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The Era of Roadside Policy Declarations is Back

7 min read.

Domestic rice production has increased steadily in recent years due to an increase in acreage and improvements in yield, so what is ailing rice farming in Mwea? While farmers’ revenues have fallen sharply, prices have been relatively stable so, clearly, if there is a problem then it is one of production, and probably related to the recent massive expansion of the irrigation scheme.

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Memo to Uhuru Kenyatta: Finish up and Go
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“Government will no longer be ran on the whims of individuals. The era of roadside policy declarations is gone.” Mwai Kibaki, Inauguration Speech, 30 December 2002

During his recent visit to Mwea, the rice-growing region of Kirinyaga County, President Uhuru Kenyatta directed the Ministry of Agriculture to increase the price of rice paddy from Sh45 to Sh85. It is an intriguing directive. The Ministry of Agriculture does not have the authority to set prices. Although there is a state-linked mill, Mwea Rice Mills—jointly owned by a farmers’ cooperative and the National Irrigation Board—that could implement the order, the bulk of the paddy is sold to private millers. As it happens, the state-owned mill has been in limbo since November last year, when the management was sent packing on allegations of mismanagement and fraud. Moreover, farmers produce different varieties of rice, which command different prices in the market. It is not clear whether this price applies to all varieties, or even whether it applies to all rice-growing schemes in the country, or if it is exclusively for Mwea farmers.

Kenyatta also announced the establishment of a Sh500 million revolving fund for buying paddy from farmers. The most recent figures published by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistic’s Economic Survey s how that the country produced 112,000 tonnes of paddy in the 2017/18 season, of which 90,000 tonnes were produced in Mwea alone. At Kenyatta’s price of Sh85 per kilo, the fund would purchase 5,900 tonnes, just over 5 per cent of the harvest. Clearly, Sh500 million cannot even begin to finance the directive.

On the same occasion the Governor of Kirinyaga reportedly asked Kenyatta to ban rice imports because imported rice is creating unfair competition for Mwea’s rice farmers. We are currently importing 90 per cent of the rice we consume. This deficit has been growing steadily over the years (see chart) and this growth is not on account of imports stifling domestic production. On the contrary, domestic production has actually done better after liberalisation than before when domestic producers were protected. Rice production increased rapidly during the first decade of independence, from 8,000 to 20,000 tonnes, a growth rate of 9.7 per cent per year. During the seventies and eighties, production fluctuated between 20,000 and 30,000 tonnes, up until 1993 when the economy was liberalised. After liberalisation, production surged to a peak of 90,000 in 2012. Overall, domestic production has grown by 12 per cent per year on average after liberalisation.

In effect, the claim that imports are hurting rice farmers is populist political nonsense. To satisfy the current consumption, rice farmers would have to produce ten times what they are producing now. Not only is the Kirinyaga Governor an economist (with a master’s degree in policy analysis), she was previously the cabinet secretary for economic planning. One would expect someone with such credentials to have a good grasp of the rice sector given its importance in her county. Power does strange things to people.

What are the implications of buying paddy at Sh85? Paddy accounts for 64 per cent of the retail price of domestic rice. Milling accounts for 16 per cent and distribution (transport, storage and trade margins) for the remaining 20 per cent. This data is given in an academic paper published early last year. The study reports an ex-factory price of Sh102 per kilo, which is an average for all varieties, and Sh125 for the higher-priced aromatic basmati/pishori that Mwea is famous for, fairly close to today’s prices. Nice Millers, who describe themselves on their website as the largest miller of Mwea rice, quote Sh130 per kilo.

To satisfy the current consumption, rice farmers would have to produce ten times what they are producing now

Paddy is converted to rice at a ratio of 5:3, that is, five kilos of paddy produce three kilos of rice (or 1.67 kg of paddy to get 1 kg of rice). The Sh130 ex-factory price quoted by Nice Millers suggests a paddy price in the order of Sh54 per kilo or Sh90 for the 1.67 kg of paddy required to give one kilo of rice. The presidential decree price of Sh85 will increase the cost to Sh142 per kilo of rice, higher than the quoted price for milled rice. If the millers and traders pass this increase on to consumers, Mwea pishori rice will go up by Sh62 a kilo. Using Nice Millers advertised ex-factory price of Sh130, it will retail at Sh.192 per kilo.

Will it sell? My quick unscientific survey of rice prices on the internet suggests that there are three price bands: high, middle and low, which should not come as a surprise since markets respond to the different customer segments. The high-end rice is currently priced at Sh150-170. This consists of domestic aromatic rice and some premium imported products (e.g. Pakistani “super basmati parboiled Grade 1. Parboiled refers to rice that is partially boiled in the husk before it is milled, which makes processing and preservation easier, and is also said to improve nutritional value). Mwea pishori is the most expensive rice in the category. The middle market products are in the Sh120 to Sh140 range. These include Tanzanian pishori and other non-premium Asian imports, mostly Pakistani and Indian basmati varieties. The bottom end, currently retailing at an average of Sh100 per kilo is served by most non-aromatic local rice, such as the popular sindano variety. This also appears to be a segment that is served by regional trade, as it converges around the average retail prices of locally produced rice in Uganda and Tanzania.

