African Languages Should Not be Criminalised
May 15th, 2008
In this column last week I wrote about the demonisation of the media in Kenya, as Kenyans tried to exorcise themselves of their recent ghostly past. The media is not without its faults; but to blame it for hatred, violence, wanton destruction of property, neighbours killing one another and communities turning against themselves, is simply finding a scapegoat. Such a convenient foil will make it possible to let off all the other culprits. In this case the grand architects of the mayhem are the politicians, the political class and the Kenyan ruling class in general, who whip up these sentiments and manipulate the genuine grievances of the masses, in pursuit of their own personal and class interests.
The grand coalition government (increasingly exposing itself as lacking in grand people) politicians, who only a few weeks ago, were spouting all kinds of extremist statements, are now uniting against everybody else; becoming holier than thou in preaching national reconciliation and peace, and trying to outshine one another as ‘the patriotic Kenyan’! Everyone is guilty except the political leaders.
The Nairobi Star reported on ‘radical proposals’ emerging from the recent bonding retreat of the new government: “vernacular radio stations should be closed down, cabinet ministers agreed”. The decision, according to the report, was followed by “discussions on what role the media played in the post election period” (‘Vernacular FM Stations to be Closed’, May 10 2008).
Really? I do not speak or understand any of the languages of the 42 officially recognised ethnic groups in Kenya. My understanding of the more widely spoken National language, Kiswahili, is still very much kidogo kidogo (i.e. little), yet I am acutely aware of the crass hostilities between different communities, charges of ethnic discrimination and allegations of ethnic monopoly of this or that, by one group or the other. So which media is poisoning my mind?
The Kenyan ruling elite have been quite successful, until recently, in living in grand denial of the social, economic and political injustices that have made them one of the most prosperous middle classes in Africa, as well as making Kenya one of the most unequal societies in the world. The tragic violence on the back of the disputed elections finally punctured deep holes in this class/crass delusion. Even a superficial examination of Kenya’s colonial and post-colonial history will reveal the extreme violence perpetrated by the British followed by the independence elite who perfected their rule through the same divide and conquer of the British, and turned Uhuru (independence) into a permanent burden to the masses. Somehow the elite swallowed their own propaganda of Kenya as an oasis of peace and stability. They took comfort in the disintegration of their neighbours and believed that civil wars, genocide, military coups, economic meltdown etc., were things that happen to their neighbours; not Kenya, the country internationally known as the destination for exotic Safaris, complacent to the tune of ‘Kenya Yetu, Hakuna Matata’ (no problems in our Kenya).
The decades of violence after independence, including ethnic clashes, ethnic cleansing and high level unsolved political murders, were minor details conveniently airbrushed from the official self image of the country, until December 2007.
Now that the ideologically manufactured innocence has finally been exposed, Kenyan rulers are looking for scapegoats for the troubled paradise, a paradise that has always excluded the majority of its peoples whatever their ethnicity, religion or race.
By making media broadcasting in indigenous languages the enemy, the political elite is only showing itself up as the local settler / colonial master it has always been. In that colonial mindset, the majority of the people, their culture, traditions and languages, become objects of attack and persecution. The colonialists justified their predatory adventures, oppression and exploitation of the colonised people as the ‘white man’s burden’ to bring civilisation and God to the natives. The post colonial elite continues the same attack on their own people in the name of modernisation, culturally translating to westernisation and uncritically aping the language and cultures of Wazungu (Europeans) . That’s why our indigenous languages are referred to as ‘vernacular’ and our children are made to feel ashamed of and even punished for speaking their mother tongues at school.
The current attack on indigenous language media is not unique to Kenya - although it takes different forms in other countries - and is not limited to just the media. It is a wholesale attack on Africanness. It is not just about freedom of expression, but part of a larger and long attack on the minds of the masses that must be resisted. The English language media are no less guilty of xenophobia, ethnic hatred or distortions, misrepresentation or disinformation. So why pick on indigenous language stations? Is it because English phobias and ideological biases are preferable to indigenous ones?
In the UK, the Welsh are proud to use their local language; they insist that signposts in Wales are Welsh and have mandatory broadcasts in their language. In Britain in general, ethnic minorities are not ashamed to retain and reclaim their culture and language, whilst being part of a vibrant multi-cultural society. And yet in Kenya, politicians want to legislate against ethnic media! Just imagine the ridiculousness of it all. A Kikuyu, Luo, Luhya, or any of the numerous diaspora of Kenyan communities in the UK can establish a radio station or any other media in their mother tongue, sometimes even with government support but back home in Kenya, if politicians have their way, such an endeavour would be criminalised!
I am very much aware of the role which the media especially the radio (which is still the most influential media in Africa as it is virtually accessible to everyone) can play both negatively and positively in our societies. Radio Mille Collines in Rwanda was both orchestrator and perpetrator for genocidaire elements and genocide. Still, the solution in post-genocide Rwanda was not to ban radio in Kiyarwanda, but to change the laws, criminalise hatred broadcast and publications and reorient the content of programmes in a wider public education programme of a continuous fight against the ideology from which genocide springs. The state should make laws that protect the whole of society and be willing to sanction those who violate them - whether they are media, politicians or academics, instead of blaming indigenous language. In blaming the language rather than those who instigate these sentiments, Kenyan politicians are behaving like the proverbial ostrich man in the Yoruba saying: O fi ete sile on pa lapa lapa - someone who is suffering from leprosy is busy seeking medicines for eczema!
18 maggio 2008
Kenya, dissenso sul veto alle radio vernacolari
Dopo le violenze che fecero seguito alle elezioni presidenziali in Kenya e gli incitamenti alla guerra interetnica che furono lanciate da diverse stazioni radio private dell'interno del Paese, sembra che il parlamento kenyota stia discutendo della possibilità di chiudere le cosiddette "vernacular stations", quelle che non operano in lingua inglese o in kiswahili. Spulciando la lista (non aggiornatissima ma abbastanza attendibile) che ho trovato sul sito della Communications commission of Kenya, il fenomeno di queste stazioni vernacolari è molto consistente. Il sito dell'ufficio stampa del governo, che si occupa degli accrediti dei giornalisti nazionali e stranieri, elenca 13 stazioni regionali o vernacolari. Si trovano persino alcuni stream su Internet. Diversi commentatori stanno facendo sentire le proprie contrarietà all'ipotesi di una legge genericamente repressiva. Non colpite le stazioni vernacolari, ma le singole trasmissioni violente, dicono. Ecco per esempio il commento di Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem sul sito della ONG Justice Africa.