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Ignoring NCIC's banned words is playing with fire

National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) Chairman Dr Samuel Kobia (centre) addressed the media at their Head Office in Nairobi on Friday March 18, 2022 on hate speech. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

I have seen people express mixed feelings after the  National Cohesion and Integration Commission (NCIC) put out a list of words and phrases that constitute incitement as politicians engage in campaigns. While some agree with the commission, others do not see the sense.

Those who see no sense, perhaps do not understand the power of words and other communication symbols. We use language to generate and perceive our reality. It is through words that we express our feelings towards people, issues and things. Simply put, what we like or dislike is a result of what was communicated to us through words and/or other symbols of communication.

A big part of the 21st century’s zeitgeist is freedom of expression. With the advent of social media, people across the world are able to easily say what’s on their minds, many times leveraging the potential for anonymity that the platforms provide to incite and spread propaganda. For example, there is a lot of evidence of the major role that social media platforms have played in the recruitment of youth into terrorist groups. Many times, the recruitment is made easier by the kind of language used to brainwash potential recruits into buying into flawed reasoning.

We have the power to name and rename people, issues and other things, making them representations of whatever we want. Naming gives identity and a sense of belonging. In the Bible, God’s creation was shaped through the power of the word – naming.

However, language is very dynamic. Words do not have any meaning except that which we assign them, and words and phrases that are otherwise harmless in their reference, can acquire derogatory meanings when used in specific contexts. It is the context within which words are used that makes them relevant. The words ‘chungwa’ (orange) and ndizi (banana) acquired very political connotations during the constitutional referendum that gave rise to Kenya’s new constitution. Words that had hitherto referred to healthy fruits were now used to divide Kenyans into those who supported and those who opposed the proposed referendum, often leading to heated arguments and acquired likes and dislikes for the tastes of the fruits themselves, literally!

During the Rwandan genocide of 1994, Tutsis were referred to as cockroaches, diminishing their relevance and, consequently, making it easy to exterminate them. I can imagine a Hutu who had lived peacefully with their Tutsi neighbour, celebrating each other’s highs and holding each other up during the lows, suddenly looked and saw a cockroach – worthless, intrusive, nuisance.

One of the words in NCIC’s list - ‘mwiji’ - refers to an uncircumcised boy in Kimeru. It is not an insult per se, because until it is time to be circumcised, in which case one becomes ‘nthaka’, he is a mwiji. ‘Mwiji okwa’ is a common phrase used to mean ‘my son’. Unfortunately, we have all heard the word misused in political contexts to trivialise and malign political opponents.

We cannot underestimate the power of speech. We might find it petty for NCIC to ‘develop a list’ of words and phrases they consider inciteful, but let’s pause for a minute to think more of the context of their use than their denotative meaning.

Dr Kalangi is a communications trainer and consultant, Kenyatta University