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Black Sahibs: Decolonising Language

6 min read.

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.



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.

Rasna Warah

Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).


What Kenyans Have Always Wanted is to Limit the Powers of the Executive

As Kenya’s political class considers expanding the executive branch of government, no one seems to be talking about restricting its powers.



What Kenyans Have Always Wanted is to Limit the Powers of the Executive
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The tyranny of numbers, a phrase first applied to Kenyan politics by one of Kenya’s most well-known political commentators, Mutahi Ngunyi, was repeated ad nauseum during the week of waiting that followed Kenya’s 2013 general elections.

In ads published in the run-up to the 2013 elections by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), people were told to vote, go home and accept the results. Encouraged by a state that had since the 2007 post-electoral violence dominated public discourse and means of coercion, the military pitched camp in polling stations. Many streets in Kenya’s cities and towns remained deserted for days after the polls closed.

According to Ngunyi, the winner of the 2013 elections had been known four months earlier, that is, when the electoral commission stopped registering voters.

In a country whose politics feature a dominant discourse that links political party and ethnicity, the outcome of voter registration that year meant that the Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto-led coalition, the Jubilee Alliance, would start the electoral contest with 47 per cent of the vote assured. With these statistics, their ticket appeared almost impossible to beat. For ethnic constituencies that did not eventually vote for Uhuru Kenyatta – the Jubilee Alliance presidential candidate in 2013 – a sense of hopelessness was widespread.

For them, a bureaucratic, professionalised, dispassionate (even boring) discourse became the main underpinning of the 2013 elections.

This was not the case in 2017.

Uhuru Kenyatta, pressured by opposition protests and a Supreme Court ruling that challenged his victory and ordered a re-run, met with Raila Odinga – his challenger for the presidency in the 2013 and 2017 elections – and offered a settlement. It became known as the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).

In his 2020 Jamhuri Day speech, Uhuru reiterated that the purpose of the BBI process is to abolish the winner-takes-all system by expanding the executive branch of government.

As he explained it, the challenge to Kenya’s politics is the politicisation of ethnicity coupled with a lack of the requisite number of political offices within the executive branch that would satisfy all ethnic constituencies – Kenya has 42 enumerated ethnic groups.

The revised BBI report that was released on 21 October 2020 (the first was published in November 2019) has now retained the position of president, who, if the recommendations are voted for in a referendum, will also get to appoint a prime minister, two deputy prime ministers and a cabinet.

Amid heckles and jeers during the launch of the revised BBI report, Deputy President William Ruto asked whether the establishment of the positions of prime minister and two deputy prime ministers would create the much sought-after inclusivity. In his Jamhuri Day speech, the president conceded that they wouldn’t, but that the BBI-proposed position of Leader of Official Opposition – with a shadow cabinet, technical support and a budget – would mean that the loser of the presidential election would still have a role to play in governance.

One could not help but think that the president’s statement was informed by the fact that Odinga lost to him in both the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections –  this despite Odinga’s considerable political influence over vast areas of the country.

The 2010 constitution’s pure presidential system doesn’t anticipate any formal political role for the loser(s) of a presidential election. Raila held no public office between 2013 and 2017, when he lost to Uhuru. This did not help to address the perception amongst his supporters that they had been excluded from the political process for many years. In fact, Raila’s party had won more gubernatorial posts across the country’s 47 counties than the ruling Jubilee Alliance had during the 2013 elections.

While Raila’s attempts to remain politically relevant in the five years between 2013 and 2017 were largely ignored by Uhuru, the resistance against Uhuru’s victory in 2017 wasn’t.

The anger felt by Raila’s supporters in 2017 following the announcement that Uhuru had won the elections – again – could not be separated from the deeply-entrenched feelings of exclusion and marginalisation that were at the centre of the violence that followed the protracted and disputed elections.

The reading of Kenyan politics that is currently being rendered by the BBI process is that all ethnic constituencies must feel that they (essentially, their co-ethnic leaders) are playing a role in what is an otherwise overly centralised, executive-bureaucratic state. This is despite the fact that previous attempts to limit the powers of the executive branch by spreading them across other levels of government have often invited a backlash from the political class.

Kenya’s independence constitution had provided for a Westminster-style, parliamentary system of government, and took power and significant functions of government away from the centralised government in Nairobi, placing significant responsibility (over land, security and education, for instance) in the hands of eight regional governments of equal status known in Swahili as majimbo. The majimbo system was abolished and, between 1964 to 1992, the government was headed by an executive president and the constitution amended over twenty times – largely empowering the executive branch at the expense of parliament and the judiciary. The powers of the president were exercised for the benefit of the president’s cronies and co-ethnics.

