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Reclaiming Our Intelligence
Marilyn Robb

November 11 & 12

Knowing our

December 2 & 3

Language Liberation in Kenya

In November 2018 we had a Language Liberation Workshop for East and Central Africa. It was held in Nairobi, Kenya, and led by Xabi Odriozola, the International Commonality Reference Person for Languages and Interpreting. Inaki Mata Hoz was his assistant, and Janet Wambui was the organizer.

The workshop made me aware of language oppression as a strategy for assimilating people into the so-called dominant culture. In our country the British colonizers took over every resource. We were put in reserve areas, and our land was converted into British large-scale farming of cash crops. Capitalism was introduced in the process.

Africans were forced to work on the farms. Education was available up to the fourth grade so that Africans could understand the colonizers’ language and keep records of resources, such as milk, tea, and coffee. People in the reserve areas were poor and desperate for any opportunity the colonizers might provide.

In school we were forced to learn English. Any child caught speaking in the mother tongue was severely punished. African teachers (with a fourth-grade education) were punished if they failed to punish children caught speaking in their mother tongue. Those who spoke in it were sometimes forced to wear a rough sack over their school uniform to show that they were defiant and had broken the rule.

We tried our best to learn English. It was the language of opportunity. It was the language of survival.

The process was one of assimilation. Our language was made to look inferior. We lost our identity. We were left with shame, guilt, and disconnection from our people. I felt afloat, like a ship without a sailor. I came to believe the lies of the colonizer. I internalized the idea that everything about my people was bad. I felt ashamed of my language and looked down on those who were unable to express themselves in English.

Language oppression was a strategy for destroying not only the first targeted generation but also the generations that followed. The English language came as a package that included British culture, lifestyle, food, and history and the looking down on everything we were.

African children who went to British schools in the 1960s became unable, without an interpreter, to communicate with their families in the villages and rural areas. The children were considered superior, and they looked down upon their families.

At the workshop I was able to discharge on all that I had lost.

The colonizers knew that the infrastructure they’d established would go on, even if they were no longer present. Our leaders have continued the colonizers’ “divide and rule” strategy, using our separation from each other to pave, often with blood, their way to top political positions.

At the workshop I and others translated what the speakers were saying into our own languages. I learned that when I am using my own language I think more clearly; I am more confident; I do not have to think about grammatical errors; my speech flows.

I realized that no language is bad or difficult. I also realized that language is everything that a person is. I have decided that language liberation will be one of my liberation projects.

From the participants’ feedback I learned that the workshop was a major turning point. Everybody went home fully charged, with sleeves rolled up, ready to get started on this additional project.

I want to thank Xabi for his good work and encourage him to do more of it on this continent. Colonialism has had long-lasting effects here.

Wanjiku Kironyo

Regional Reference Person for
Northern Africa and East Africa

Nairobi, Kenya


Last modified: 2019-05-02 14:41:35+00