My Mum is driving. Her skinny body sinks into the leather seats as she takes control of the vehicle. When we turn onto the half-murrum, half-tarmacked road, our tummies rumble. We don’t eat much in the morning if we’re going to visit our Cucu (pronounced Sho- Sho) – this means Grandmother in my tribal language, Kikuyu.
Cucu usually meets us outside. Each year I notice that my that brother and I are looking down even further to meet her eyes. On this particular day he’s towering over all of us, even though he’s the youngest one around. He’s seventeen, my Mum is fifty-two, and her mother, my grandmother, is maybe eighty-something.
“Hello, hello, welcome,” she says. We settle in, food is served. A prayer is said. If my brother or I are asked to pray, we do so in English. If Cucu is praying, she prays in Kikuyu. My Mum chooses whichever of the two feel appropriate. There even exists the third option of Kiswahili, although none of us are confident in saying a prayer in it. So today, God hears us in English.
The food is so good, every time. There’s the usual: rice, beef stew, chapati, cabbage, and of course nyama choma – Kiswahili for ‘roasted meat.’ Cucu watches us while we eat, supposedly concerned that we haven’t put enough on our plates.
“Wangui,” she eventually calls to my Mother. “Nī ndakwīrire nītwakoretwo nī aici kīambīrīria kīa mweri ûyû?”
“Haiya.” My Mum looks shocked, but not worried. She turns to us. “Children, are you listening? Cucu is telling us about how she nearly got robbed.”
“You got robbed?” My brother asks our grandmother, a bit too quickly for her to catch his words. He says it again, and she responds with a “yes,” but pauses as she thinks of how she can rephrase the story in English or maybe Swahili. After several unsuccessful attempts, my Mum finally gives in and begins to translate.
I can feel my Mum’s frustration. She must always act as the bridge between us, whether she likes it or not. Her mother cannot tell the story in the same way, with the same care and attention, if she must do it in English. But if my mother translates the story for us, another chance for her children to bond with their grandmother fades away.
This divide – a generational disconnect – is only one of the infinite consequences of living in a country that has been independent for a shorter time than it was colonised: Kenya gained its freedom in 1963, but the British had established their rule in East Africa for seven decades before that. And while some of said consequences stem from the colonial government’s use of legislation and military force to oppress, their most lethal weapon was cultural erasure, planted like a carnivorous root left to slowly eat away a people’s belief in their own selves. Traditional stories about Mumbi and Luanda Magere eventually changed into memorised verses about a white saviour named Jesus. Our names were no longer just “Akinyi” and “Naserian” but were prefaced with “Alice” and “Nancy”. Schools, libraries and newspapers were eventually filled with an orthography that was to be the new, correct and “official” form of communication: English. Today, alongside Kiswahili, it continues to be the country’s national tongue.
I choose to emphasize on language for it is perhaps the most tangible and permanent aspect of a culture: traditional clothing is now probably only worn during wedding occasions, food will be cleansed from the body after two days; but language, once placed, will not leave the mind. Kenya is home to over fifty different ethnic groups, storing sixty-nine languages – each unique in manner of articulation, phoneme, vocabulary, and perspective. And so here we are, in the Kikuyu countryside, in my Cucu’s house; spending time with her but having nothing to say because we don’t know how to say it.
A lot of the time, my Mum insists. “You know Kikuyu,” she’ll say to us, and while I will agree that I (only) understand it, my brother is blunt in his response. “I don’t know it.”
“Nītûmûhe rītwa rīa kīthûngû tondû aretua ndangī-menya ûrīa tûroiga,” she’ll joke in response. I’ll laugh with her, but inside, I’m still not entirely sure if she’s saying we should have given my brother an English name or if we are giving him an English name because he can’t understand Kikuyu. It seems to her that it is within our control whether we know it or not. I have heard this story before: legend has it that we both spoke our tribal tongue fluently until we started going to school.
Our parents had decided that British International Schools, as opposed to Kenyan- System ones, fit best for us, particularly because the former offered a more holistic approach to education in addition to an unparalleled exposure to the world outside of just Kenya. My brother and I had friends and teachers from everywhere as a result, with a large number naturally being from the UK – either expatriates, or descendants of the colonisers who never left. Thus, to be a Kenyan in this kind of school, was to grow up a child of different worlds – a child of various tongues: one for home, and one for school.
It meant looking up to the white teachers and the way they spoke but laughing at the Kenyan ones for how often they ‘mispronounced’ words. It meant that learning French as a language was compulsory until Year 9, but Kiswahili only until Year 5. It meant learning that the British were the ‘Allies,’ without learning that at the same time, they were tyrannizing thousands of people under their Empire. It meant writing essay responses to questions asking, ‘describe what snow is like’ for ten marks, even though you had never seen snow before. Instead, you maybe had to think of Caucasian children playing in the snow, playing in its whiteness and having so much fun that when Christmastime came around in Nairobi, the season couldn’t possibly be complete without us decorating the classrooms with snowflakes and bringing some home to stick on our living room walls.
