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Kenya reeling from a crisis of language

OPINION
By Ted Malanda | May 31st 2021
ODM leader Raila Odinga and President Uhuru kenyatta and at Wagai in Siaya County on May, 30, 2021. (Collins Oduor, Standard)

The master of the political jab is arguably the Right Honourable Raila Amolo.

In days gone by, his warm-up act was performed with great skill by the now-departed politician Otieno Kajwang, a lawyer whose outlandish comedy on the podium hid a razor-sharp mind.

Kajwang would mount the dais dressed in a flowing ‘African’ print shirt, flywhisk in hand. He would dance briefly to a meaningless but highly popular song and then, face contorted with suppressed mirth, wave his flywhisk dramatically, sting left and right and pass the baton to the son of Adonija, le grand maître.    

The beautiful thing about Mr Odinga is that when he tosses a political jab in your direction, it is often wrapped in such beautiful language and delivered with such skill that you can’t help laughing at yourself. One remarkable thing about Raila’s famous putdowns is that they are delivered in Swahili, a language he could barely speak 30 years ago. But the man from Luo Nyanza who was educated in East Germany has tutored himself to the extent that he holds court effortlessly in Mombasa – throwing a proverb here, a msamiati there.

The same cannot be said of many of our politicians. They are barely coherent in Swahili and, unfortunately, their English is no better.

In their defence, the crisis of language is a national phenomenon. We neither write nor speak decent English, or our mother tongues for that matter. And it is worse among the youths.

Now, I have heard it argued that English is not a measure of intelligence. What nonsense! How do you acquire intelligence if it is taught to you in a language you can barely comprehend? Have you ever met a doctor, an architect or an engineer whose English is rubbish?

The odium in our political and social media spaces can be explained in part by our inability to wrap a choice insult in fine, colourful language. 

 

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