languages appear to
have leverage over local ones, in terms of academic instruction and
At a more localised level, the Suba and the Terik languages have
definitely been suppressed by the dominant and assertive Luo and the
Nandi, respectively. The Terik were initially a Bantu, belonging to
the Luhya cluster. But they were assimilated into the larger Kalenjin
and are now regarded Nilotic.
According to Unesco, a majority of the group lives in the southern
Nandi District and northern Kisumu. A smaller number is found in
neighbouring Vihiga District. The rest are distributed in Turbo, Uasin
Gishu and Aldai.
Documents in the Kenya National Archives indicate that the Terik
migrated to Nandi in search of employment. By the 1950s, they were so
many. Because of their expanding population, they started encroaching
The local Nandi were getting concerned. In April, 1961, Kemeloi
sub-chief S.K Cheror exhorted his people against selling land to the
Luhya. He even took to court those who defied his order.
Earlier, in June, 1959, a meeting at Koiparak, Nandi, resolved that
the Teriki found to be "outright" should be "absorbed into the Nandi
tribe", according to the minutes of a meeting of June 23, 1959,
attended by Nandi colonial DC R. H. Symes-Thompson.
Owing to scarcity of land in Luhyaland, the Terik could hardly return
to Nyang'ori in what is now Kaimosi.
Yet, why the Nandi demanded assimilation of the Teriki is perplexing.
According to Dr Kurgatt, African cultures are hardly hegemonic. "Apart
from the Zulu of South Africa, African cultures don't force conversion
of weaker cultures".
In the case of the Suba, Bong'om and many others, assimilation was
The Suba are a Bantu group said to have originated in Buganda and
Busoga - and perhaps, ultimately - in the in Congo, but which has been
swallowed by the the more assertive and numerically superior Luo. In
Tanzania, the Suba speak Kiswahili.
According to Unesco, the Suba language has six dialects in Kenya
alone: Olwivwang'ano in Mfang'ano, Rusinga, Takawiri, Kibwogi, Ragwe
and Kisegi; Ekikune in Kaksingri; Ekingoe in Ngere; Ekigase in Gwassi;
Ekisuuna in Migori; and Olumuulu in Muhuru Bay.
Some Suba people are bilingual - speaking Dholuo equally well. But
most have lost the ability to speak Lusuba. It is said that Suba
parents make a deliberate choice not to pass Lusuba to children,
preferring the languages that offer socio-economic and political gains.
Although the Bong'om people are Nilotic and related to the Kalenjin
and some Sudanese tribes, they now speak Kibukusu (a Bantu tongue). In
fact, seven out of 10 people of the Bong'om tribe speak Kibukusu,
thanks to intermarriage and influence by the widely-spoken Bukusu, a
They are found in the southwest and the northwest of Bungoma town,
mainly around the hills of Kapchai, Webuye, South Malakisi, Sang'alo
and North Kabras. They are also scattered in settlements in
In the 1970s, the population was 2,500, which went up 30,000 in 1994.
The Ongamo (also known as Ngasa, Shaka, Ongg'amo, Ongg'amoni) is
affiliated to the Nilotic Teso and some eastern Sudanese languages.
The Boni are found in the silvan hinterland behind Lamu and Tana River
districts. It is said that at least 11 villages are habited by Boni
In Sociolinguistic Surveys in Selected Kenyan Languages, a report
published in 1986, Art Rilling says that the Boni are eastern Cushites
closely related to the Somali.
Some linguistics have indicated that among the Boni, while the
literacy rate in their first language is between 10 and 30 per cent,
literacy in the second language is between 50 and 75 per cent.
El Molo is a Maasai phrase meaning "those who make a living from
sources other than cattle". They are said to be the smallest ethnic
group in Kenya, numbering less than 300.
However, the "pure" El Molo could number no more than a few dozen.
Others are products of intermarriage with the Samburu and Turkana.
Although the predicament facing African languages appears to transfix
the world at this moment, nonetheless the threat is historic. Many
known languages have died, including Latin, ancient Greek and
Sanskrit. Yet, these three have been kept alive through writing and
for liturgical purposes.
But Dr Kurgatt says "all is not gloom" in respect to Africa's
linguistic heritage. "We can salvage our languages through concerted
In Kenya, the problem is that the Government has never given even a
single thought to conserving the mother tongues.
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