From accents to access, and the politics of speaking while black

Politician making speech from behind a pulpit [Courtesy]

Where are you from?” I am routinely asked, mostly by Uber drivers, many of who are immigrants, in chase of the illusory “American dream.” All too often, they want to hear my story. They also share their own, perhaps to check if there are parallels in the stories of our lives.

I tend to disappoint and indicate I really never left my country. Yes, I studied here, and I do return occasionally, but not for extended periods of time.

It is a privilege I am aware is not available to many, especially those from our homeland who lack a vital document surmised, usually in a whisper, as a mysterious karatasi.

When the same question is framed in professional circles, however, the idea of “where are you from” gains a sinister character. It is not an invitation to share your story; rather it is a signal that you are an aberration, which is affirmed by the follow-up comment: “I was trying to place the accent…” The subtext, of course, is that people who live around here don’t speak like you.

In my student days, however, the question was slightly different, though the meaning was radically different. “Where are you from originally?” they asked. It was a question directed at everyone, and it meant since we’re all making home in a new land, what’s the place you return to? That was an all-embracing attitude as there was no implicit exclusion.

Kenyans have complex relationships with their accents, as encapsulated in the witticism: kizungu ilukuja na meli na hata samaki hawakushika neno moja. It means the English was delivered to our shores via sail ships, but even the fish did not catch a word of it.

The English variety that was introduced to our people is the one used in Britain, as we were subjects of the Crown. The Americans long domesticated the English language to bear their own spelling and pronunciation. So, if you went to a village school, as I did, then schooled in the UK, as I did, and ultimately ended up in the land of the free, my linguistic mutations would have led to unintelligibility.

My teacher, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who is at work restoring his foundational fiction into Gikuyu, from English, warns Africa’s preoccupation with European languages comes at a steep price: As Kenyans and Africans sharpen their accents, Europe is sharpening its access to the continent’s resources.

As a teacher, I found the question of “where are you from,” provide a teachable moment.

These days, I start the term by declaring where I’m from, then asking students to point Nairobi on the world map. Which part of Africa do you find Nairobi? They pointed to the four directions of wind. Not too bad, I said to them. All the four possibilities were exhausted, let’s now zero in on one.

Alas! The discovery that accents don’t bear knowledge is achieved faster than I thought! Now, we’re more focused on the more important question: where do we go, from here.

Since fake, false and forced accents have become something of a national preoccupation in our land — fanned by a fake broadcast scene that champions apemanship — what happened to that campaign fronted by funnyman Eric Omondi, pushing to have a quota of local content enhanced in local programming?