Valentine’s Day multilingual anthology by Ankara Press: a real treat!

I generally don’t celebrate Valentine’s Day but an anthology released yesterday by Ankara Press gave me a reason to change my ways.

Being the literature fan that I am, I was overjoyed to hear of seven African writers putting together short stories about love on Valentine’s day. I already knew of Ankara Press for their daring romance collection, so this sounded very much within their scope but the supreme treat for me was that each story was translated into a langage other than English spoken by the author.

We thus end up with this collection, that can be downloaded for free here:

  • Fish – by Chuma Nwokolo, translated into Nigerian Pidgin English by Victor Ehikhamenor
  • Candy Girl – by Hawa Jande Golakai, translated into Kpelle by Yarkpai Keller
  • The Idea is to be sealed in – by Binyavanga Wainaina, translated into Kiswahili by Elieshi Lema
  • Woman in the orange dress – by Sarah Ladipo-Manyika, translated into Yoruba by Kola Tubosun
  • Cotyledons – by Toni Kan, translated into Igbo by Chikodili Emelumadu
  • Solitaire – by Edwige-Renée Dro, translated into French by the author herself
  • Painted love – by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, translated into Hausa by the author himself

I may have pored over Arábìnrin inú aṣọ ọlọ́sàn for longer than I care to say. As a learner of Yoruba, it was a fantastic opportunity for some self-study, since I could go back and forth between the English and the Yoruba texts. I must salute Kola Tubosun‘s effort here, for coming up with such beautifully worded sentences (with tonal marks, a rather rare occurrence):

Títí tí wọn fi jẹun tán, ó sá n rẹrìín, ó sì n f’ojú nlá rẹ tó dúdú mininjọ sọrọ, bíi pé inú rẹ n dùn fún nkan àsírí ìkọkọ kan tó lárinrin.

[Yes, I am totally smitten. Valentine’s day magic in action!]

Each story is available online in audio format as well. I highly recommend Edwige Renée-Dro’s French reading of Solitaire : her characters’voices just don’t sound the same in my head as they do when the dialogues are read out loud.

Out of the seven translations, I could only read Kiswahili, Yoruba and French but I hope many other readers will be able to appreciate the stories in Hausa, Igbo, Kpelle and Nigerian Pidgin translation.


Review: Wanawake wa Heri wa Winsa (The Merry Wives of Windsor)

Falstaff (Mrisho Mpoto) and his associates

Falstaff (Mrisho Mpoto) and his associates

Translated into Swahili and localized in the Kenyan context by Joshua Ogutu (@ogutumuraya), a boisterous interpretation of Shakespeare’s comedy ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ was presented at the 2012 Globe to Globe festival before embarking on an India tour in November 2012. This co-production by Better Pill and The Theatre Company is back in Kenya, much to the delight of local theatre buffs who had been impatiently waiting for a chance to see the show.

A comedy of manners

The plot revolves around a small community – located in Kiambu in the Swahili version – where intrigues are born of ambition, lust, greed and pure complacency. Falstaff, a corrupt politician who deludes himself into believing that he’s irresistible, tries to woo two married ladies with the exact same ‘love’ letter. When Bi. Ford and Bi. Page uncover the trick, they decide to take him for a ride, a plan that ends up creating a cascade of comical situations.  A jealous husband, a shrewd, down-to-earth maid, a young couple whose love is threatened by the girl’s parents’ misplaced ambition and a host of grumpy undisciplined servants, complete the hilarious gallery of characters.

Here is the preview posted on The Theatre Company’s YouTube channel:

In an interview recorded by Globe International, actors Joshua Ogutu and Sharon Nanjos talked about their experience of rehearsing ‘Wanawake wa heri wa Winsa’ and performing the play at the Globe Theatre. They worked with director Daniel Goldman who brought on board a different perspective on theatre performance and managed to whip up a localized interpretation although he did not understand Swahili.

