in defense of swahili

Update: the ministry of education has disowned the directive discussed here. Apparently there are still a few sane people under Prof. Ongeri’s docket. Now if only they could also tell us where they took the free primary education money…

When it comes to Swahili I suddenly go nationalist. I think there is something to be said about a people having their own language through which they can package their historical and cultural experiences over time. Kenya has 42 languages and many more dialects. As a nation we can’t use all of them to store our collective experiences. However, unlike most other African states, we are lucky to have a Bantu language that is widely used and that we have appropriated to be our national language. Through Swahili and effective government we can make everyone who speaks Pokot, Sabaot, Kikuyu, Luo or Maragoli Kenyan by creating an imagined community of shared experiences.

The reason I bring this up is that the busy bodies at the Ministry of Education have decided to make Swahili optional at KCPE level. Pupils will be given the option of taking Swahili or sign language. This is madness. I am not against people learning sign language. My concern is that those who will readily place out of Swahili are the very pupils who ought to be learning and speaking more of the language. My conjecture is that the only schools that will afford good sign language teachers will be the pricier ones in the urban areas. These schools have students who can barely speak Swahili because English is the only language they can truly claim to speak. This is a shame.

While we continue trying to Kenyanize people in West Pokot, Suba, Mogotio, Maragua and Garsen, we should not forget the youngsters in Nairobi. They need to be educated in Swahili too. In fact I think it is time we had subjects like religious and social studies (at the primary school level) taught in Swahili – along with English, Math and the Sciences which would obviously still be taught in English for practical reasons.

please do away with the “omnipresent smells of donkey dung”

Big business and economic development in “pristine lands” is awful. Especially if you grew up with the comforts of indoor plumbing and general over-abundance of the purest hedonistic-capitalist kind. It is only when you have the choice to pop in and out of “tropical obscurity” that you would find the intellectual courage to defend a way of life that is just above that of man circa 1750 A.D. Suddenly you find yourself forgetting the basic fact that it is underdevelopment that makes infant mortality, HIV infection rates, gender inequality and a whole lot of other maladies most acute in your presumed tropical paradise.

I am beginning to read things to the effect that the development of a port in Lamu (Kenya) is bad – both for the environment and the local people and their culture. I don’t buy most of the stuff though. The likes of Gettleman want us to believe that people in places like Lamu are inherently anti-development. According to him the people of Lamu “say they are not especially well suited for the mechanized world.” Good for them. They would much rather live with the “omnipresent smells of donkey dung” than have a modern port constructed in their district. This is total horse manure.

Firstly, the environmental costs of having a modern port in Lamu will surely be outweighed by the socio-economic benefits. Oil exports from Uganda and Southern Sudan, among other trading opportunities in the wider region will surely create jobs in the area. Secondly, why should we assume that exposure of Lamu culture to the wider (albeit still not completely apparent) Kenyan Culture is necessarily bad? Aren’t cultures supposed to change with time? Plus if Lamu culture cannot keep up after such an encounter it should be allowed to go the way of the dodo. That is why we build museums.

If it can be done – as it should – the construction of Kenya’s second port in Lamu should be a foregone conclusion. The Kenyan government should make this crystal clear to all the environmentalists and anthropologists concerned.