On January 3rd 2018, an article which I co-wrote with April Zhu was published on this platform. Its central premise: many years of political reform in Kenya have failed to muzzle dissent within the political establishment. Exactly three years later, Kandara Member of Parliament, Alice Wahome, seems to have sounded the alarm bells.
Rehearsing the message of her speech during the burial of Charles Rubia, a key figure in Kenya’s struggle for democracy, she castigated Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga (she described Raila as Uhuru’s new political mercenary for hire) as the “biggest existential threat to Kenya’s declining economy and democracy”. In short, Wahome was referring to the re-emergence in Kenya of a political culture of intolerance directed by the President himself. In fact, Wahome’s statement, coming as it does at the beginning of the year, may set the tone for opposition politics in the run-up to the 2022 general-elections.
But it has also rekindled memories of a sermon by a young Dr Timothy Njoya at St. Andrews Church in Nairobi thirty years ago, which garnered publicity and uproar in equal measure. During that New Year’s sermon, the young reverend remarked on the collapse of authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe, and speculated about the return of multi-party politics in Kenya, a bold statement at the time. While his speculations would become a reality only two years later, he was immediately rebuked by politicians, all of whom were members of the ruling party, KANU—at the time the only political party in Kenya.
Njoya’s sermon is on my mind as I watch the condemnations that Wahome is receiving for criticising the political establishment. In a political climate akin to the one in which Njoya voiced his remarks, I see the re-setting of a dangerous trend in Kenya, a re-setting whose origins can be traced back to the aftermath of the 2007-08 post-election violence, but which was re-energised by the March 2018 handshake between Uhuru and Raila.
Indeed, since the March 2018 settlement, Kenyans have become accustomed to an increasingly irritable and angry president. He demands, but is not able to command, unfettered loyalty. More often than not, he unleashes in public bitter diatribes in his mother tongue targeted at people who disagree, or poke holes in his leadership. He continues to be on the defensive regarding his under-performing and expensive mega-infrastructure projects.
The climate of intolerance that the president is creating is the public face of a deeper and much more insidious plan. It is part of a wider attempt at remarshalling the forces that have preserved the political status-quo in Kenya since independence, and which the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) process seems to be in the service of. The shouting down of Kipchumba Murkomen, the Senate Majority leader, during the launch of the BBI report at the Bomas of Kenya last November, and the recent jibes that have been thrown at Alice Wahome for criticising Uhuru, are quite revealing and instructive.
I see a dangerous trend that seems to have been re-set in Kenya, a re-setting whose origins can be traced back to the aftermath of the 2007-08 post-election violence
In an insightful piece also published on this platform, Akoko Aketch contends that the BBI exercise is a crisis of how the long-standing beneficiaries of the political establishment—a distinctly Gikuyu elite—can reproduce their domination “after Uhuru Kenyatta’s disastrous economic record, and of how to avert the possibility of having a president who is hostile to this elite’s interests.” He submits that the “BBI is a revisionist project and a mock test of a political formula that has sabotaged Kenya’s democracy since independence.”
The recent extension of the term of the BBI task-force is, for instance, being perceived as a way of creating more time to introduce radical proposals, such as the creation of the position of an Executive Prime-Minister, a position that, as many have argued, Uhuru will be qualified to assume come the next general elections in 2022. This thinking is not entirely pedestrian. While Uhuru has himself stated that he is not interested in another term as president, the push to change the constitution, his public attitudes regarding opposition politics, and the ongoing re-centralisation of power by the central government (despite devolution), leave a lot of room for speculation.
One way in which the elite in Kenya has reproduced its power is by putting the blame for the country’s woes squarely on the Kenyan public. In this script, underdevelopment and political violence is the work of Kenyans of poor judgement, political dissidents and their often-unemployed youthful followers, not the result of years of unaddressed injustices and skewed redistribution of power and resources. In fact, this line of thinking is one of the primary messages of the BBI report. Dr Wandia Njoya, in a recent article published on this platform, summarised the report as a “declaration of war by the political class against the people of Kenya”. In a painfully convoluted manner, the report, in its attempt to locate, or explain the lack of a national ethos, adopted a language that is not only recriminatory and accusatory, but is also regrettably informal.