One of the most notable influences of this collaboration was the breakdown of the ‘fourth wall’, with audience members becoming participants in the unfolding of the story.

A performance shining through the language barrier

While some critics felt that the adaptation betrayed the spirit of Shakespearan comedy, most reviewers were enthusiastic about the performance given in April in London and Statford-upon-Avon.

The fact that part of the audience decided to brave the rain to attend the show testifies to the interest raised by ‘Wanawake wa Heri wa Winsa’ at the Globe to Globe festival. Only a handful of Swahili-speakers were present, but this did not seem to mar the success of the play, as Dr. Sarah Olive reported :

The audience’s unceasing mirth was proof of the way in which the actors captured a panoply of characters’ essences through their mannerisms, facial expressions and intonation in a way that transcended language and appealed to a global community.

This view is shared by Rob Wilson of Think Africa Press:

While information about the bare bones of the plot were projected on a side-screen in English during the play, the quality of the performance was such that the audience did not need to be Kiswahili speakers to understand what was going on and laugh in all the right places.

Some of the finer details and nuances might have been lost in the process, but the excellent acting definitely made the show worthwhile even for non-Swahili speakers.

Reception in Nairobi

Being Swahili-speakers and familiar with the setting of the play, Nairobians had access to the full experience, including the social cues and linguistic nuances. The translation uses modern, conversational Swahili to reflect the contemporary context, which facilitated understanding but missed the opportunity to include a certain poetic turn of phrase one would expect of a Shakespeare play. I think the Swahili language would lend itself graciously to such an endeavour.

In ‘Wanawake wa Heri wa Winsa’, langage is widely used as a social marker highlighting Kenyan stereotypes: the scheming, greedy maid spoke in a Kikuyu accent, the aggressive kanzu-wearing doctor was supposed to be a Somali and only expressed himself in broken Swahili, and the shady characters serving as Falstaff’s valets were Sheng’ speakers. This added a comic twist to the plot, with each appearance of Bi. Quickly (the maid) causing new fits of hilarity.

Also worthy of note is the successful transposition in Kenyan society of issues originally set in Elizabethan England. Women’s empowerment within a conservative society and the lurking power of greed were themes that ran through the play, evoking current social tensions in Kenya. Had I not known that it was a translation, I would easily have believed that the play was written by a Kenyan with reference to today’s Kenya.

In line with the expectations set by earlier reviews, the acting did not disappoint. The cast of 8 deployed immense energy to manage 18 parts, bringing to life the Windsor community in front of our eyes and constantly engaging the audience to take part in the action. It is however regrettable that several of the initial cast members were replaced, thus compromising the harmony of the group.

Poor lighting and distracting background banner at the Nairobi performance, 15th December 2012

Poor lighting and distracting background banner at the Nairobi performance, 15th December 2012

For all its merits, the performance had some major technical shortcomings. The lighting had clearly not been thought through, to disastrous consequences. A lone white projector lit only part of the stage … and a house in the background which was not part of the set. The technician tried to rectify this during the show, unfortunately to no avail. As a result, the actors could not make full use of the space and had to wriggle around, upsetting stage balance.

Finally, I understand the sponsors’ demands for publicity but having a sponsors’ banner as a backstage wall is really taking it too far!

Disappointing turnout for this quality production

Overall, we were treated to a quality performance. I especially want to salute the translation effort and the creative work that went into adapting ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ into a lively, truculent Kenyan play.

It is a shame that despite the show being advertised on the popular blog Nairobi Now, on Facebook and at Alliance Française, Nairobians still did not turn up in large numbers for Wanawake wa Heri wa Winsa:

Did you attend the play in England, in India or in Kenya? Share your experience with us in the comments section below or on Twitter (@hardcorekancil) !

