Month: August 2014

To Hell With Mother Tongue?

Posted on

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

“And at what point in their lives will their mother tongue come in handy?” she asked cynically. She spoke in her mother tongue. Ironically, the above translation to English does not begin to capture the true essence of the words she used.

Someone had asked her if she had already started teaching mother tongue to her one and a half year old. To which she gave the above reply. Have you ever been in a situation where you wanted to say so much that you in fact end up saying nothing? That is what happened to me.

In her mind her children will grow up and learn other ‘useful’ languages. Languages that will come in handy like English. Maybe some French, German, Spanish. A bit of Italian perhaps? Mother tongue is pointless.

With the other languages, they will explore the world. Traverse the globe. They might even go ahead and live among the Germans, or the French. They will roll their tongues efficiently to whisper “Au revoir” to Mother Africa and her mother tongue. To hell with mother tongue, they don’t need it.

With that statement, she declared to everyone in the room that she is inferior. She frowned upon her identity and therein frowned upon herself. She denied her children an identity – with that one statement.

She assumed that the path she already drew up in her head was the very path her children would follow. That she will always be here to make sure that they don’t grow up and stray to veer off the beaten path. She would ensure that there doesn’t come a point in her children’s lives that they will need to use their mother tongue. That they will never interact with kin who only speak mother tongue, and feel shortchanged.

She is a young mother. And the problem with our generation of young mothers is that we are not so smart. Since we are not smart, we tend to pass our ‘not so smartness’ to our offspring. We are obsessed with trends. We are maniacs who wait to be told who we are, how to dress and what to eat. We are too timid to live our lives and so we end up living someone else’s life. We dread being unique, doing what has never been done, exploring the unexplored. We huddle up and undertake to be a replica of each other. Oh, she wears a long weave; I think I will get me a long weave too, is our mantra.

We want to be who we are not. Can a Kalenjin be more English than the English? Can a Kikuyu be more French than the French? But we will still try to be just a little bit French. Just a teeny bit English. If we can be allowed to forgo our mother tongue, we promise.

Why are we ready to forgo something so profoundly unique about us? Take this quote from Ishmael Beah for example “My mother tongue, Mende, is very expressive, very figurative, and when I write, I always struggle to find the English equivalent of things that I really want to say in Mende. For example, in Mende, you wouldn’t say ‘Night came suddenly’; you would say, ‘The sky rolled over and changed its sides’” Tell me, how beautiful is that!

Is there anything worse than walking around the world without an identity? Not knowing who you really are? There is no greater travesty if you ask me.

At what point do you deem yourself so worthless? At what point do you consider yourself a second-rate human being who needs to emulate other cultures to feel worthy?

It is sad. I was irked by her sentiments that I wanted to call her to a corner, away from prying ears and tell her that what she just said was not only disturbing, but also the shallowest, stupidest statement I had heard in a long long time.

I wanted to educate her that the mother tongue is the language of heart and mind, as intimated by That when a person speaks their mother tongue, a direct connection establishes between heart, brain and tongue. That our personality, character, modesty, shyness, defects, our skills, and all other hidden characteristics become truly revealed through the mother tongue because the sound of the mother tongue in the ear and its meaning in the heart give us trust and confidence.

I wanted to quote Nelson Mandela, the same way the website did. “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”

I wanted to scold her for shunning our mother tongue. For treating it with distaste like it was a plague she would like to rid her children from. I wanted to inform her that doing so only helped to alienate her brood.

I wanted to warn her that children, who are unaware of their language or culture for that matter, will lose confidence in themselves.

I wanted to rain on her with memories of our childhood. How stories were told to us in mother tongue. How those memories are priceless and can never be replicated anywhere in the world. How mother tongue connects us to our mother; the one constant, truest and strongest anchor of our lives. I wanted to look her in the face and ask, “How dare you?!” I wanted to slap her across the same face and ask her to end the stupidity. To end the self-loathing. To accept who she is. I wanted to shout at her to most of all, remember who she is.

“Our mother tongue is the language we use to think, dream and feel emotion,” Proverbio said. Why would you deny your children that?!” I wanted to yell.

I wanted to say so much but from the above, I am sure that you can tell that it wouldn’t have ended well. So I opted to blog about it instead. Hopefully, she will come across this article and read it. Or not. Whatever.


First published on the Storymoja Festival Blog



Book Review: Of Goats and Poisoned Oranges By Ciku Kimeria

Posted on

Of Goats and Poisoned Oranges
Of Goats and Poisoned Oranges

I read this book in one sitting as I travelled from Nairobi to Sotik town in South Rift Kenya, and still had the time to enjoy the spectacular scenery on the way. It tells a story about the tumultuous marriage of a middle aged couple – Wambui and Njogu – living in Nairobi. Wambui is a graduate with a Bachelor of commerce degree from the University of Nairobi. Njogu on the other hand – a cobbler’s son who dropped out of school at standard three – is a driver turned businessman. The disparity in their backgrounds soon becomes a problem in how they relate to each other, and with their relatives. They soon have to deal with infidelity and its consequences, which they both try to work through quite determinedly.

The story is told from each spouse’s perspective and from the perspective of the different people in their lives who include; Nyambura (Njogu’s mistress), King’ori (Njogu and Wambui’s son), Muriungi (Nyambura’s brother) among others. This style of narration greatly affects the flow of the story as it jumps from year to year giving the impression that the whole book is a summary of events. For this, I felt shortchanged.

For a story on marriage, love, hate and betrayal, the story fell short of eliciting any emotions from me. It is a bland narration that does not bring out the emotions of the characters. I felt nothing for Wambui and Njogu throughout their marital journey. I did not feel their love. Betrayal is just a word in the book with no feelings attached to it. This book does a great injustice to the storytelling mantra of “Show, don’t tell” as the story is simply narrated with words carrying no emotion.