By 2010 there was not a meaningful decentralised system of government. The executive, and the presidency at its head, continued to survive attempts at limiting their powers. This has continued since 2010.

As Kenya’s political class considers expanding the executive branch of government, no one seems to be talking about restricting its powers.

Beyond the minimum of 35 per cent of national revenue that the BBI report proposes should be allocated to county governments, it is less clear whether the country’s leaders are prepared to decentralise significant powers and resources away from the executive, and away from Nairobi.

Perhaps the real solution to the challenges of governance the BBI process purports to address is to follow the prescriptions of the defunct Yash Pal Ghai team – it went around the country collecting views for constitutional change in 2003-2004.

According to a paper written by Ghai himself, the Ghai-led Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC) had no doubt that, consistent with the goals of the review and the people’s views, there had to be a transfer of very substantial powers and functions of government to local levels.

The CKRC noted – much like Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga now have – that the centralised presidential system tends to ethnicise politics, which threatens national unity.

Kenyans told the CKRC that decisions were made at places far away from them; that their problems arose from government policies over which they had no control; that they wanted greater control over their own destiny and to be free to determine their lifestyle choices and their affairs; and not to be told that they are not patriotic enough!

Yes, the BBI report has proposed that 5 per cent of county revenue be allocated to Members of County Assemblies for a newly-created Ward Development Fund, and that businesses set up by young Kenyans be exempted from taxation for the first seven years of operation. However, this doesn’t amount to any meaningful surrender of power and resources by the executive.

In emphasising the importance of exercising control at the local level, Kenyans told the CKRC that they wanted more communal forms of organisation and a replacement of the infamous Administration Police with a form of community policing. They considered that more powers and resources at the local level would give them greater influence over their parliamentary and local representatives, including greater control over jobs, land and land-based resources.  In short, Kenyans have always yearned for a dispersion of power away from the presidency, and away from the executive and Nairobi. They have asked for the placing of responsibility for public affairs in the hands of additional and more localised levels of government.

This is what would perhaps create the much sought-after inclusivity.

But as the BBI debate rages on, the attention of the political class is now on the proposed new positions within the executive branch. And as the debate becomes inexorably linked to the 2022 Kenyatta-succession race, questions centring on political positions will likely become personalised, especially after the political class cobbles together coalitions to contest the 2022 general elections.

Meanwhile, ordinary Kenyans will be left battling the aftermath of a pandemic, and having to deal with the usual stresses brought on by a political class seeking their votes for another round of five years of exclusion.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

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Democracy for Some, Mere Management for Others

The coming election in Uganda is significant because if there is to be managed change, it will never find a more opportune moment.



Democracy for Some, Mere Management for Others
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Western powers slowly tied a noose round their own necks by first installing Uganda’s National Resistance Movement regime, and then supporting it uncritically as it embarked on its adventures in militarism, plunder and human rights violations inside and outside Uganda’s borders.

They are now faced with a common boss problem: what to do with an employee of very long standing (possibly even inherited from a predecessor) who may now know more about his department than the new bosses, and who now carries so many of the company’s secrets that summary dismissal would be a risky undertaking?

The elections taking place in Uganda this week have brought that dilemma into sharp relief.

An initial response would be to simply allow this sometimes rude employee to carry on. The problem is time. In both directions. The employee is very old, and those he seeks to manage are very young, and also very poor and very aspirational because of being very young. And also therefore very angry.

Having a president who looks and speaks like them, and whose own personal life journey symbolises their own ambitions, would go a very long way to placating them. This, if for no other reason, is why the West must seriously consider finding a way to induce the good and faithful servant to give way. Nobody lives forever. And so replacement is inevitable one way or another.

But this is clearly not a unified position. The United Kingdom, whose intelligence services were at the forefront of installing the National Resistance Movement/Army (NRM/A) in power nearly forty years ago, remains quietly determined to stand by President Yoweri Museveni’s side.

On the other hand, opinion in America’s corridors of power seems divided. With standing operations in Somalia, and a history of western-friendly interventions in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and even Kenya, the Ugandan military is perceived as a huge (and cut-price) asset to the West’s regional security concerns.

