Languages: living on borrowed time
When asked about his ethnicity, 10-year-old Jeff Machogu has no reservations. “I’m a Luo,” he says with a chuckle. His father, Robert Oduol, one of Kenya’s top journalists, just shakes his head in amazement as Jeff’s younger brother, Roy Odhiambo, screams in the background, “I’m also a Luo.”
The two boys are firmly convinced that their family is Luo – Kenya’s second-largest ethnic group – because they speak the language, observe the community’s customs, and have a rural home near Lake Victoria, which is the heartland of the Luo. However, the boys’ father knows otherwise.
“My family,” he told AFRICANEWS, “is of Bantu origin, having descended from the Suba ethnic group, a Bantu community that fled to Kenya and Tanzania fearing political persecution in Uganda in the 16th century. Yet most people think we’re Luo.” Hence, he points out, his children are Bantus.
“In the Luo society, children’s ethnic identity is determined by their paternal origins,” says Oduol. “Therefore Jeff and Roy are Suba, a fact they don’t know yet. But for the time being, I prefer them to stay in ignorance. I don’t think now is the time to tell them their true identity as I don’t want them developing an identity crisis at a young age.”
But when he eventually decides to reveal their ethnic origins to them, it will be as inconsequential as it will be symbolic, since the Suba as a distinct ethnic group are extinct, courtesy of two centuries of active and passive assimilation by their more aggressive Nilo-Hamitic neighbours, the Luo.
Their Suba ancestry only exists in their mythology; the Suba are content to refer to themselves as Luo. Kenya’s 1999 national census estimated their number to be 83,000, though pure Suba speakers weren’t identified. Indeed, when in 1995 President Daniel arap Moi carved a new district, Suba, out of the Luo-dominated Homa Bay district, cartoonists had a field day caricaturing how a Suba looks like. They’re fictitious people who couldn’t be found, concluded one cartoonist.
That, however, hasn’t discouraged Robert from naming his sons with names from both worlds: Nilotic, and Bantu. “Jeff’s surname is Machogu, a Bantu name for an elephant, while Roy’s is Odhiambo, a common Luo name which means one born in the evening,” says Oduol, whose wife, Helen, is a pure Luo.
The demise of the Suba has been a thorough one, fuelled by a pre-colonial ethnic colonialism imposed by the Luo, sustained intermarriage between the two communities, and an inconsiderate colonial policy that crafted borders that effectively cut off the Kenyan Subas from their kin in Tanzania and Uganda.
The end result are hybrid Luos such as Oduol – fluent in Luo, with Luo wives and names – who cannot speak their extinct mother tongue, practice their culture, and pass their own history to youngsters such as Jeff and Roy. “I’m only a Suba in name,” he muses.
According to Oduol, the intensity of the Luo onslaught has been sustained by a Luo custom that bans marriages between people from the same clan. Consequently, men from this Nilo-Hamitic society, being largely a socially conservative community, headed westwards, raiding and wooing Subaland for women so as to start families.
Ironically, the name “Suba” itself is a name that was given by the Luo to the people who fled Uganda. In actual fact, these people are called “abakunta.”
The colonial government didn’t help matters when, in its quest to seduce the politically versatile Luo, it set up most of the area’s health centres, schools, and trading centres in Luoland, forcing ambitious Subas to head to Luoland. With their demographic insignificance, it was a matter of time before they were finally vanquished, culturally and linguistically. A century ago, they occupied the area from present day Homa Bay district in south-western Kenya to Lake Tanganyika in neighbouring Tanzania, in addition to Lake Victoria’s Rusinga and Mfangano Islands. Nowadays, their remnants are only found in tiny pockets in Homa Bay, Gwassi, Wuond, and Kaskgiri areas.
The Suba, or whatever remained of them, have stopped circumcising their sons, like what is done in most Bantu communities, and opted for the removal of the lower six teeth, as is common in most Nilotic groups. Also gone is their naming system that was based on animals, plants, and natural phenomena; in came the Luo version based on time and objects. The Subas, known to be agriculturalists, have also ditched the hoe for the rod, since fishing is the main economic occupation in Luoland.
