In his inaugural speech in the National Assembly, newly elected UDA Kiambaa MP Njuguna Wanjiku, fondly referred to by his fans as “Ka Wanjiku”, committed the unthinkable.
He struggled to make a coherent speech in English, inter alia confusing his Rs with Ls, as many who elected him would. The vitriol against the young MP was immediate and unforgiving. Like all matters Kenyan, the political partisanship in the attacks was obvious. Azimio adherents were gleeful, pointing to the MP’s “inadequacy” and “incapacity” as indicative of the DNA of UDA.
Never mind that several MPs on the Azimio side cannot construct a full paragraph in the queen’s language. One of the governors I otherwise admire jumped into the fray, lambasting the people of Kiambaa for electing a “kagege”, translated to imbecile.
For someone who has grown in privilege and could afford to attend academies where diction was a taught subject, one can only say “wah?na humbîra nda”. Translated; when you are satisfied, cover your stomach.
But apart from the comments inflamed by politics, what amazed me was the myriad of otherwise rational Kenyans who made virulent attacks on the MP, suggesting that it was a mark of incompetence and non-intelligence to speak so poorly in English. Many believed he should have chosen to speak in Swahili instead of embarrassing his constituents with his unimpressive command of the queen’s tongue. Let me start with a confession. I went to primary school in the village and in the high school I attended, 95 per cent of the students were Kikuyu. I therefore routinely struggle with my Rs and Ls and find myself occasionally translating my English direct from my mother’s tongue.
I am therefore instinctively sympathetic to Hon Ka Wanjiku. But at a more serious level, I am amazed at how we, in this post-colonial continent, equate flawlessly, non-accented (Western accents are acceptable) with intelligence.
An Italian, nay a Chinese, may struggle through the language, but we never assume that her non-command of English is evidence of dumbness. We are somehow accommodating of such “inadequacies” since English is not their original tongue.
Indeed, in many circumstances, we find it cute as they talk about “lice” while they intend to order a product associated with Mwea.
Even more interesting, we never assume that an Englishman’s or even a local Kenya’s inability to speak Swahili is evidence of foolishness. Of course, it is not their primary tongue. In these circumstances, we are more interested in the substance of the ideas they are communicating, recognising that language is only a medium for communication. What amazed me in the KaWanjiku debate was that few commented on the substance of what he was stating, which by the way was solid. No one argued that the functions of a legislator required command of flawless English, for instance that he couldn’t comprehend debate, or engage in committee.
None were concerned with his context, that the orphaned son of a single mother had come this far, and what that said about his character and competence. What concerned many was that he couldn’t speak flawlessly in the queens’ tongue. This fascination with flawless English is evidence that while we became politically independent 50 years ago, our minds remain enslaved to notions of English and Western superiority.
This approach, that elevates things Western to a pedestal and degrades things African, is the same one that rejects traditional weddings for “white weddings” whose content we do not even comprehend. That demonises muratina but celebrates French wine. How I pray that our assessment of substance, or capacity, will be based on objective factors that assess essence.
We must quote Ngugi, decolonise our minds. And to quote Bob Marley, we must emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, otherwise, we remain in cultural and ideological chains.