The DRC, in particular, with its increasing significance as the source of much of the raw materials that will form the basis of the coming electric engine revolution, has been held firmly in the orbit of Western corporations through the exertions of the regime oligarchs controlling Uganda’s security establishment. To this, one may add the growing global agribusiness revolution in which the fertile lands of the Great Lakes Region are targeted for clearing and exploitation, and for which the regime offers facilitation.

Such human resource is hard to replace and therefore not casually disposed of.

These critical resource questions are backstopped by unjust politics themselves held in place by military means. The entire project therefore hinges ultimately on who has the means to physically enforce their exploitation. In our case, those military means have been personalised to one individual and a small circle of co-conspirators, often related by blood and ethnicity.

However, time presses. Apart from the ageing autocrat at the centre, there is also a time bomb in the form of an impoverished and anxious population of unskilled, under-employed (if at all) and propertyless young people. Change beckons for all sides, whether planned for or not.

This is why this coming election is significant. If there is to be managed change, it will never find a more opportune moment. Even if President Museveni is once again declared winner, there will still remain enough political momentum and pressure that could be harnessed by his one-time Western friends to cause him to look for the exit. It boils down to whether the American security establishment could be made to believe that the things that made President Museveni valuable to them, are transferable elsewhere into the Uganda security establishment. In short, that his sub-imperial footprint can be divorced from his person and entrusted, if not to someone like candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, then at least to security types already embedded within the state structure working under a new, youthful president.

Three possible outcomes then: Kyagulanyi carrying the vote and being declared the winner; Kyagulanyi carrying the vote but President Museveni being declared the winner; or failure to have a winner declared. In all cases, there will be trouble. In the first, a Trump-like resistance from the incumbent. In the second and the third, the usual mass disturbances that have followed each announcement of the winner of the presidential election since the 1990s.

Once the Ugandan political crisis — a story going back to the 1960s — is reduced to a security or “law and order” problem, the West usually sides with whichever force can quickest restore the order they (not we) need.

And this is how the NRM tail seeks to still wag the Western dog: the run-up to voting day has been characterised by heavy emphasis on the risk of alleged “hooligans” out to cause mayhem (“burning down the city” being a popular bogeyman). The NRM’s post-election challenge will be to quickly strip the crisis of all political considerations and make it a discussion about security.

But it would be strategically very risky to try to get Uganda’s current young electorate — and the even younger citizens in general — to accept that whatever social and economic conditions they have lived through in the last few decades (which for most means all of their lives given how young they are) are going to remain in place for even just the next five years. They will not buy into the promises they have seen broken in the past. Their numbers, their living conditions, their economic prospects and their very youth would then point to a situation of permanent unrest.

However, it can be safely assumed that the NRM regime will, to paraphrase US President Donald Trump, not accept any election result that does not declare it the winner.

Leave things as they are and deal with the inevitable degeneration of politics beyond its current state, or enforce a switch now under the cover of an election, or attempt to enforce a switch in the aftermath of the election by harnessing the inevitable discontent.

Those are the boss’ options.

In the meantime, there is food to be grown and work to be done.

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Uganda Elections 2021: The Elephant Website Blocked Ahead of Poll

For about a month now, some of our readers within Uganda have been reporting problems accessing the website. Following receipt of these reports, we launched investigations which have established that The Elephant has been blocked by some, though not all, internet service providers in the country.



Uganda Elections 2021: The Elephant Website Blocked Ahead of Poll
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Dear Readers/Viewers,

For four years now, The Elephant has been one of the premier online sources of news analysis in the East African region with a fast-growing readership across the African continent and beyond.

For about a month now, some of our readers within Uganda have been reporting problems accessing the website. Following receipt of these reports, we launched investigations which have established that The Elephant has been blocked by some, though not all, internet service providers in the country.

We have further ascertained that the directive to do so came from the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) and was implemented beginning 12 December 2020, when we noticed a sudden traffic drop coming from several providers in Uganda, including Africell and Airtel. A forensics report, which provides technical details on the blocking, is available here.

We have written to the UCC requesting a reason for the blocking but are yet to receive a response.

The Elephant wholeheartedly condemns this assault on free speech and on freedom of the press and calls on the Ugandan government to respect the rights of Ugandans to access information.

We would like to assure all our readers that we are doing everything in our power to get the restrictions removed and hope normal access can be restored expeditiously.

As we do this, to circumvent the block, a Bifrost mirror has been deployed. Readers in Uganda can once again access The Elephant on this link.

Thank you.

Best Regards

John Githongo

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