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We Will Revisit: Philomena Mwilu, the Sept 1 Ruling and the Noordin Haji Show

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One year after Deputy Chief Justice, Philomena Mwilu led her colleagues in a historic ruling that nullified the August presidential election, is her arrest part of the Kenyatta State’s vendetta against a judiciary his regime still cannot control? By MIRIAM ABRAHAM

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We Will Revisit: Philomena Mwilu, the Sept 1 Ruling and the Noordin Haji Show
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It is the one-year anniversary of the Supreme Court of Kenya’s historic ruling, nullifying the 2017 presidential election. We probably would have completely forgotten the day, but the arrest and prosecution of Deputy Chief Justice Philomena Mwilu, on corruption charges, a few days ago, rudely thrust us right back to that dark period last year.  It brought back memories of the day the President of the Republic of Kenya and his Deputy, openly insulted the Supreme Court Judges calling them wakora (Kenyan president, election overturned by court, attacks judiciary) and threatened that the State would ‘revisit’ the judges who had ruled in favour of the petition.

Although it may not be directly connected to the anniversary of the ruling of the Supreme Court, the Mwilu arrest has brought flashbacks of the mud-slinging that followed the Court’s verdict, not least, the persistent online bullying, probably led by Cambridge Analytica, with that memorable hashtag, #WakoraNetwork. The four Judges must have lived through a year of terror, the magnitude of which we we will only fully understand when they write their memoirs. As a victim of State terror myself, I can only imagine what their lives have been like. We should brace ourselves for more.

As I watched the news of the arrest of Lady Justice Mwilu, the events of last year flashed through my mind. I remembered clearly a telephone call on the morning of September 1, from a prominent politician. The call was to give me a heads-up on the decision of the Supreme Court,  which was set to be announced in four hours. I remember the words so clearly – “we tried everything to change the minds of the Judges, without success.” Lady Justice Mwilu was blamed by my caller for corralling her colleagues around their oath to protect and respect the Constitution. Chief Justice David Maraga was accused of being too much of a Seventh Day Adventist, quoting biblical verses to nudge the consciences of  those Judges that were still keen to serve the interests of their benefactors. The two were singled out as the ‘worst’, a term with which I was familiar: it had once been used to describe me, in a different context.

The four Judges must have lived through a year of terror, the magnitude of which we we will only fully understand when they write their memoirs. As a victim of State terror myself, I can only imagine what their lives have been like. We should brace ourselves for more.

And yet, a year after the sham 2017 elections, not a single individual has been prosecuted for the lives lost or the billions stolen. Instead, those that wilfully put the Supreme Court in a position to annul the result of the presidential vote continue to regale us with side-shows of ‘un-resigning’ and changing office locks to keep off opposing political camps from returning to work.  And then comes Mr. Noordin Haji, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), to further insult our intelligence by explaining to us in a sanctimonious statement, his reasons for going after the Deputy Chief Justice. We are now told that the Director of Criminal Investigations  (DCI) has suddenly discovered files from 2013, wherein Lady Justice Mwilu is accused of corruption, abuse office  and other offences. It begs the question of why she was cleared by the same agency that the DPP heads and by the DCI, for vetting for the highest Court in the land. And no, before you go there, it is not because we have the newly minted Mr. Noordin Haji, at the helm of the ODPP.  The reasons appear to be insidious.

Mr. Haji probably thinks that one year is enough for us to forget the words of President Uhuru Kenyatta of ‘revisiting’ the Judiciary after the elections. He must think that we have forgotten the chills we had as we watched the president, dishevelled, with bags under his eyes, angrily threaten the four Judges.  That we have forgotten the DCJ herself saying,  “we were threatened, that is for sure because I don’t know how to clothe a lie”, last month in Mombasa].Mr Haji forgets that we saw the engineered tabloid stories that were meant to embarrass the DCJ. He must think that we have forgotten that on October 24, 2017 the DCJ’s official driver was shot, a naked attempt to intimidate her from attending a Supreme Court session the following day, which would have likely postponed the sham October 26 presidential election.Or it could be that Mr Haji is merely confident that we have ‘moved-on’ in light of the muzzling of the media, restricted space for civil society and the Kenyatta-Odinga handshake.