This admiration for the coloniser’s life translated into our social lives, too. One’s place in the high school hierarchy was determined by how close you were to the coloniser. Being white automatically made you the most attractive – not only physically, but also in terms of popularity. Exceptions were always made for mixed race kids – most of them were half-black (Kenyan) and half-white (British) – but their place was contingent on which ‘half’ they chose to identify with more. Many, if not most, chose their ‘white’ side: to play cricket and not basketball; to attend barbecues only on one side of Nairobi; and to speak white. So for the rest of us whose skin betrayed us, the best way we could be like the coloniser was through tongue, through accent. If you had more of a Kenyan accent to your English, then you were setting yourself up to be mocked. But if your accent was more British, more ‘refined,’ then you could maybe gain the validation of the coloniser and their children. Imitation was the key to survival.
I remember having a friend of mixed race whose Kenyan side was Kikuyu, like mine. Whenever we ran into each other, she’d greet me with, “wī mwega?” in an accent thick with the foreignness of her English side. It was funny at first, that she would try and speak Kikuyu with me – (nevermind that I didn’t know how to speak it either) – but it happened so often that I began to wonder if something about me suggested that I was shaû: was my skirt too long? Did I accidentally eat my food with a spoon instead of a fork and knife, and did I unknowingly mix up my l’s and r’s when I spoke? To be “shaû” meant that you came from the village, came from a lower class, which in turn meant that you were uncultured. Maybe she thought this because my English sounded too Kenyan. I eventually begun to bite my tongue and respond to her only in English, being careful to use the same weight in my mouth as my white teachers, and not my parents.
Maybe it was the books I began to half-read, like Ngũgĩ wa Thiongo’s ‘Decolonising the Mind,’ that started to spark questions within me about what I knew about my culture and what was lost when the colonisers came. Maybe social media played a part, too. But I think it was mostly age, for I became tall enough to look back and see patterns that I hadn’t seen before. I’d now re-watch movies like Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa (1985) and no longer fall in love with Meryl Streep or John Barry’s score because I was troubled with how the movie portrayed the Kenyans. When my family and I had lunch at country clubs, I began to resent the walls that still hung pictures of colonial patrons in pith helmets, beaming at the dead lions beside them. And when we visited older relatives, I couldn’t hold back my questions: what was your life like before independence? I suddenly wanted to relearn everything I knew about my history. I wanted to decolonise.
And I continue to try. Studying abroad in Paris last year revived my pursuit to gain fluency in French, yet with this quest came the equally new position that, if I wanted to, I could also fully learn Kiswahili and/or Kikuyu. However, this was not without having to reconcile how willingly I was about to give myself to yet another coloniser’s tongue before my own. There was the rationalising, justifying that “it’s more useful to know French than it is to know Kikuyu.” But what was the use in visiting some twenty-nine Francophone countries with the ability to speak and be mistaken for a local, when my own grandmother and I had to speak in broken fragments of three languages in order to communicate?
My brother, it also seemed, had arrived at a similar conclusion. This summer, he and I casually threw in Kikuyu and Kiswahili phrases into conversations with our parents. “It defeats me how both your Kikuyu has exponentially improved since your moving out of Kenya,” my father joked at one point. Perhaps my Mum was right, then, that we possess an innate connection to our own language that exists regardless of whether we fully speak it or not. It’s between the spaces of the letters of our names and within the red soils that colour our toes.
But the larger matter of decolonisation is not as simple as being fluent in one’s own ethnic tongue. To think that language is representative of culture is wholly reductive. If all the Kenyan youth who do not know their mother tongue suddenly became fluent in them, there certainly would be some restoration of cultural confidence – yet the task of total decolonisation is much deeper, dirtier and perhaps impossible. Granted, my schooling situation is relatively unique and there are many Kenyan youth who have known their mother tongue and/or Kiswahili better than they ever have the coloniser’s tongue. Yet, their Kenyan legs fit comfortably into the sleeves of the denim jeans that the rest of the world wears; the movie screens are filled with the humour of Hollywood; and kiosks in Nyeri sell Coca-Cola and house a poster of a white Jesus Christ, a half-white-half-black Barack Obama, and a black Stevie Wonder. Total disentanglement from the arms of the West is now impossible. However, then, it is for us to gain a curiosity, a pride, and a want to seek our beginnings so that we can use them to redefine not only ourselves, but the language we speak.
Nyokabi Kariuki is a Kenyan composer and writer heading into her senior year at New York University where she study Music Composition with a minor in Creative Writing. She has taken classes and writing workshops with notable authors such as Hari Kunzru, Charles Bock and Maria Laurino and has been featured on a few online magazines as a guest writer. She also runs a travel blog in which she documents her experiences around the world.
2 thoughts on “A Child of Various Tongues”
Fantastic insight. As a Kenyan with a similar story I relate soo much, especially when you spoke of accents and names. Beautifully articulated
Your iece resonates so much with me. A Goan, born and brought up in the city of Bombay, I was too shy to speak Konkani, a language with several dialects depending which part of Goa the person originates. So I never could hold a conversation with my grandmother. Like you I learnt the language later in life. Thank you for this insight. So well articulated.