Photo credits: AttributionNoncommercial Maneno Matamu

The politics of language: the silent masses are not silent at all

In an opinion piece published on All Africa’s website, Dominic Mensah bemoaned the utter contempt in which Ghanaians who are not proficient in English are held when it comes to political participation. Due to language barriers, 80% of the population is effectively prevented from engaging in the decision processes that directly affect them, he argues:

If the various presidential debates are carried out with the goal of helping the Ghanaian electorate make reasonable and content-based decision on the election day, mustn’t we ask why we insist on doing this in language [English] that the majority of Ghanaians don’t understand and those who claim to do, have limited command of. Or do we expect our various media houses to do their own interpretations of what they think the candidates said and didn’t say for the masses?

This disregard by politicians for the reality on the ground is unfortunately commonplace in many other African countries. As Lori Thicke of Translators Without Borders explained on her blog earlier this year  ‘a vast majority of people in Africa are not proficient the national language of the country where they reside’, often the language of the former colonizers and the language of public discourse. This in turn results in the entrenchment of privileges, with a well-informed English/French/Portuguese-speaking elite on the one hand, and all the other citizens on the other hand. Mensah’s grandmother, who does not understand English well enough to follow the televised debate, is indeed being treated like a second-class citizen, along with millions of other Ghanaians.

A linguistic fault line that runs deep

This linguistic rift should not be downplayed. Ghanaians, Kenyans or Nigerians who do not master ‘standard’ English know very well where the power lies. The language is deliberately wielded as an instrument of domination.

Often though, the excluded people – who are the majority – do not remain passive when confronted with this overwhelming presence of the ‘metro-language’ in the public sphere. One of the strategies employed to reconquer the public space is to start writing in indigenous languages, as advocated by author Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Another reaction has been the forging of their own linguistic codes in an attempt to reclaim a sense of agency. In Language Policy in Kenya: Negotiation with Hegemony (pdf), Wendo Nabea describes this phenomenon at play in Kenya with the development of Sheng:

In the light of this, one can deduce how societal members who subscribe to the standard norms, and in this case, English and Kiswahili denigrate variants like Sheng, while Sheng users are at home defying the standard. This defiance can be seen in a broader context as a protest to hegemony, especially considering that a language like English remains the reserve of the elite as has already been stated.

Conversely, as speaking fluent English is seen as a sign of upward social mobility, some people are ready to sacrifice a lot so that their children learn the more prestigious language and end up denigrating their own in the process. Perhaps the next generation can become real participants in their own country, so the reasoning goes.

Promoting regional lingua francas

Much like the debate on African languages in school, there is no easy remedy because a given country can be fragmented into dozens, if not hundreds, of different language groups. The politics behind the choice of a lingua franca is explosive, hence the often-observed status quo in favour of the language of the former colonial power.

In Ghana’s case, Twi serves as a de facto lingua franca even though it is subject to some controversy. It was suggested by Dominic Mensah as a more inclusive medium for conveying political messages, since it is understood by a vast majority of the population. An alternative idea was formulated in armarn55 ‘s comment:

A balanced suggestion would be to have interperators [sic] to ensure that the message of the debate gets to as many Ghanaians as possible.

Whatever the solution arrived at, there is an urgent need to bridge the communication gap, lest searing conflicts end up undermining nation-building and ultimately, peace. The silent masses are not silent at all: they just don’t speak the same language as the elite.

Tuesday update #1. Why is Swahili so underdeveloped in Uganda?

On 4th December, ‘The world in words’ podcast touched on some very interesting topics under the title ‘A comeback for Africa’s homegrown languages?‘. Two news items particularly drew my attention:

  • Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni pointing out the neglect indigenous languages have suffered and engaging Ugandans to promote their mother tongues. He also contends that Swahili isn’t rich enough a language to serve as an African lingua franca!
  • The recurring debate on language policy, especially pertaining to access to information for the majority of citizens. The example put forward was that of Ghana, where politicians debate in English, which is effectively a minority language as most Ghanians are not proficient English speakers.