I remembered clearly a telephone call on the morning of September 1, 2017 from a prominent politician. The call was to give me a heads-up on the decision of the Supreme Court,  which was set to be announced in four hours. I remember the words so clearly. We tried everything to change the minds of the Judges, without success. Lady Justice Mwilu was blamed by my caller for corralling her colleagues around their oath to protect and respect the Constitution.

This is by no means a defence of the integrity of Ms. Mwilu. Rather, it is questioning the real motive behind the charges against her and the timing. Having served in a Constitutional body, I know first-hand that our institutions are the epitome of cronyism and corruption. That is why they cannot possibly be independent. Despite the academic and professional credentials of the office holders, their selection, ultimately, is a product of high-level cronyism and corruption. This makes the office bearers vulnerable and prone to blackmail and all sorts of shenanigans. The Supreme Court has not been spared.

Stories abound of  delegations led by politicians to State House to ensure that “one of their own” is  appointed to the highest Court in the land, despite the fact that an ‘independent body’ is in charge of the process.  I know for a fact, that for each senior official appointed to sensitive institutions, there are persons assigned to “manage” him or her. These persons could range from close friends, family members – including what Americans would call Baby Mamas and Baby Daddies – politicians, ambassadors, members of the security institutions, name them. It is their job to make the difficult calls and visits, deliver ‘envelopes’, as well as threats, when the cajoling fails to work. Theirs is an unenviable situation, depending on their assigned target. They often end up being politically ostracized and on the ‘chopping board’, to use one political operator’s words, when the State Officer fails to ‘deliver’. But they are richly rewarded when they succeed.

Mr Haji must think that we have forgotten the chills we had as we watched the president, dishevelled, with bags under his eyes, angrily threaten the four Judges.  That we have forgotten the DCJ herself saying just last month in Mombasa:  “We were threatened, that is for sure because I don’t know how to clothe a lie.”

With this knowledge, I find it difficult to accept the arguments put forward by Mr. Haji, who owes his current position to cronyism. We have been through this before, we can see where it is headed. The ground has been softened in the past few months in the purported fight against corruption. A narrative has been created, consent has been sought and tacitly accepted by Kenyans. We have been made to believe that we are in Season Two of the fight against corruption. We have been reminded that both the big and the small fish will be fried. Why should we decry the arrest of the Deputy Chief Justice? Is she untouchable? Those are the questions that the regime will pose as they go after those that humiliated them last September by “taking away” their victory. It is the narrative that they will use as they prepare the ground for the 2022 presidential race or, if the Kenyatta-Odinga marriage works, a Putin-esque amendment of the Constitution to maintain both men in leadership positions nullifying the promise made to William Ruto in 2013.

And in this pursuit, the regime has found a new face in Mr. Noordin. With his previous service with ‘the men from the shadows’, as John Githongo calls them, he has a lot of political capital to leverage. Over the past few weeks he has been able to pull off fantastic public relations stunts. He has obviously mastered  the art of crisis management, by responding quickly, through a detailed written statement  , to control the story. As expected, the media reported verbatim from his statement, which was also carefully crafted to exploit the anger that Kenyans feel towards the difficult economic situation,  and to lay blame squarely on the doorstep of the DCJ – not the regime’s reckless economic policies of the past six years. He also made every effort to use the statement to portray ordinary Kenyans as victims of corruption, and his office as the long-awaited messiah.

The arrest and prosecution of Justice Mwilu was not presented in the same politically crude manner as  President Abdulla Yameen of the Maldives did in February when he ordered the arrest and indefinite detention of the Chief Justice and a judge of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court had dismissed cases against opposition leaders, including former President Mohamed Nasheed.

The arrest and prosecution of Justice Mwilu was not presented in the same politically crude manner as  President Abdulla Yameen of the Maldives did in February when he ordered the arrest and indefinite detention of the Chief Justice and a judge of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court had dismissed cases against opposition leaders, including former President Mohamed Nasheed.