Ten billion shillings later—as rumour has it—and more than twelve months after the BBI taskforce was appointed, the report that came out of the process was peppered with an embarrassing number of typos and presented in cheap layout and low-quality typesetting. Seductive images of the nation’s (supposedly egalitarian) past are constantly reproduced and projected, as a way of distracting from the realities of the impunity that has repeatedly been unleashed on the Kenyan public by the political class since the country gained independence in 1963. In a tragic misreading of how morality and communal responsibility actually works in Kenya, the BBI report went ahead to castigate Kenyans for “running away” from their culture, and for demanding rights, as opposed to responsibilities.
One way in which the elite in Kenya has reproduced its power is by putting the blame for the country’s woes squarely on the Kenyan public
This mind-set was alive and well during and after the 2013 elections, the first after the post-election violence of 2007-08. During those elections, which were haunted by the fear of a repeat of political violence, calls for peace intensified, and they immediately became disciplinary and forbidding. People were urged not to protest or question the electoral process. Even the media joined the peace bandwagon and began self-censoring.
In the end, the state regained its dominant position in directing political debate, and the political establishment precluded a potential assault on its privileged position. In fact, the only other time when fundamental reforms would have seen the light of day was during the protracted electoral process of 2017.
But if recent revelations by Dr David Ndii regarding events in the run-up to the March 2018 handshake are anything to go by, the critical part of the drama in 2017 took place off-stage, and the elections became a mere subplot. Seen in this manner, the détente between Uhuru and Raila was, in actual sense, a way of subverting fundamental transformation in Kenya and restoring the status-quo. The BBI, as Wahome has now warned, might be the “special purpose vehicle” for this mission.
The triumph of the system
While many people, including the adversaries of the BBI exercise, had expected that the report would make drastic recommendations that would fundamentally alter Kenya’s political landscape, especially the pure presidential system, the ongoing proposals to create the position of a powerful (as opposed to a prefectural) Prime Minister do not offer much promise either. In fact, whether it is true or not that Uhuru plans to become Prime Minister in a post-2022 arrangement with Raila as President, any cursory analysis of how politics actually work in Kenya will reveal that power (even under a parliamentary system that is not undergirded by powerful decentralised units) will continue to be concentrated at the centre.
The only other time when fundamental reforms would have seen the light of day was during the protracted electoral process of 2017
All politics, power and influence will continue to revolve around the Executive branch, whose control will continue to be grounded in its ability to direct political and economic activity across the country. In fact, combined with the minimal proposals that the report has made to restructure elections, the political party from which the President and Prime Minister will come will continue to dominate all key positions in government, producing the same exclusionary effects of the winner-takes-all system that have ailed the country’s politics since the return to multi-partyism in the 1990s.
As the year progresses, the BBI will prove itself to be an exercise that is merely aimed at reproducing what David Throup and Charles Hornsby referred to as “the triumph of the system” in their seminal book, Multi-Party Politics in Kenya. The first triumph was witnessed in the 1960s. Kenya, like many ex-British colonies, was bequeathed a Westminster-style parliamentary system of government when it became independent in 1963. The independence constitution also made provisions that took away power and significant functions of government from the centralised government in Nairobi, that is, a system of eight regional governments of equal status that was known in Swahili as Majimbo.
However, the parliamentary system through which Kenya became independent was dead by 1964. Kenya became a Republic and Jomo Kenyatta, Uhuru’s father, became its (unelected) first President. The Majimbo regional system, the next target, was abolished together with a post-independence Senate, at the same time as the first opposition party, the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU), was folding itself, citing frustration from the Executive. By abolishing the Senate, the regional governments and the parliamentary system, the first post-colonial elite-pact of domination, or the first triumph of the system, had completed its mission.
As a result, the “Imperial Presidency” was born. From 1964 to 1992, the year multi-party politics resumed, the constitution had been amended over twenty times. The amendments served to empower the Executive branch of the government at the expense of Parliament and the Judiciary. At the height of this madness (in 1990), the office of the president (OP) included a staff of 43, 230, representing a ratio of 1 in 6 civil servants. The OP became a parallel government, with considerably more executive power than actual ministries. The instability that such a structure of government can introduce in a political system—where inequality and regional imbalances are rife, and where ethnicity is inexorably intertwined with how political representation and redistribution actually works—became clearer with the reintroduction of multi-party politics in 1992. Trust among the political elite became fickle, leading to the instrumentalisation of violence and ethnic identity in the political marketplace.
