Kenya: It's not too late for a language policy

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Nov 10 13:32:45 UTC 2006

It's not too late for a language policy

Publication Date: 11/10/2006

The Luhya community is working on a grand plan to unite as a single ethnic
bloc in order to capture the presidency in 2007. This is what Ford Kenya
national chairman, Minister Musikari Kombo, says. Like other big tribes in
Kenya (Kikuyu, Kamba, Luo, Kalenjin and others)  the key uniting force is
the common language. Thus, I believe, if Kenya had a common language, we
would be more united than we are. We would be thinking of electing the
best candidate for president and not our tribesman. When you meet a
Tanzanian and ask him which tribe he belongs to, he scornfully smiles and
says: Wewe lazima uwe Mkenya. Mimi Mtanzania; kwetu kabila ni mambo
mengine. (You must be a Kenyan. I am a Tanzanian. For us, tribe is

And what is common to all Tanzanians is that they fluently speak
Kiswahili, be they educated or not, elite or commoner. This is one of
President Nyereres legacy, which drastically reduced ethnicity and
promoted lasting patriotism in his country. Unfortunately, the majority of
Kenyans are still glued to our tribal cocoons. We speak two or three
languages mother tongue, Kiswahili and English. Good English is spoken by
those who have secondary education and above. Most are fluent in their
mother tongue until they begin forgetting it once they move to towns to
live and work there. I am very slow in reading and writing my mother
tongue, but very comfortable reading, speaking and writing in English.

A senior editor with the Nation once told me that he finds English very
smooth and expressive, but not so Kiswahili. In a similar capacity, a
Tanzanian, Japanese, French or German would not say that. The poor Kenyan
has hardly used Kiswahili in his long journalistic career, so you cant
blame him. In Kenya, Kiswahili is called the national language while
English is the official language. But Kiswahili is very sparingly used and
is overshadowed by English. Our good radio commentators rarely make
grammatical mistakes when speaking English, but their Kiswahili is
atrocious. Even in carefully designed Kiswahili adverts, you often pick
grammatical mistakes.

The point I am making is that a common language is an important force in
uniting a nation. France, Germany, UK, USA, Japan, China, Russia and other
nations deliberately adopted one standard national language to be used
globally within its borders. It is the mother tongue, school tongue,
official and national tongue.  Hence, when you meet Frenchmen and women,
you dont ask them what tribe are you. When electing a president you dont
ask whether he or she is from your ethnic community. You seek their
credentials that qualify them to be president.

Multi-ethnic communities

Our founding fathers failed to institute a language policy after
independence in 1963. They were more concerned with maintaining the status
quo inherited from the colonialists. Their main concern was to snugly
occupy the colonial masters shoes and lord it over their subjects, just
like the colonialists. In the 1930s, the colonial administration initially
adopted Kiswahili as the medium of instruction in all Kenyan native
primary schools. But when the cunning Mzungu realised that Kiswahili would
unite all the Kenyan tribes, the project was quickly abandoned in favour
of vernaculars.

My mother, who reached Standard 8 in the early 1940s, is more fluent in
Kiswahili than most of her children all of whom have secondary education
or above. The United States, with its 52 states, deliberately chose
English as its national language. Yet its citizenry comprises multi-ethnic
communities whose ancestry came from all over the world. I wish our
leaders could institute a grand language policy to unite us instead of
advocating for their tribes turn to occupy State House. With Kiswahili as
a truly national language, it would be difficult for us to distinguish
between Kikuyus, Kalenjins, Luos, Kisiis, and Luhyas, especially in
cosmopolitan urban areas like Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu, Nakuru, and

But of course there would be distinct local and regional accents. We
would, then, perhaps be more concerned about electing issue-based leaders
instead of our tribespeople. These tribal sentiments are even worse when
you have a tribal chief who wields cult-like influence.

Mr Geteria is a council member of the Institute of Certified Public
Secretaries of Kenya (ICPSK), and the Principal of Dima College


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