Washington and London condemned President Yameen; the Maldives is not of sufficient strategic importance to Western interests for its leadership to get away with high authoritarian crimes. In President Kenyatta’s case, the new East-West global power contest will ensure that he will get a pat on the back and probably more State invitations to Western capitals. The President will brag to his benefactors, as he has done quite recently in a BBC Hardtalk interview, of the success of his “war on corruption”. He will evoke visions of a youthful President who has big dreams for his country – who is focused on his legacy and fixing the economy. Of a government that has taken charge of its domestic issues, including through the Kenyatta-Odinga marriage, and is destined for greater things, including a coveted seat at the United Nations Security Council. Bretton Woods will be fed reports of a government that has pulled all the stops to fight corruption without fear or favour, and is thus deserving of their assistance to fix the economic distress it finds itself in.To use the DPP’s  words, it is a government that is “prioritizing and being strategic in our actions so as to achieve the maximum possible impact in the shortest possible period”.

For now, the show continues.

Related Links

  1. Deputy Chief Justice Philomena Mwilu arrested over alleged graft
  2. Kenyan president, election overturned by court, attacks judiciary
  3. Maldives orders army to resist any Supreme Court impeachment order
  4. JSC meets in Nairobi over top judge’s graft case
  5. Supreme Court judge targeted in corruption purge
  6. Deputy CJ Philomena Mwilu’s driver shot in an attack along Ngong Road
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Ms. Abraham is a governance and institutional development expert.

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A Scorecard on Uhuru’s Presidency

How might one rate a president who has undermined the Constitution, distorted the economy, and failed to address corruption in state institutions?

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A Scorecard on Uhuru’s Presidency
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Article 129 of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 states: “Executive authority is derived from the people of Kenya and shall be exercised in accordance with this Constitution…in a manner compatible with the principle of service to the people of Kenya, and for their wellbeing and benefit.”

The Executive (the President) must protect the constitution, safeguard our national sovereignty, promote the unity of the nation (including recognising the diversity of the people and communities), and protect human rights. The Executive is bound by national values and principles of governance. Its duties include maintaining good governance, state finance, integrity, transparency, accountability and foreign affairs.

As the CEO of the government, she also has special responsibility for matters assigned to other ministers: a strong economy, peace between communities, foreign affairs and international relations, national security, and international relations. She must also demonstrate respect for the people, and bring honour to the nation, dignity to the office, and promote public confidence in the integrity of the office. Most importantly, she has the responsibility to serve the people, rather than the power to rule them.

The status of the Prime Minister is different. Normally she is the head of the party with the most members in the main legislature. She appoints government ministers from members of the House. At Kenya’s independence, the CEO was designated the Prime Minister (PM). Jomo Kenyatta was PM for a year and then he changed the system to a presidential one, with himself as president – a system that has remained, despite strong support for a parliamentary system at Bomas.

The PM’s support stems partly from the sense that a PM, coming from and accountable to Parliament, is usually far less of a dominant figure, and her power is less centralised in one person, which was one of the objectives of the search for a new constitutional order. Another reversal from a parliamentary to a presidential system – again motivated by individual self-interest – occurred in the closing stages of the Committee of Experts process.

A reason why at Bomas there was strong support for the parliamentary system was precisely to ensure that the government was under greater control and scrutiny of the public. The Prime Minister emerges from the collective will of the people in the elections, and can be removed by the legislature by a vote of no confidence. It is far harder to remove a President.

But a President is not – in theory – some unguided missile. Checks and balances are supposedly more developed in such a system.

So how has our President performed?

The President and the Judiciary

The Judiciary is the third major arm of the State. Our President has little power to make or remove judges. A number of key decisions are made by the Justice Service Commission, an independent body to which the President appoints two lay members. However, the President’s choice has been from those who can take orders from him, not those who can represent the people as the Constitution requires. In defiance of court orders, he has blocked the appointment of many candidates. He has also criticised judges in office, especially in recent years, and often when his own position is challenged (as in elections).

The President and the economy

African governments play a significant role in the nation’s economy. Over the decades, the state has helped to establish a modern economy, increasingly based on the private sector. Governments have established institutions of various kinds to regulate economies at regional and international levels. The Kenyan government has probably retained more of a direct engagement with the economy than many. The state has also affected the economy in financial, monetary and other areas.

