Of mother tongue, English and growing up in rural Kenya by David Roba

What is the value of speaking English in an environment where the local language is adored? Why are white missionaries embracing our language as they preach but while at school I’m forced to speak in English? In retrospect, these are questions that I have asked myself over the years. Imagine a scenario where you are inviting two grade 3 learners for an interview in English on national television, one from a private school in an urban setup and the other one from a public village school. You can only imagine the conversation on Twitter that day.

Today, I am seated in the office with my laptop designing literacy programs for those children who are left behind. These are the children who have not achieved the proficiency required in the select competencies. Three decades ago, I was that child, deep in Marsabit County. I did not know how to read let alone comprehend. Every time I participate in a learning session that involves designing programs, tools and content on foundational skills, I keep reflecting on the events of my childhood on the struggles I went through. Presently, nothing much has changed in the schools in my village. Many learners are in school and are not able to read with understanding or even do basic math.  

Back in primary school, we never understood the value of speaking English. All we knew was speaking our mother tongue in school was punishable. If caught flouting the rule, you were compelled to walk around with a large wooden bar which we referred to as ‘monitor’. Having the monitor with you was an absolute shame and whoever spent the weekend with the monitor would receive the heaviest punishment. This inspired fear within the school boundaries and barely were we able to express ourselves. We thought in our mother tongue and were not able to translate this to English. We only developed the confidence to coin short phrases, “have the monitor” and in case one showed signs of resistance, “what have I said?” Ironically, our teachers who forced us to speak English also conversed in the local language, Rendille.

Every week a debate session was organized by the school. Most of us would feign illness to skip the compulsory forty minutes debate session. The day was torturous and we trembled in fear at the thought of arguing and expressing our opinions in English. Children from affluent families would bribe the debate speaker with chapatis to ensure their names were never called during the sessions. A handful of the learners who tried to speak in English dominated the debates. They were proud and would often laugh at the rest of us. To compound the problem, teachers laughed at the mistakes, gossiped in the staff room and even made jokes in class the following day.

A breakthrough came for many of us when English lessons were delegated to young energetic teachers who had just completed secondary education. Though they were untrained teachers (UTs), we branded them ‘Uji takers’ because they were given dry foodstuff as salary from the school store at the end of the month. The UTs were full of energy, passionate and spoke exquisite English. They presented themselves in class even when they were not scheduled to and volunteered in all school activities. We admired them.

Even with all our language gaps, when a visitor would ask what we aspired to be in future, the words doctor, engineer and pilot would dominate the responses. We did not have role models in the village, but we aspired for life beyond pastoralism. In the last year of Primary school, we selected national schools. We aspired to leave the village and explore; meet people who did not speak our tongue and see the lights in the capital city. If you want to land at the stars aim for the moon, right?

Transiting to a boarding secondary school away from home brought us to a very different world. Our minds adapted slowly to the changing environment. Every day became a learning opportunity as we discovered the complexity of language use and changing socio-cultural trends. Teachers and students alike always spoke in English or Swahili and my adored Rendille was nowhere to be heard. The Secondary school provided exposure and deeper insight. Exams were competitive which compelled us to do our best. Our parents sold cows to ensure that we always had school fees. On weekends, we would watch the news and movies. At the outset, we felt embarrassed when the other students were doing post-analysis of movies and remained dumb. However, many movies later, we began to develop confidence and could speak after enriching the broken English. The system made us to automatically catch up and acquire reading skills, though late.

As I make these reflections today, I feel more should be done especially in the rural schools. I have read the UNESCO (2005) report that underscores the importance of the mother tongue as a medium of instruction. They conclude that the mother tongue boosts confidence and academic performance in children. I am an outlier in our village as I was lucky enough to advance to professional courses after performing well in my secondary school exams. I managed to catch up with the system and I am now operating at the same pace as my counterparts.

David Roba is a programme officer at Zizi Afrique Foundation. For feedback, send an email to info@ziziafrique.org

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