The other day I was going for an out of office assignment so my boss got a taxi for me. When I got into the taxi, I introduced myself in Kiswahili. To strangers, I introduce myself as ‘Edward’ for the simple reason that people find my surname difficult. I often have to repeat it over and over again-and they still get it wrong. Never mind the fact that once they get to know my surname, they instantly prefer it to my first name. I have since made peace with the various variations of my name such as ‘Moracha'(not so bad), Morancha (ok, I guess), Maranche (Really now!).
So I told my cab driver my name is Edward and he told me he is Kamau (Ok, some other Kikuyu name that I feel I shouldn’t tell you). We exchanged pleasantries in Kiswahili before sliding into a comfortable silence. That is, until we reached an accident scene where a Citi Hoppa had rammed into a private car.
“Ngai Mbathi icio niyamugutha ma!” (that bus has really hit him!) Kamau suddenly said in Kikuyu.
“Ndukione ngari ici!” (look at these vehicles)
“Oh enyewe amemgonga vibaya” I replied Kiswahili.
Now, I come from Meru. That means I can understand what a Kikuyu is saying pretty well. In fact, I can also speak the language, though unsteadily, thanks to my Presbyterian upbringing. You see, in the local church where I was brought up, the Bible we used was Kikuyu and we sang Kikuyu hymns. We recited the Lord’s prayer in Kikuyu. As a matter of fact, when I was being baptized I was made to recite the Apostles Creed in Kikuyu. No wonder folks think Meru is a district in Central Province.
I looked at this guy in amusement. What made him think I am Kikuyu? Probably because I am bald. We all know (well, maybe except you, but now you know) that baldness is caused by wealth. And all wealth belongs to Central Kenya. The way all cows belong to Narok County. So to be bald at 26 can only mean one thing: that I am one of the very illustrious sons of the region. That is, of course, unless I am an imposter. And I can assure you that my bald spot is very legit.
“Niwashoka ofishi?” (You’re going back to the office?)
“Kwoguo no gukuiga i?” (So its just dropping you off?)
I decided to play along in my limited Kikuyu, but taking note to restrict myself to monosyllables lest the legitimacy of my glowing credentials as a son of the soil gets questioned.
“Uikaraga ku?” (where do you stay?)
“Kafete” I emphasised the ‘f’ in the place of a ‘b’ to further boost my credentials.
“Ngari cia Kafete cioyagwo ku?” (Where do you get vehicles to Kabete?)
“Townie” (in town)
“Ndirathie townie, nthie Pakradi kwansa. Ndina tushughuli kuo” (I’m going to town, then I go to Parklands, I have engagements there.)
Couldn’t this guy stick to questions that would require simple answers? I could feel my Kikuyu reaching the elastic limit and Kimeru creeping in. We did chat like that for the rest of the journey and he was either too excited or presumptuous to notice I was straining to string together a coherent speech.
This incident reminded me of stories some of my Luo friends have told me about their encounters with Kikuyu matatu crew and mama mbogas. They address you in Kikuyu without considering whether you understand or not. Some will go on even after you alert them that you don’t understand what they are saying. The incident also reminded a certain church office I visited a while back. Everyone in the office from the senior pastor to the secretary was Luo. As we progressed with the meeting, they would consult in Dholuo and let out a chuckle here or there. I have never felt more awkward in my life.
I understand we love our mother tongues. I do get quite excited when I find a Mumeru with whom I can converse in my mother tongue. In fact, I do converse in my mother tongue even with Embus and Mbeeres. I also do understand that some ethnic groups have large numbers in the city. That is to say, they have many of their kinsmen with whom to talk their language. I also know that the default language in our heads changes with the environment. When I am in Chuka, I speak Kimeru more naturally than English, largely because most people there speak it in the ordinary course of business. So perhaps some of us find it easier to speak our mother tongues in the city because we are many.
But shouldn’t we adjust a little because the city is cosmopolitan? I mean, not many of us are gifted with the ability of interpreting tongues. Even in Chuka, a rural town by all means, I cannot step into the shop and assume that the shop attendant is a local youth (I wont even point out that there are local youth brought up in the village these days but who cant speak our mother tongue). If its really your default language and you cant help it, kindly switch to a language I can relate to when I indicate to you I don’t understand what you are saying. But if you can, Swahili is best for most of the people you meet…unless they indicate to you they are foreigners in which case you act accordingly.