A reason why at Bomas there was strong support for the parliamentary system was precisely to ensure that the government was under greater control and scrutiny of the public. The Prime Minister emerges from the collective will of the people in the elections, and can be removed by the legislature by a vote of no confidence. It is far harder to remove a President.

Uhuru Kenyatta is not known for his business skills, nor did he distinguish himself when he was Minister of Finance. Yet he took it upon himself to negotiate deals (largely in secret, as the Chinese prefer) with the Chinese government for skills, equipment, and money. The very costly standard gauge railway (SGR) deal with China is shrouded in secrecy. A court has decided that by-passing the law on public procurement on the excuse of a “government-to-government contract” was illegal. There has been corruption in the purchase of land for the line and stations, little control over the construction of the line, and very little attention given to the position of Mombasa as a county and the country’s major harbour.

The environment and industry

There have been concerns about the environmental impact of many big Chinese infrastructure projects, including high-speed trains and big dams. China is financing a coal-fired power project that is strongly resisted by the local community. Evidence suggests it is not needed in view of Kenya’s renewable energy sources. The SGR has also had a negative impact on Kenya’s wildlife as it passes through the Nairobi National Park despite vigorous opposition from civil society, including litigation. The decisions on the railway’s route were made by the Kenyan government. Local firms have suffered as a result of the government’s preference for Chinese firms for construction and other projects.

The State as entrepreneur

There are around 260 state-owned enterprises (commercial, like the Kenya Ports Authority; infrastructural, like the Rural Electrification Authority; regulatory, like the National Environment Management Authority; social, like the Kenyatta National Hospital, and teaching- and research-based, like universities). The general view of parastatals in Kenya is negative, including because of politicisation of the parastatals and poor corporate governance. Their boards and chief executives are appointed by the politically powerful, including the President himself. Thus, many operational decisions are made by the partisan and the non-expert. The role of the state corporations’ advisory committees is just advisory, with little impact on policy or practice. The structure of financing and financial management is weak – many state corporations are allocated funds through line ministries. They are chronically underfunded.

When the President chooses appointees, the whole basis for parastatals is undermined. Indeed, those appointments are usually illegal. By making appointments on an ethno-political basis, the President breaks another obligation of his office: promotion of respect for the diversity of people and communities. The Constitution requires executive authority to be exercised in a manner compatible with the principle of service to the people of Kenya, and for their well-being and benefit. It is heartening to now see that many citizens and organisations have raised their objections to presidential appointments on grounds of violation of the letter and spirit of the Constitution. Self-interest lies at the heart of what ought to be public service for the nation.

A genuinely open and competitive process would far more likely produce competent appointees who are respected by the public. But even if the appointees are the best available, the whole process is wrong – it depends far too much on patronage.

Promoting or fighting corruption?

One of the most critical challenges facing the Executive is, unfortunately, corruption. It started with Jomo, followed by Moi and Kibaki, and now has increased beyond imagination. The economy is largely based on partnerships between businesspeople and politicians or public servants.

Various attempts are made through the Constitution to eliminate corruption. Article 73 sets the high standard demanded of public officers, including bringing honour to the nation and dignity to the office. State officers are expected to promote “public confidence in the integrity of the office” and to make decisions that are “not influenced bv nepotism, favouritism, other improper motives or corrupt practices”. Their task is to serve the people, rather than to rule them. But the grip of the Executive on appointments is a major obstacle to dealing with corruption – indeed it is corrupt.

Rarely are business-related acts conducted without significant bribes (to the extent that more foreign businesses, including multinationals, have left Kenya than come in recently). Corruption within state institutions (taxes, customs, contracts, procurements, land appropriations, schools and universities, etc.) has never been so intensive.

When the President chooses appointees, the whole basis for parastatals is undermined. Indeed, those appointments are usually illegal. By making appointments on an ethno-political basis, the President breaks another obligation of his office: promotion of respect for the diversity of people and communities.

The police (which is often praised by Uhuru even when it commits brutal acts against innocent citizens), whose mandate is to serve the people, is perhaps the most corrupt institution we have. Of late the President has shown an apparent concern to fight corruption. But dealing more firmly with people within his administration who are suspected of corruption should have been a policy from the beginning. The Executive cannot maintain that “others” are corrupt.