These issues and a few more are presented in the following podcast:

While I shall take this opportunity to revive the debate on access to information in the Saturday post, I’d like to attempt an answer to one of the pending questions in the pod (11’32): ‘Why was Kenya able to preserve the status of Swahili when it became independant, in a way that was different from Uganda?

Given the high status enjoyed by Swahili in Kenya and a fortiori in Tanzania, I think the question should be turned around to read: ‘Why has Uganda not been able to retain the status of Swahili like her East African neighbours have?

I will cite two main reasons for this: the emotional baggage carried by Swahili in Ugandans’ minds and the competition with Luganda and English.

Other powerful lingua francas exist in Uganda

When I traveled in Uganda, I did meet a couple of people who could communicate in Swahili, some who were native speakers and at the other end of the spectrum, others who only had a rudimentary knowledge of the language.  Some still, were returnees from exile in Kenya where they had naturally picked up Swahili.

However, the majority of people I talked to could not communicate at all in Swahili, so that English ended up being my best chance of getting by. Like in Kenya, it has unsurprisingly become the lingua franca of the educated. Ugandans from different parts of the country and different linguistic backgrounds naturally converse in English, especially in Kampala.

Wobulenzi market, central Uganda.

Wobulenzi market, central Uganda.

The reason for the language situation I experienced is that I was traveling in a region – central Uganda – where Luganda is used as a popular lingua franca, not Swahili. Luganda is the language of the Baganda on whose traditional lands the capital Kampala is situated. Despite its controversial status especially in the West and the North, Luganda does enjoy some prestige.

Several popular newspapers and magazines are published in Luganda. On TV, the news is broadcast in English, Luganda and Swahili. There is some interest in developing Swahili, as evidenced by a daily TV programme teaching adults basic conversational Swahili.

This effort seems to remain somewhat marginal though, in the face of an existing lingua franca covering, not all, but a significant part of the Ugandan territory – including the administrative centre of power, Kampala.

An emotional stigma attached to Swahili

The other reason for the reluctance to adopt Swahili as a national lingua franca is the perception of the language in Uganda.  During Idi Amin’s regime, Swahili was the language used by the brutal military and it is still associated with crooks, thugs and the violence of the dictatorship. This stigma greatly impedes the development of Swahili in Uganda. As Joas Kajiage points out in the Tanzanian newspaper The Citizen:

As a result, many Ugandans loathe the language and hardly bother to learn it. Some of the most familiar Kiswahili words among Ugandans, according to Mr Kategaya, are commanding words used by the robbers such as fungua – open – and toka – get out.

Nakulabye classroom, Uganda

Nakulabye classroom, Uganda

Despite these hurdles, things are changing rapidly. Swahili is seen as a means of integration into the East African Community and will be made a compulsory subject in Ugandan primary schools as of 2013. This move does not come without challenges including a shortage of teaching materials and a lack of qualified Swahili teachers in the country, which might create opportunities for their Tanzanian and Kenyan counterparts.

The debate is far from over…

Further reading:

The retrospective development of Uganda’s educational language policy: successes and challenges (pdf) by Phillip Oketcho

Background: In the excellent podcast ‘The world in words’, Patrick Cox (@patricox) takes a humorous look at language-related issues and information tidbits. I highly recommend listening to his programme to pepper your week with some fun facts about language 🙂

Featured images AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works by Simon Bradwell and AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike by wordloaf

Music break: Iddi Achieng (dholuo + kiswahili)

Back from a 3-year contract touring Europe, Iddi Achieng performed last May in Nairobi, once again warming the hearts of music buffs with her unctuous melodies. Always full of vitality, she interprets songs in Dholuo and Kiswahili.

Here is a past performance recorded on International Women’s Day at Alliance Française de Nairobi:

In a recent interview for Sabahionline, she said:

My music is informed by my Luo and Kenyan culture. I sing 90% in Luo to fully express myself and the other bit in our Kenyan national language [Swahili] to pass important national social messages. I speak to Kenyans about their culture through music because I am also Kenyan so I know what Kenyan culture is.

