Isaac Ayuma: Use of vernacular not to blame

THE OTHER DAY, A FRIEND observed that ethnic chauvinism and vernacular languages are the root causes of Africa’s problems.

To him, disintegration of the very fabric of society rests squarely on vernacular. He has statistics to back up his case.

Sudan, Liberia, Burundi, and DR Congo among others, have had trouble in stark contrast to Tanzania, which largely uses one language.

He is not alone. An MP was on TV claiming that vernaculars should be banned. Countless others wish the same could happen. I agree with them that ethnic chauvinism is a big problem, but a blanket condemnation of languages misses the point.

My defence of vernacular languages, should not be construed to mean I support their (mis)use in office. That is clearly specified in our language policy, which states that English shall be the language of official communication and Kiswahili shall be the national language.

Language is a vehicle through which we convey our thoughts, fears, aspirations, and even prejudices. If our thoughts are well-intended, so will be the language we use, be it Dholuo, Giriama, Gikuyu, or Kiswahili.

To pick Tanzania and claim that it is ‘‘united’’ because it is monolingual is wrong. Tanzania is what it is because of the mindset put in place by the Ujamaa philosophy it adopted at independence.

Ujamaa encouraged Tanzanians to treat each other as kinsmen.

It did not matter whether one was a Chagga from the slopes of Mt Kilimanjaro, Sukuma from the lake region, or Hehe from southern Tanzania.

Ujamaa failed in many ways, but it ensured that Tanzania’s over 100 ethnic groups coalesced into one, both in terms of identity, and national psyche.

Kenya, on the other hand, went the capitalistic way. Ours became a man-eat-man society where all avenues were exploited to reach the money kingdom.

THE ETHNIC CARD WAS ONE SUCH cheap route. The elite recoiled into their ethnic cocoons, blinding the masses that their problems were caused by the other group. Politicians have perfected it.

Granted, a number of African countries that have (almost) failed are multilingual, but that is just a coincidence. External factors and players have contributed to their problems.

For instance, as long as the Congo remains mineral-rich, the search for a permanent solution will be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. We also have monolingual countries that have gone the same way. The prime examples are Somalia and Rwanda.

Somalia has not had a stable government in almost two decades despite being not only monolingual, but also boasting one religion.

They are divided into clans and their ability to use one language has not helped them to forge ahead as one nation.

Many Kenyans think that Rwandans used Kihutu versus Kitutsi to instigate the horrific genocide. That is wrong.

All Rwandans use Kinyarwanda. They have even intermarried and do not live in purely mono-ethnic zones. What happened is that the very Kinyarwanda was coded to carry catastrophic messages.

Tutsis were called inyenze — cockroaches. Thus a seemingly harmless statement like ‘‘let us fumigate all inyenze’’ had horrific consequences.

Thus language per se is not to blame. It is merely a resource which can be used or abused to fit the whims of a user. The recent spate of hate-mail can attest to this. Over 90 per cent of the hate-mail was in languages that we all understand — English and Kiswahili.

Does that make English and Kiswahili dangerous?

Mr Ayuma is a Nairobi based journalist

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