Corruption may no doubt make some Kenyans rich. But it also makes an infinitely larger number of other Kenyans poor. On a broader basis, the President has shown little sympathy for the poor, whose numbers have increased, not decreased, not least because of the current coronavirus pandemic, which led to massive job losses and produced “corona millionaires” through dodgy procurement practices and corruption.

The President and the Constitution

Uhuru has little regard for the Constitution, though he pays lip service to it. If the law does not suit him, he ignores it. Indeed, it seems that the Executive takes the view that if it wants to do something, it will do it regardless of its constitutionality. And it will only decide, if a court objects, whether it will observe the court’s rulings. Think of the takeover of Nairobi County, the creation of the post of Cabinet Administrative Secretary, the importation of the military into the cabinet, the effort to muscle in on the appointment of the Chief Justice, and the tendency to order supposedly independent officers (like the Director of Public Prosecutions) to do things that it wants done.

With such a scorecard, it is hard to make a convincing case for Uhuru Kenyatta’s government.

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The World At A Crossroads: Internationalism or Extinction

The Progressive International remains in formation. The journey toward a new internationalism — one that is powerful enough to stave off extinction — has just begun not only to defeat Donald Trump, but to build a new world that is free from the need to fear him.

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NATIONAL INSECURITY: The state of Kenya’s security apparatus
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November approaches, and the eyes of world turn to the United States. With fires raging in California, protests rising in Wisconsin, and a president inciting violence in Washington, the upcoming election has been hailed by politicians in both the Democratic and Republic parties as the most important in US history. “The character of the country is on the ballot,” they like to say, calling on supporters to turn out and vote.

But far more than national character is at stake in the US election. From climate to Covid-19, the result of this contest will determine fates far beyond the borders of the United States for generations to come. And it is this awesome power — not Donald Trump himself — that defines our present crisis.

November approaches, and the eyes of world turn to the United States. With fires raging in California, protests rising in Wisconsin, and a president inciting violence in Washington, the upcoming election has been hailed by politicians in both the Democratic and Republic parties as the most important in US history

There is a paradox at the heart of the international system. On the one hand, there is broad recognition that the challenges of our century — of climate, capital, and viral pandemic — are planetary in scale. On the other, there is a shrinking set of actors that is empowered to address them. Authoritarian nationalists like Trump, Modi, and Bolsonaro are some. But so is Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, expanding an international empire extraction. And so is Bill Gates, shaping public health from his personal bank account.

The stakes of the election, then, not only reflect the differences between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. They also reflect the fragility of an international system in which a few men can ruin the world on a whim. And unless we address this underlying imbalance of power — between North and South, the US and its neighbours, the ultra-rich and the rest — we will keep returning to this cliff edge.

In short, we face a simple choice: Internationalism or Extinction. Either we form a common front of workers and peoples that can reclaim the world from this tiny set of oligarchs and dictators. Or they will continue to amass wealth and power, watching the world burn outside their window.

Back in May, the Progressive International launched with the mission to build this common front, calling on progressive forces around the world to join the fight.

There is a paradox at the heart of the international system. On the one hand, there is broad recognition that the challenges of our century — of climate, capital, and viral pandemic — are planetary in scale. On the other, there is a shrinking set of actors that is empowered to address them.

Since then, this front has grown to include unions, parties, and movements that represent millions of people around the world, from the National Alliance of People’s Movements in India to the Congreso de los Pueblos in Colombia to the Landless People’s Movement in Namibia.

Together, the members of the PI have launched international campaigns on issues like debt cancellation in the Global South, developed a policy vision for ‘The World After Covid-19’, and built a wire service for the translation and dissemination of critical perspectives shut out by mainstream media around the world.

The Covid-19 pandemic has postponed the plans for a gathering of the Council in Reykjavik, Iceland. But the pandemic has also accelerated crises of democracy, inequality, and environmental breakdown, calling on progressive forces everywhere to act quickly and decisively.

That is why the Progressive International is convening its inaugural Summit this weekend: to map our current crisis, to reclaim our shared future, and to strengthen our planetary front to do so.