Enjoy the music!

Interview in English: ‘Iddi Achieng: Music is the African Way of Life
Mahojiano kwa Kiswahili: ‘Muziki ni Mfumo wa Maisha wa Kiafrika’

What place for African languages in schools?

I have thought a lot about the place indigenous languages should occupy in the education systems in Africa. The answer is of course not going to be straightforward nor uniform across the continent but it is worth giving it some thought.
I had the privilege to study in my own native language, French, and from a very young age, I was made aware that this was indeed a chance not everybody was given. Here is what Abdulaye Bah from Guinea (Konakry) went through:

In primary school during the colonial era, it was forbidden to speak one’s mother tongue. In Pita, Guinea, where I attended primary school, as soon as we had grasped a certain level of French, if the teacher heard one of the children speaking his language in the morning, he would hand him what was known as the token. The first child then had to hand it to someone he had caught doing the same. At the end of the school day, the teacher would ask the first kid he had given the token to, who was the second student to get it and this person would in turn name the next, this until the last student who was supposed to have the token. The teacher would thus identify all those who had spoken their mother tongue. He would then split us into two groups and order us to slap each other. If one of us was a bit reluctant, the teacher would take over by slapping the child who was considered too soft.

[original post in French by Abdulaye Bah, translation by Marie-Laure Le Guen]

My grand-parents told me the very same story (among other humiliations) about their school days in a remote village of north-western France in the 1930s where Breton was the then dominant language but classes were carried out entirely in French.

This type of ‘educational’ methods unfortunately didn’t disappear after African countries gained independence, as testified by Mohamed’s school experiences in Kenya in the 1990s:

I was in this boarding school where you got caned and/or wore a dunce sign for speaking anything other than English 6days>>
>>>or Swahili the remaining day. And a primary school at that.
They fancied themselves to be a posh ‘English’ sch of sorts. Too bad it was in the Dickens mold.


[On Facebook]
Like I mentioned on Twitter, my boarding school (primary) barred us from speaking anything other than English 6 days/week and Swahili the other day (the latter aimed at ‘preserving our national language’) and students who deviated from the above wore a dunce sign and/or were spanked at the end of the day.

Other schools had an emphasis on English too, though they were not as strict. Speaking vernacular languages was heavily frowned upon, viewed as ‘backwards’ and divisive.

In Nigeria, the situation does not seem to differ much according to @baroka:

Yes, there were penalties. This was in primary school. Most private schools have negative attitude to native language use.
Corporal punishment. Sometimes, little fines.

As I was talking to a number of people in my circles, some surprising and rather encouraging testimonies came up, which again pointed to the fact that the reality is far from uniform from one school to the next:

Edna from Kenya[sent to me on Facebook]
-) my school mates had an open minded approach we loved Gujarati being in a predominantly Indian school we were exposed to that we had to say a prayer every friday in Gujarati


@fowora there were no rules abt langs at recess and many spoke their native lang. Attitude determined at home tho

Many governments have encouraged the teaching of indigenous languages to some level, some going as far as offering an African language as the medium of instruction in the first years of primary school.

The case for teaching indigenous languages in school, especially using them as the medium of instruction, does however raise some concerns. For instance, which language is appropriate in a linguistically diverse area? And what of students who come from a different background and have to catch up with the local programme?

Rosemary from Nigeria tells us how her cousins were disadvantaged in school when they returned from the UK without a sufficient knowledge of Yoruba:

My Yoruba cousins left UK for Bauchi, where all pry sch learning was done in Hausa till year 3/4 so my cousin skipped 3yrs

A lot of these very complex questions are left voluntarily open. I would love to hear from you, the readers, and know what your ideal language policy would be like and how you think we can improve attitudes towards African languages in school.