The fate that has befallen Oduol’s people is similar to what 15 other ethnic groups in Kenya are now facing, according to a recent report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO). Issued on February 20, the report not only confirmed the demise of the Suba language and nine others, but issued a red flag for four more groups whose identity and language will soon become extinct if authorities don’t do something fast. Apart from Suba, the other dead languages are: Oropom; Lorkoti; Yaaku, Sogoo; Kore; Segeju; Omotik; and Kinare.
El Molo, Bong'om, and Terik (Tiriki), spoken by a sub-tribe of the populous western Kenya Bantu Luhya community, have been classified as “seriously endangered.” Two Cushitic languages are in the same dire straits: Dahaalo, spoken in Kenya’s coastal area; and Burji, which is being wiped out in the northern district of Marsabit by another Cushitic language, Borana. As of now, only pockets of Burji speakers reside in Marsabit, the largest town in northern Kenya, after most were killed and thousands fled following ethnic violence in 1995.
Although the El Molo – Kenya’s smallest community occupying some of the remotest parts of northern Kenya – is relatively isolated from outside influence, concern has been mounting that the community is on its way out. The remoteness of their habitats might have cushioned their culture, but frequent raids by nomadic tribesmen from southern Ethiopia and diseases have left the El Molo community teetering on the brink of extinction. Matters have been made worse by a sustained assimilation of the community through raids and intermarriage by their more populous neighbours, the Turkana.
Larger groups near the tiny Bantu community of the Tiriki, who occupy parts of Kakamega and Vihiga Districts in western Kenya, have laid similar siege. Two populous sub-tribes of the Bantu Luhya community, the Idakho and Maragoli on the one hand and the Nandi, a sub-tribe of the Nilo-Hamitic Kalenjin community on the other, have been fighting to linguistically obliterate the Tiriki for most of the last 50 years. This is through frequent intermarriage, encroachment on Tirkiland, and encouragement of Tirkis to seek employment from their home areas.
With 16 languages on the death list, Kenya far surpasses neighbouring Uganda, where six languages are under threat, and Tanzania, where eight languages are soon to disappear. Other African countries that UNESCO has branded as “crisis areas” are Nigeria, Sudan, Cameroon, and Ethiopia, which the U.N. agency says has”high language mortality.”
As per UNESCO guidelines, a language of any community is considered endangered if it is no longer learned by children, or at least by a large part of children (at least 30 percent). Currently, says the report, between 500 and 600 of Africa’s 1,400 or so languages are in decline, with 250 of the latter being under immediate threat of disappearing forever.
This does not surprise Ezekiel Alembi, a linguistics lecturer at Kenyatta University. “The current socio-economic systems in Africa mean that some of the languages can’t survive for long,” he says, pointing an accusing finger at urbanization and a lack of parental guidance. “These two,” he says “are the biggest threat to diversity of languages.”
Wanguhu Nganga, a Kenyan politician who has researched issues of ethnicity concurs, saying that intermarriages, ethnic fights and the penchant by the government for multi-ethnic languages such as English and Kiswahili have brought about the sad status. These, he says, have been promoted at the expense of the vernaculars, especially in the urban areas, ensuring a slow but steady eradication of some local languages.
For Oduol, the exit of the Subas has meant a loss of his cultural identity and history. “Language is one of the cornerstones of any culture and society,” he says. “It cements the unique identity of a group, history, and expresses that particular group’s concerns and needs in its vocabulary. Sadly I don’t have that,” he says, pointing out that he doesn’t “have any Suba folktales to tell my kids.”
Jared Diamond, an American professor of physiology at the University of California, agrees as he comments on UNESCO’s report. “Languages carry the culture, the literature and the music of that particular community.” Because language is the vehicle of culture, when a people lose their language, they tend to lose their cultural identity and often end up demoralised, have a low image of themselves, and become a burden rather than a contributor to the national income, he adds.
Tim Hirsch, an environmental correspondent with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), observes that there is a definite linkage between the Turkana language and the community’s survival. Hirsch notes that in this Nilo-Hamitic ethnic group that lives near the Kenya-Sudan border in the northwest, language is very powerful.
“Their language holds vital secrets about the environment in which they live,” he says. “The Turkana plan their crop planting around the behaviours of birds such as the ground hornbill and the green Hoopoe, which they revere as prophets of rain.