The Summit will bring together members of the Council to help set a strategic direction for the year ahead. These include members like Aruna Roy and Vanessa Nakate that took part in May’s launch events. And they include new members like Dr. Cornel West and Natália Bonavides that have come on board since.

In short, we face a simple choice: Internationalism or Extinction. Either we form a common front of workers and peoples that can reclaim the world from this tiny set of oligarchs and dictators

The Summit will convene movements from across the membership to share their struggles and shape the future of the initiative. The questions under review range from ‘Constructing a New International’ to ‘Building Power During Covid-19.’

And the Summit will invite the public to join the conversation. Tomorrow’s sessions include keynote speeches from Noam Chomsky, Yanis Varoufakis, and Naomi Klein. And they include panel discussions on topics like the future of democracy in Latin America and the prospects for post-capitalism around the world.

The Progressive International remains in formation. The journey toward a new internationalism — one that is powerful enough to stave off extinction — has just begun. But the Summit marks an important step on that journey — not only to defeat Donald Trump, but to build a new world that is free from the need to fear him.

This article was first published by Progressive international

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Black Sahibs: Decolonising Language

Because erasure of memory and culture is a condition for successful assimilation, the burial of African languages by Africans themselves has ensured their total immersion into colonial culture. This is a death wish that occurs in societies that have never fully acknowledged their loss – like trauma victims who resort to drugs to kill the pain.

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Black Sahibs: Decolonising Language
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We all know Kenyans who, after a short stint in the United States, come back home with a mangled American accent – the kind you know is put on or forced and which makes you cringe because you know how much effort it has taken for the speaker to develop it.

It makes you wonder what it is about America that makes people quickly put on accents that are not theirs. Is it lack of self-esteem, or is it a fervent desire to fit into White America? Do people who adopt American accents believe they have a better chance of being assimilated into American society? Or do they believe that they can only move ahead in their careers if they are better understood by their American audiences? Is changing one’s accent a route to career advancement?

The Sri Lankan journalist Varindra Tarzie Vittachi wrote about this phenomenon in his book The Brown Sahib, in which he describes post-colonial Indian administrators and top-level civil servants who became mere caricatures of the British and Britishness when the colonialists left India. Eager to please their former masters, they went to great lengths to adopt British accents and mannerisms – not realising that: a) they could never pass off as British no matter how hard they tried, and b) by denigrating their own language and culture, they generated even more contempt for themselves among the British, who viewed them as mimicking buffoons who had no dignity or respect for their own culture and identity.

I lived in the United States for five years when I was a student there, but did not come home with an American accent. I think it’s partly because I am multilingual (I’ll explain why this matters later) and also because I don’t like the loud nasal screechy tone of American accents. I find the accent off-putting. It lacks the subtle sensuality of French, the lyricism of Urdu or the sophistication of coastal Kiswahili.

Later on, when I worked in the diverse multicultural environment of the United Nations, I realised that American accents were the minority, and had very little to do with career advancement, so there was no need to put them on. Though race and gender mattered when it came to getting the top management jobs, it was not rare to have a Senegalese with a heavy French-Senegalese accent heading a department or a Russian with very little knowledge of English running an IT section. Most UN staffers are valued not for their knowledge of English, but for their fluency in a variety of languages. So speaking English with an American accent is hardly a plus point.

Kenyans who develop American accents overnight remind me of something Sharmila Sen, an American writer of Indian origin, wrote. In her recently published book, Not Quite Not White, Sen talks about how she used to rehearse speaking with an American accent when her family migrated to America from their native India when she was a child. Her family had moved to Boston from Calcutta and she was afraid that her Indian Bengali accent would be mocked by her classmates. So she spent hours watching American television, learning to speak like the characters in Little House on the Prairie and Dallas (probably not realising that accents vary across America; Texans speak with a specific drawl that is quite distinct from the speech pattern of someone born and raised in New England).