Interview with linguist Oliver Stegen

Today, we speak with Oliver Stegen the man behind the Swahili translation of Bilbo’s Aragorn poem !

Oliver Stegen was born and grew up in rural Northern Germany where he found his calling at the age of 14: he was to be a linguist. After completing his M.A., he moved to Tanzania together with his family to work with the international organisation SIL. For ten years, they lived and worked in Kondoa District among the Rangi people, first learning Swahili, and then the Rangi language. In May 2011, he successfully defended his thesis “In search of a vernacular writing style for the Rangi of Tanzania: Assumptions, challenges, processes”. He currently advises linguistically a number of SIL’s language projects in Northern Tanzania and Uganda.

Despite devoting a lot of his time to his work at SIL and to editing Swahili Wikipedia, Oliver Stegen has participated in several other projects, among which :

  • Google’s “Kiswahili Wikipedia Challenge” and “HealthSpeaks”
  • The Kenyan Wikimedia Chapter which he co-founded
  • The Institute for Natural Church Development (World Summit in Johannesburg, 2004)
  • SACHES (Southern African Comparative and History of Education Society), as affiliated member of their executive committee 2005-2008
  • NewTactics, as featured resource practitioner at their November 2011 online dialogue on “Using citizen media tools to promote under-represented languages”
  • ANLoc (the African Network for Localization)
  • Translators Without Borders

You are a linguist at heart. What do you find most exciting about your work?      

My linguistic interests have certainly changed over the years. It may be symptomatic that my MA was in theoretical linguistics whereas my PhD (almost 20 years later) was in applied linguistics. I started out being fascinated by language structures like sound correspondences between related languages. However, once I had worked in an actual minority language and seen the impact of literacy on mother tongue speakers, I was sold on the development of literature (both original and translated) and of vernacular writing style. Among the most exciting highlights of my work must be those moments when a newly published vernacular book reaches the hands of someone who sees his or her mother tongue in print for the first time. Very rewarding that!

How did you come to choose East Africa as your base?       

Ha! My wife and I had originally wanted to work in Siberia (we both had learned Russian in our teens and were interested in the changes of socialist societies after the Berlin Wall had fallen; we actually grew up on different sides of it). But when that door closed (we simply couldn’t get any positions there, merely being young linguists fresh out of college), we were contemplating Anglophone Africa, both for cultural and linguistic reasons. SIL, the organisation we work for, had a number of openings in Tanzania, and the Rangi language project appealed to us. After ten years in rural Tanzania, our family of five has now been living in Nairobi since 2007 – which is an easier location for our children’s education and for travel to the various language projects in East Africa which I am advising linguistically now.

Could you tell us a bit about your involvement in the Rangi language documentation and expansion of language use?

As I believe in participatory research, i.e. involving mother tongue speakers in the research itself right from the start, I spent a lot of time visiting Rangi villages and talking to elders, government officials and school teachers. Then, our family lived for two years in the village of Mʉnéen’ya (Mnenia in Swahili spelling) in order to learn the Rangi language. Initially, the focus was on helping those small groups of interested Rangi speakers to devise an orthography and to publish literacy materials.

After a few years of very humble beginnings (which saw the production of an alphabet chart, of a primer and of a story booklet), a couple of Rangi speakers joined us full-time – two as literacy supervisors and two as Bible translators under an affiliated interdenominational Bible translation project. This meant that the focus shifted to training our Rangi colleagues in topics ranging from literacy teaching to discourse analysis. On the academic side, I endeavoured to document and publish the results of our linguistic research (the academic publications can be found here).

I continue to take an interest in further expansion of the Rangi language. For example, last year we started a Rangi chatgroup on Facebook which now boasts well over 300 members with daily traffic predominantly in Rangi.

I gather that you are also very active in the online Swahili-speaking community. What have you learnt from this experience over the years?             

