“Wangechi niakuhoera irio.” Shock. Horror. Panic. These words are all it takes for you to realize you have failed your ancestors. A polite request in a language that is yours, but which you never mastered. A request for you to pray for the food. And at that moment, you are a shame to your people, your family, your clan, your country, your continent (perhaps even to the world?) For if the ghosts of those who had attended the Berlin conference in 1884 would see you, they would be very pleased with themselves. “Schau mal Herr von Bismarck, wir haben einen tollen Job gemacht!” A great job indeed!
Chinua Achebe said, “An old woman is always uneasy when dry bones are mentioned in a proverb.” That is you at that moment. Your dry bones is your inability to speak your mother-tongue. And boy, did your dry bones rattle! Drinking rum with older people saying the problem with the younger generation is their disconnect from their culture. The lack of understanding of cultural norms.
“Can you imagine she just walked into the funeral meeting and said a blanket hello. “Ithui tui mburi tundu turageithio uguo? Ati ‘hi‘.”
Laughing along with the crowd and wondering—“Am I a true African, or simply a caricature of an African?”
So what do you do? You reclaim your original name. Down with the colonialist one! Heaven could not be open only to those with names like John, James, Peter, Lydia, Jane, Ashley. . . You reclaim your name, wear it proudly, like a Sunday best outfit when you were younger. I am Kerubo! I am Atieno! I am Wangechi! I am Sanaipei! Nyanjogu! Chebet! Mwende! Nguhi! Naserian! Nungari! Khalumba! Ndiko! You refuse to be intimidated by societal standards that say how one’s hair grows out of one’s head is offensive to polite society! You say down with the perm. You get an afro, a seriously nappy afro. You were happy with your nappy afro, determined not to tame it. Let them stare! You then moved to dreadlocks, savoring the little known fact that even though Jamaica has made modern day dreadlocks famous, they first heard about them when they saw images of Maumau freedom fighters. You were going back to your roots. While in the diaspora, you asked your parents to bring you Kamaru CDs on their next trip—Queen Jane, Lady Wanja, Wangare wa Kambera, Ken wa Maria CDs, Sukuma Bin Ongaro, Mr. Ong’engo, Isaac Otwoli, Sungusia, Ken Mulwa, David Kasioki, Osogo Owinyo, Princess July, Dorah Kabbareh, Kipchamba, Mega Maritim, Teddy Kalanda, Emmy Kosgey. So many CDs. You were discovering the authentic you and no stone would be left unturned in your search for cultural belonging.
You joined Tricia’s Naturals on Facebook, almost became an administrator of the group. You embraced the natural hair movement, the natural products movement, even almost became a vegetarian until you woke up with the shakes dreaming of goat meat. So you made that one concession. After all, hadn’t you grown up only eating meat as a luxury? Why would you work so hard, finally be able to afford to eat meat daily if you wanted to, only to deny yourself this simple pleasure?
You read every single contemporary African book you could get your hands on. You became a rebel with a proper cause.
In the microseconds before your prayer, your thoughts float back to conversations with your peers. . .
Kinyanjui: “I don’t even understand what all the fuss is about. Aren’t we all Kenyans? In any case, mother tongue is dying. Does it really make a difference whether I speak it or not? Really?”
Someone lamented: “I feel sad when I go upcountry. I really love my cucu and when we sit down together she tells me lots and lots of stories, but I can’t respond. I understand almost everything she says, but I don’t have the words to speak back to her.”
Rwagasore joked: “Ok. Enough with these mushy stuff, for me speaking my mother-tongue means being able to impress women in the bars abroad, when I tell them I speak four languages.”
Asad said, pensive: “I am a foreigner in this place. My language is my pride. It reminds me how far my family has come. As a child of immigrants, I don’t fit in here – or anywhere. I am a nomad. There might be millions like me, but we are all stranded on the minority bridge between majority places. Speaking my language allows me to identify with my whole self. It reminds me who I am, where my family has come from, to understand a bit better – although a lifetime removed – my family members’ mindsets and perspectives.”
Nakanwagi declared: “You guys are all being so deeeep! Banange! Will you judge me if I say I love my mother-tongue because it allows me to gossip in public places in Europe? That I love the feeling of being able to talk in private in the middle of a crowd? On an unrelated note—tell those Kenyan men coming to Uganda looking for humble wives, that we don’t bark, we bite.”
He declared: “I think you guys are taking this language thing too seriously. You know what I can’t stand? People who insist on making speeches at weddings and funerals in mother-tongue.”
I reply: “But what makes you think that you with many languages at your disposal (Kiswahili and English) has more of a right to understand what is being said at such functions, much more than a 97 year old person who only understands one language – their mother-tongue?”
“I’m not sure I want to learn any other language. I used to speak my mother-tongue fluently when I was young. My parents were from different tribes, but my mother always spoke to me in her language. This was up until she walked away 15 years ago. A few months after her disappearance, my father still used to send us children to visit our grandparents. That soon stopped when it became too painful to keep going,” Wakonyo said.
“I never used to feel too bad about not being able to speak my language until a few weekends back when I went to visit my grandfather. He told me, ’This is your home.’ I knew what he meant, and it made me sad. I never felt I was missing out on anything until that moment, and I thought, ’Good God! I need to learn this language,’” Nakhama said.
“Wangechi niakuhoera irio.”
Am I Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Mask? Ngugi wa Thiong’o says, “If you speak all the languages of the world, but don’t speak your own language – that is enslavement. If you speak all the languages of the world in addition to your own language – that is empowerment.” Am I enslaved but with delusions of being globally culturally connected?
Akelo Wich Kwot Kwom Jothurwa!
Nswaaziza abantu bange!
Nasebye abantu bange!
Nimeaibisha watu wangu!
Narenthire obosoku ase abanto baito!
Nindachambithia andu akwa!
I have brought shame on my ancestors!
“Wangechi niakuhoera irio.”
With sweaty palms, you stand up and slowly walk to the podium. In a single moment, a family gathering has turned into an event to make you question your African-ness, your authenticity. As you navigate the cobblestones, you catch a glimpse of your father’s face – a look of trepidation – he knows you are about to shame your ancestors. You turn and see your mother’s sympathetic face. She has a look that says “We will still love you.” Next to her, you see the smug auntie who has put you in this place. The glint in her eyes says it all. This is not a mere coincidence. It is the machinations of a jealous aunt who has always had a bone to pick with your parents. The same auntie who at your fifteenth birthday party, pinched your breasts in front of all the other women and said: “What are these? Are you a boy? You will surely starve a baby one day.” Now she can finally show the world that your parents are bad parents, who failed to bring you up in the proper Kikuyu way. In the corner, you see her three children, giggling in anticipation. Awaiting your downfall.
One foot on the podium, the next foot follows. Slow steps towards the microphone. A phone rings in background and you would swear the tune is “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
“Wangechi niakuhoera irio.”
“Ngai baba, we come before you with gratitude in our hearts. . .”