When the twelve-year-old Sen arrived in America with her immigrant parents, she was fluent in three languages: Bengali, Hindi and English. But in her almost all-white school, she pretended that she did not know any Indian language and did not even watch Indian movies, even though she loved them. She was afraid that her classmates might find out that Bengalis eat with their hands and that she would be the laughing stock of the entire school, so she never invited friends home. Her parents, keen to assimilate in their new country, insisted on using forks and knives, even though they had little desire to use them. She says she and her family didn’t want to be associated with “fresh off the boat” people in America, who fail to assimilate into American society, and live cocooned lives in ghettoes. Most importantly, she didn’t want to appear “threatening, unnatural, or ungrateful”.

She also smiled a lot, which she says is common among brown and black people living in America. As an African American man, a fellow doctoral candidate, explained to her, “We smile because it is the only face we can show. If we stop smiling, they will see how angry we are. And no one likes an angry black man”.

Going native

Sen says that as she grew older and understood white privilege, she decided to “go native” and not smile too much because she was tired of being the entertainer, the storyteller, the explainer of all things Indian to white audiences. She also did not want her sons and daughter to be viewed as “people of colour” (a designation she resents).

Another writer who decided to go truly native is our very own Ngũgi wa Thiong’o. In Ngũgi’s case, not only did he not adopt an American accent when he went into self-imposed exile in the US, but he decided to abandon the English language altogether in favour of his mother tongue, Gĩkũyũ. Perhaps that is why his acceptance speech for an award he received recently was entirely in his native tongue.

Ngũgi believes that when you erase a people’s language, you erase their memories. And people without memories are rudderless, unconnected to their own histories and culture, mimics who have placed their memories in a “psychic tomb” in the mistaken belief that if they master their coloniser’s language, they will own it. Because erasure of memory and culture is a condition for successful assimilation, the burial of African languages by Africans themselves has ensured their total immersion into colonial culture. He calls this phenomenon a “death wish” that occurs in societies that have never fully acknowledged their loss – like trauma victims who resort to drugs to kill the pain.

Many people of my generation are multilingual because they were encouraged to speak their mother tongue at home. While I was taught in English in school, I learned to speak and understand Hindi and Punjabi at home and picked up Kiswahili on the streets. Later, I picked up a bit of French in high school, and Urdu as well, because my father loved Urdu poetry and ghazals.

All these languages have enriched my life in ways that would not have been possible had I not learned them. Without them, I would have never been able to understand the subtle meanings and nuances embedded in certain Punjabi words. I would not have been able to communicate with my grandmother or watch and enjoy Bollywood films. Nor would I have realised that President Moi’s speeches in English were very different in meaning and tone from his speeches in Kiswahili. I would not have developed an understanding of my own and other people’s cultures or developed empathy and tolerance for other races and ethnic groups had I not been multilingual. Language is the pathway to a culture’s soul.

Sadly, the generations that come after me have abandoned their native tongue in favour of English. Some parents even encourage their children not to speak their mother tongue at home because it might “contaminate” their English accent.

At a public lecture he gave at the University of Nairobi a few years ago, Ngũgi derided Kenyan parents for discouraging their children from speaking their mother tongues, a phenomenon that has led to what he called a “linguistic famine” in African households. This would never happen in countries such as Germany or France, where German and French children learn their own language before they learn English. Nor would it happen in China, India or Brazil, all of which are emerging economies. (I have yet to meet a Chinese person who feels ashamed about not knowing English.)

Even in neighbouring Tanzania and Somalia, people become fluent in Kiswahili and Somali, respectively, before they learn other languages. A few years ago, I participated in a two-day local government meeting in Dar es Salaam which was conducted in just in one language – Kiswahili. Like many Kenyans who visit Tanzania, I became painfully aware of the fact that my mastery of this beautiful language was woefully inadequate. My only (lame) excuse for this is that in my school days, Kiswahili was not a mandatory subject.

Knowledge of many languages promotes inter-cultural dialogue and understanding, and is essential in a globalising world. If Kenyans are to be successful citizens of the world, they must learn their own and other people’s languages. And we should stop putting on accents just to impress others. Putting on an accent that is not natural is not just silly and painful to watch; it is also a sign that those who feel compelled to change their accents have a large amount of self-loathing going on, which is just plain sad.

The late Wangari Maathai said that “culture is coded wisdom”, and must be preserved. Language is one of the vehicles through which that culture is transmitted. We must preserve our languages for the sake of present and future generations.

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