Well, my knowledge of the online Swahili-speaking community is actually restricted to the Swahili wikipedia community; I wouldn’t be familiar with, for example, the Swahili-speaking blogging scene. Still, my involvement with the Swahili wikipedia has shown me how much there is still to be done when it comes to the online representation of general information in languages other than English. And if Swahili is severely under-represented, even though it is spoken by tens of millions of people and is the national language of two major East African nations, what about the hundreds of smaller languages which are not officially recognised, yet whose speakers rely on their mother tongues as their major and often only medium of communication? These languages are needed just as much for the acquisition of education and for all kinds of literacy practices in everyday life. That is why I am promoting the use of regional and local languages as much as possible (unless I’m trying to reach an international audience like in this interview). There is much more room to use local languages on the web, from writing your Facebook status updates in local languages to building vernacular dictionaries on Wikimedia’s incubator or, as I said earlier, initiating local language chatgroups.

What are your current topics of interest?     

I am both a networker and an academic, so I love to bring people together who can mutually benefit from cooperation and exchange of information. Currently, I am investigating the opportunities connected with pro-bono translation – on the one hand, I am in contact with Translators Without Borders who are doing an excellent job and have just expanded into East African languages; on the other hand, I am learning Spanish via Duolingo with the hope of applying that approach to Swahili.

On the linguistic research front, I am working together with a colleague on functions of rhetorical questions in East African languages (particularly Swahili and a couple of local Tanzanian languages which we are familiar with; yes, Rangi is among them) and on the implications for translating rhetorical questions. Also, I am looking into the development of Swahili as an academic language (I have been sitting on a nice data corpus for a couple of years now which just waits to have a detailed discourse analysis conducted on it).

In addition to all of those responsibilities, activities and interests plus the megalomaniac project of translating Tolkien into Swahili (mentioned in your previous post), I am probably collecting enough projects for a very busy retirement – which, Mungu akipenda, won’t be due for another quarter of a century.

What is your favourite Rangi proverb? (with translation please!!) 

That’s easy, I even have it printed on a t-shirt: Mʉʉ́mba njʉlʉ adoma, mʉʉ́mba masáare akaarɨ afíindaa. Literally, “the creator of mountains went away, the creator of words is still sculpting.” This illustrates nicely that there are certain things in our environment which we cannot change but with words, we most certainly can continue to be creative.

Haya, tusonge mbele katika kuboresha dunia yetu; let’s get on with making our world a better place!

Chronicles of language death : El Molo (Kenya).

I was saddened when stumbling upon the following tweet this morning :

 @gabrieloguda  The last fluent #ElMolo speaker died last year.  #PreserveOurCultures.

It motivated me to find out more about the El Molo language and share with you some of my ‘discoveries’.

The Wikipedia article was extremely succinct on the matter :

El Molo is a nearly extinct Afro-Asiatic language spoken in Kenya on the southeastern shore of Lake Turkana. It may be extinct as all speakers in 1994 were over 50. El Molo was thought to be extinct in the middle part of the 20th century, but a few speakers were found in the latter half of that century.

The El Molo are believed to be the smallest community in Kenya and have been largely assimilated within the Samburu,  Turkana and Rendile communities. Despite recent attempts at revival, the El Molo language is no longer spoken other than for ceremonial purposes.

In January 2012, Journalist Rupi Mangat visited the El Molo village of Leyani where she met some of the elders. Among them was Guya Lowa, whose wrinkled face told a story that may soon be forgotten:

He and the people of his generation watched helplessly as their language disappeared in their life-time.

Her account is that of a moribund society despairing of its survival, especially as traditional fishing in Lake Turkana can no longer sustain them.

In case you were wondering, the word for ‘mudfish’ was érle in El Molo…

P.S. Some characteristics of the El Molo language are documented in Language Death: Factual and Theoretical Explorations With Special Reference to East Africa (Matthias Brenzinger, editor)