Wednesday, 22 February 2012

They Told Me That Speaking Mother Tongue Was Foolish

Yesterday, the 21st of February was the International Mother Language Day. I was caught up in my professional engagements and even at midnight I hadn’t had the time to write about this important day. I consider the subject important so here we go.

They told me that speaking mother tongue was foolish
And it was sacrilege to speak Kiswahili
While growing up I hated myself
My true being
I hated my culture
I despised my mother tongue
Because it was inferior
If I spoke my mother tongue
My teachers whipped me up

In my school, if I spoke Kiswahili
And woe betide me, Pokot,
I carried an offending piece of wood or a bone
Around my neck
Like a pariah, I would be avoided
Like a stray dog, I would be despised

So, you ask me why I don’t speak my native language?
How can I speak it when my childhood language was robbed off
Castigated as being the lesser one
Punished for being the source of doom?
When I counted my numbers in Pokot
Why did you beat me up?
What crime had I committed?

For the fear you instilled in me
You ostracized me from me
For the punishment you meted on me
I associated my language with pain
And the pain made my buttocks sore
And what made my buttocks sore
Was not good
And what was not good
Is what you conditioned my mind to avoid

So, here I am,
I have read English, I speak horrible Kiswahili,
I speak none of my native language,
Instead I am thinking of learning French or German
Try to learn the pronunciation, the spellings, the grammar
I don’t care if there are speakers I could talk to
As long as I will write confidently in my CV
“Can speak and write fluent French”

That is me
I talk with a fake English accent
And most times I don’t speak like the English
Because my tongue’s saliva is mixed with those of my ancestors
I am sure they sink deeper into their graves
Every time I speak through my nose

I am a stranded soul
Like a country’s border, belonging to no one
My ancestors can’t recognize my tongue
And the ones I emulate can’t hear what I say
As for me, sometimes I wonder whether I am the one
Because, let us be honest,
The real me is something deeper than the flair
I try to paint in my speech

I try to talk fast, to roll over on the last r’s,
Or may be to shrug off my shoulders
That is my fake me;
The real me would like to mouth words
And not shrug shoulders—well, from my neck of woods
We don’t do that;
My real me would want to say “YOUR”
And not “YO”;
But as you can see, that would not be cool

That is what I have gotten into
And the first mess started when they said
Speaking mother tongue was foolish.


Sherry Blue Sky said...

Oh this is a sad and important topic. The same thing happened to our First Nations people here, whose lovely language and culture was stripped from them. They, too, were beaten for speaking their own wonderful language, the language of their people. You, too, have a wonderful and ancient culture. I hope you can return to the study of Kiswahili, and that you will one day speak it fluently and teach it to your children, with pride.

echoesofthehills said...

I agree with you entirely, Koko. And this slips into which lingua-franca should we adopt as a people. English is considered the language of an 'accomplished' person. We don't read or speak much of Kiswahili or even our native languages. They have been given negative connotations. I wish I spoke much Kiswahili. I try as much as possible but the way we are going, I am afraid, our children won't be able to. That is the tragedy of our times.

madhumakhi said...

Dear ndugu,
I know that it has been ages since i commented. But i had to read this poem. It was the title what struck me. I felt what you have.

Even i was like you. Even i felt deeply ashamed about speaking my mother tongue, Tanjaore Marathi, which is a mix of Tamil and Marathi. You are a Pokot, so you have a clear sense of your identity. But unlike you i was very confused about my origins. Even now i cannot tell whether i am from Maharashtra or Tamil Nadu. That's how confused i still am.

In my confusion i rejected both my mother tongues and turned to English. I am ashamed to say that i think in English. That's how uncomfortable i am with both my mother tongues.

But my origins somehow manage to make themselves known when i speak: i don't fit in anywhere. My accent is so neutral that no one can place me. In India the state you belong to matters a lot. If you don't belong to a particular state then you belong nowhere. It was my mixed up mother tongue that made me feel this. And unfortunately, it was the language of the colonisers that helped me fit in, somehow.

But at least we're able to communicate because we both know English. I am able to get in touch with great poets like you because you write in English. That's on the positive side.

If you still feel guilty about not being able to communicate in your language, then you can always make amends. Start now.

echoesofthehills said...

What an insight, Behen! And what interesting and somewhat heartrending position we are in.

But as you say, English, ironically, binds us together and it is even ironical that it is the English language that communicated my displeasure with the English language!

We can continue using English as a tool but my resolve is that I will not forsake my native languages. I will do something and make 'amends'.

Thanks for your petitions in the sacred hills. The hills had missed your pilgrimage.

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