After many years of struggle for reforms, the structure of the “bureaucratic-executive” government, at the head of which was the President, survived with minimal alterations. The only significant structural change, many have argued, was the introduction of forty-seven devolved units. However, the mandate of county governments was significantly reduced compared to that which was allocated regional governments in the 1960s. Responsibility over land administration, education, mega-infrastructure and parastatals remained in the hands of the central government, and as such, under the direction of the presidency.
Raila Odinga, who had become the political champion of constitutional reform, especially the proposal to introduce a parliamentary system and strong devolution by 2007, gave up on these demands after the outcome of that year’s elections. At the Great Rift Valley Lodge in Naivasha, where the Parliamentary Select Committee made up of 14 Party of National Unity (PNU) members and 13 Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) members that had been selected to respond to the first harmonised draft that would become the 2010 constitution had met, people feared that the politicians would not find common ground, risking a return to conflict. Indeed, disagreement reigned but some deals were struck, of which the most important—which removed the blockage that threatened a deadlock in the discussions—was made by Raila and Uhuru (reportedly in a room at the lodge). The deal saw ODM let go of the parliamentary system altogether, in favour of the presidential system. In addition, Raila (who at the time was Prime Minister in a coalition arrangement with former President Mwai Kibaki) relaxed his demands for strong devolution, that is, a three-tier decentralised system of government in favour of the two-tier system that was favoured by PNU. As a result, the 2010 constitutional draft provided for a pure presidential system. Pure in the sense that, not only would cabinet ministers be appointed from outside of parliament, but losers of presidential elections, no matter how many votes they had garnered, would not be accorded any public office. The draft also scrapped the regional tier of government, and fixed the number of parliamentary constituencies at 290. Nothing much changed after that.
County governments were quickly reduced by central government bureaucrats to units of administration and development, as opposed to political representation
During the parliamentary debate over the draft that took place in mid-2010, ODM MPs—notably James Orengo—continued to push for the regional governments. Raila had already hit the streets, campaigning for the draft. Orengo was left alone. The draft was eventually promulgated in August 2010, after winning the popular vote at a referendum. The powerful presidency—with slight alterations—triumphed.
Tunakula nyama: politics since 2013
County governments came into place after the 2013 general elections, but they were quickly reduced by central government bureaucrats to units of administration and development, as opposed to political representation. Feelings of exclusion and marginalisation, underpinned by unaddressed historical injustices, continued to exist, despite constitutional change. The pure presidential system that the 2010 constitution provided had worked to the disadvantage of Raila Odinga—who lost both the 2013 and 2017 elections to Uhuru.
Between the two elections, Raila held no public office, yet he continued to exercise personal influence over vast swathes of the country, where ODM, his party, had won considerable numbers of constituency and county seats. To the chagrin of many who felt unrepresented at the centre, Uhuru stated, rather arrogantly, that they—the government in power—were eating the nyama choma [roast meat] and that those who were in the political cold should be content only with the smell. A number of times, Raila would instigate programmes—most notably, the Okoa Kenya initiative—which, incidentally, were part of his attempts to change the 2010 constitution, but which, one could also argue, were part of his struggle to remain politically relevant.
Raila’s strategy did not yield the expected results, but it had its uses. It proved that Raila was adept at combining his political fate with that of his supporters. In this way, the anger of Raila supporters that followed the announcement that he had lost the elections in 2013, and then again in 2017, could not be separated from the perception that they, also, had been excluded from the political process for many years. Following this logic, the feelings of exclusion felt by many of Raila’s supporters after the 2017 elections could only be addressed if Raila himself were to become part of the Executive—very similar to the situation in 2007-08.
While it had become apparent, after the 2017 elections were concluded, that Raila was the biggest victim of a constitution that he had done much to support, his move to “shake hands” with Uhuru was more the result of defeat at challenging the political establishment over the years than it was an effort to usher in fundamental political reforms. What is more important to consider is that Raila’s support of the current Presidential system in 2010 was also the result of an elite-pact with none other than Uhuru Kenyatta, his current partner in the BBI settlement nine years later.
These developments, where the political establishment that has been at the helm since the 1960s is seeking to maintain its hold on power and control, should concern Kenyans. Despite arguments to the contrary, much talk about the BBI will be about political positions, and as the current climate of political intolerance continues, fundamental questions regarding exclusion, injustice, and accountability will be glossed over, as has happened before.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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”.
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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