I however liked that it is written in a simple style with common Nairobi jargon cleverly thrown into the plot. This left me with a sense of familiarity to what the author is writing about.

For that, and because I am a sucker for love, and for the unforeseeable twist at the end, I rate it a 2 out of 5.

Who Do We Fight For?

Posted on

The Storymoja Ideagasm this past weekend was one that left me thinking. As I boarded the ‘City Hopper’ bus heading towards Ngong road I had a lot of questions in my head.

I label myself a defender of women’s rights. A feminist. But who exactly am I fighting for? Do the people whose voice I claim to be, need my voice? Am I helping them or am I making their lives difficult? Or could it be that I am just helping myself?

I reached my destination close to 8pm in the evening. My family had all assembled at my sister’s house for dinner and all were wondering where I was. I explained that I had gone for a Storymoja thingy. ‘Thingy’ because you only give my mother a word like ‘Ideagasm’ when you have a couple of hours to kill explaining what you mean.

“Story moja huh? I will give you my story moja,” my mum promised me.

She honored her promise a few hours later after we had quenched our hunger and thirst. She started on a story about monsters who devoured some woman whose husband used to work far away in the city.

“Tell me about FGM.” She was leaning on folklore while I wanted the real stuff.

“FGM?” she asks

Kalenjins practiced FGM right?”

“Sure! We practiced FGM.”

She then told me a story. Her Story moja.

Back in the day, when a girl was considered old enough for marriage, she was circumcised and yanked into (Ok, maybe they gently tossed her with sympathy given what she had just gone through) a hut where she was to live for some time as she was fed and healed. She was thereafter, ready for marriage

It was, however. not uncommon for a man to ask for a girl’s hand in marriage and even settle the bride price while she was still in seclusion – I guess demand was high with some girls? Seclusion could take anywhere from one month (which was ideally the time required for her wound to heal) to one year. ONE YEAR! My reaction to this was: “Ile ne?” which was the closest Kalenjin words I could come up with for “What the hell?!” A whole year!? January, February…the whole 12 months?!

My mother patiently waited for me to get a grip before going on.

Should a man come and ask for your hand in your absence, your parents only had to say yes to the cows and you would be his wife when you were well enough to be someone’s wife. After healing from the mutilation, you would pack your bags and go to a man your parents had ingeniously selected for you. You had to believe that they had your best interests at heart and did not just dispose you off to spend your lifetime with a jerk just because he offered the highest bid.

One year! Forgive me, but I am still stuck on the one year seclusion.

My mum then told me the story of this specific young girl who went through pretty much the same ordeal. While this girl was inside the ka-hut, healing the wounds in her nether regions, wondering all the while about her future with her husband and the many children she was going to bear him – what else could she ponder about anyway – a man came along and asked for her hand in marriage. She was to make a technical appearance during the negotiation of bride price. A deal was struck and from that moment, she was considered the young man’s wife. She was fed and fed some more. She grew healthier and healthier (the word I really want to use is ‘fatter’ and ‘fatter’) for her prospective husband.

While still serving her time, something happened to the young man who had been pronounced her husband not so long ago. He was arrested for cattle rustling. Hehe…I laughed hysterically at this point, don’t know why I found this so hilarious. Young girl in seclusion, young man arrested for cattle rustling. He was to serve 5 years in jail. The young girl waited (faithfully) for this man she barely knew to get out of jail and come and take his place in her life.

Thing is, cattle rustling was an ego booster and it put a stamp on one’s manhood in a big way. Having been arrested, the young man held a lot of clout in the community. Time went by and the young man’s mother, now living with the young girl – her daughter in law – realized that time was running out. The young man’s mother knew that being the ish, one wife was not going to do him any justice. She therefore did what any mother would do at the time. She mobilized a bunch of elders to betroth another woman as her incarcerated son’s second wife.

I know!

They visited a certain family, whose daughter she had eyed for a while, I don’t know…weird? They proceeded with the bride price negotiations. This other woman was to be circumcised as well, and so she served her time in seclusion having become the second wife to the jailbird.

“It was nothing really. This happened all the time.” My mum said. Men could ‘marry’ another wife while their (first) wife was still healing. It’s not like he needed the first wife’s approval or anything.

Suffice to say that when the young man eventually got out, he was presented with two very healthy (ahem!) wives. Voila!

That young jailbird man was my maternal grandfather (RIP), and the young woman who had a co-wife shoved down her throat was my grandmother. My grandfather later added another wife to make three and they all lived their happily ever after.

This story from my mother told in a jovial, carefree mood did not do much to quell my thoughts about the ideagasm we had had that afternoon. I wondered, did these women feel oppressed at all? Did they know any other way of life? If not, who then decided that things needed to change and why?

I frowned, gasped and almost popped my eyes out unbelievably as I listened. It did not make sense to me that a man would ‘stock up’ on women just because he had the means. And that the same women were like pawns in a man’s world.

I wondered. When we fight for women, when we protest against certain ‘injustices’ as we see them, are we still doing so for that woman who is ok with having a co-wife because she believes that men are naturally polygamous? Are we still fighting for that woman who looks forward to being battered by her husband because then it will mean that he loves her? When we insist on having our voices heard, does that voice include the voice of the woman who lives for BDSM? If we fight for all women alike aren’t we infringing on the rights of those who have taken the face of oppression and made it part of their identity? Are we denying some woman her right to a co-wife? To a black eye, which according to her is a medal of love? Her right to sexual pain pleasure?

Still, I wonder.


First published on the Storymoja Festival Blog