Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Trials of a Gikuyu Writer

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Trials of a Gikuyu Writer

Article excerpt

Mwangi [*] wa Mutahi

Kenyan novelist Mwangi wa Mutahi is now an ardent defender of his native Language but he was once as hostile to it as some of his own teachers

I was born into a peasant family in 1963, the year Kenya gained independence. My sole language, as a child, was Gikuyu. It was the language in which we sang songs, narrated stories, exchanged riddles or merely chatted, while around us adults conversed in proverb-loaded exchanges. To the best of my recollection, Gikuyu, spoken by about 22 per cent of the Kenyan population, was the only language we were taught during the first three years at school, although I had learnt the English alphabet in nursery school. In our fourth year, English was reintroduced, and we had to bid farewell to Gikuyu. From there on, speaking or writing in our mother tongue was forbidden by school rules. Speaking it exposed us to beating and punishment, and in some cases temporary expulsion. The resentment with which Gikuyu and other African languages were treated in my school was almost universal in Kenyan primary schools. In the mind of my educators, African languages were not actually languages but primitive vernaculars.

For a while, before and after my college studies, I taught in secondary school, an experience which gave me the opportunity to show my own attitudes towards African languages. Would I be able to nurture Gikuyu in my students, or would I worship foreign languages while despising my own? Not surprisingly, I turned out to be as good a disciple of the colonial heritage as my fellow teachers who worked hard to enforce the school rules. I found myself beating and punishing students whenever and wherever they attempted to speak in their mother tongue. Like many before me, I found myself adopting the colonial doctrine according to which speaking and learning African languages stunt the student's ability to learn. And because the national examinations were in English, students were easily convinced that they needed to master this language in order to excel.

Decades after acquiring political independence, the colonial system of education remains intact. No significant policy changes in the teaching of Kenya's languages--the country counts about 40--have been made. With the exception of Kiswahili, proclaimed by the late leader Jomo Kenyatta as an official language along with English, the government tends to look upon local languages as a threat to national unity. Emphasis is still put on excelling in English-language examinations, and plenty of African educators uphold this system. It is the route to prestige, to potential studies and jobs, locally and abroad.

Writer's block

For me, the turning point came at the age of 32, when I sat down to write my first novel. At the time I was living in the United States, working as a research scientist. In writing Ngoima, I wished to portray the independent Kenyan government in its true neo-colonial colours. I wanted to write for an audience of peasants, workers and dispossessed people. My story exposes issues of corruption and neglect in the health care system through a woman who runs into complications during her pregnancy.

I began writing in English, but after the first two paragraphs I realized that the message that I wanted to deliver, in my mind, was in Gikuyu. …

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