If the millers and traders pass this increase on to consumers, Mwea pishori rice will go up by Sh62 a kilo

Whether the millers and traders will be able to pass on the cost to consumers depends on how price-elastic the variety is. Price elasticity means how demand varies with price. It is conceivable that the variety is price-inelastic, that is, the consumers will continue buying it, and not switch to other varieties. But that is tempting fate. If the higher price cannot be passed on to consumers, this would mean that millers and traders would have to absorb some of the cost. This in turn would make Mwea pishori (assuming that it is the only variety affected) less profitable to sell than competing products. Traders are not obliged to stock low-margin, slow moving products which tie up working capital. Instead of benefiting, Mwea pishori farmers may end up stuck with their paddy. But it is more likely that they will sell it below the government price.

Kenyatta seemed to have an inkling that his price is not tenable in the market for he is reported to have assured the farmers that the Kenya National Trading Corporation (KNTC) would buy their produce and distribute it to government institutions. KNTC is arguably the country’s most unnecessary and moribund parastatal. It loses money every year. From its 2017 audited accounts, the latest that I can find, it lost Sh12.8 million shillings, up from Sh8.5 million in 2016, bringing its accumulated losses to Sh227 million. If the directive sees the light of day, the cost will be borne by the public purse. I take it that the government institutions Kenyatta refers to will be education and health establishments, the military, prisons and such like. It is unlikely that the institutions forced to buy overpriced rice will be given an additional budget allocation, which will mean squeezing other items in the budget. This is how Moi ruined public institutions, one roadside declaration at a time.

What is ailing rice farming in Mwea? As noted, domestic rice production has increased steadily in recent years. In the 2017/18 season, the most recent published data, Mwea produced 90,000 tonnes of paddy, up from 32,400 tonnes a decade before. The increase is due to an increase in acreage, and improvements in yield (see chart). The irrigation scheme expanded by 40 per cent from 7,400 hectares (16,280 acres) to 10,500 ha (23 100 acres) a decade ago, and by another 12,450 ha (27,400 acres) in 2016/17 and 2017/18, bringing the total acreage to 23,000 ha (50,600 acres), more than three times the acreage a decade ago. Yields have also risen steadily from 4.4 tonnes a hectare (1.8t/acre or 20 90kg bags), reaching 6 tonnes a hectare in the 2012/13 season, to a peak of 8.6 tonnes a hectare in the 2014/15 season, although this peak appears to be an outlier bumper harvest. Still, 6t/ha (2.4t/acre or 27 90kg bags) is pretty good, well above the global average of 4.6t/ha (1.86t/acre or 21 90kg bags). Farmers’ revenues increased three-fold from Sh1.3 billion to Sh3.9 billion in total, and from Sh180,000 to Sh370,000 per acre.

This is how Moi ruined public institutions, one roadside declaration at a time

But something appears to be going wrong after the latest expansion. The data shows yields falling to below 4t/ha. The 2016/17 season appears to have been a particularly bad one, when production dropped by 25 per cent from 79,000 to 59,000 tonnes. It is possible that the reported increase in acreage may not all have been put under production. Still, it raises the question why the huge investment in irrigation is not reflected in production. Could it be another mega-infrastructure project gone wrong?

While farmers’ revenues have fallen sharply, from Sh370,000 per acre to Sh106,000 and Sh152,600 in the 2016/17 and 2017/18 respectively, price appears to have relatively little to do with it. Apart from the 2016/17 season when the price fell sharply to Sh30 per kg of paddy and the unusually high price of Sh50-52 in the preceding two years, prices have been relatively stable at around Sh40 per kilo. Clearly, if there is a problem then it is one of production, and probably related to the recent massive expansion of the irrigation scheme. Increasing the price by administrative fiat is not going to fix it. As I keep reminding these folks, they cannot rig the economy.

Clearly, if there is a problem then it is one of production, and probably related to the recent massive expansion of the irrigation scheme

Which brings us to an intriguing question. A few weeks ago, Kenyatta issued a similar edict, ordering the Kenya Co-operative Creameries to increase the farm-gate price of milk. This column wondered why Kenyatta would personally wade into the milk farmers’ woes, knowing that they are synonymous with his family’s cartelisation of the processed milk industry. Kenyatta is not running for re-election so why the charm offensive in his political backyard?

I see two possibilities. First, he could be succumbing to the temptation to hang on to power, and perhaps this BBI thing, whether from the outset or as an afterthought, is the Trojan horse for Kenyatta to succeed himself as some have suspected all along. Second, that he, like Moi, is a man out of his depth in matters economics. As the chronicler of seven years of non-stop mathogothanio* economics, I would submit that the latter is just as likely as the former.

*a child’s unintelligible scribblings

David Ndii
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David Ndii is a leading Kenyan economist and public intellectual.

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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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