Should Constitution Safeguard Ethnicity?

Should our cultural or ethnic diversity be protected by the Constitution?

How should ethnicity be dealt with to ensure unity in diversity and security of persons and property?

Should the Constitution recognize indigenous languages?

These are among the issues being addressed under the cultural, ethnic and regional diversity and communal rights chapter of the Constitution of Kenya Review, currently in various stages of discussion.

Man, it is known, is a social animal, a character who for all-round growth and prosperity, needs to identify with his/her own ethnic group, gender and generally specific identity-oriented ways of life.

To tell a Kenyan not to identify with, not to belong to a certain ethnic group or race is an abuse of common decency.

As psychologist/sociologist Dale Carnegie puts it: “Each nation (read, ethnic group) feels superior to other nations. This breeds patriotism and wars.”

Carnegie also adds: “An individual’s sure way to the heart is to let him/her realize, in some subtle way, that you recognize their importance in his/her little world (ethnic group) and recognize it sincerely.”

We are individuals first, but we are also members of a certain family, village, ethnic group, nation and race. These human differences are what makes us who we are. Diversity makes life interesting, rich and dear. The sense of belonging to a community, to an ethnic group or race, does not necessarily mean that anyone who does not belong with us is not normal or still undergoing the evolutionary process.

A sense of belonging is good but too much of anything is poisonous-egocentrism, ethnocentrism, racism and other isms are negative. If snails are a French delicacy, if dog-meat is a delicacy in Korea and Vietnam with their city streets lined up with “dog-butcheries”, please respect their way of life.

If chimpanzee or monkey meat are delicacies in Cameroon, Congo, DR Congo and Gabon, let it be. The most honorable thing you can do is to respect other people’s way of life. Do you know that a continental European cannot understand how and why a Kenyan can consume a meal of ugali and termites “kumbi-kumbi’ ?

Would you believe that Siberian Eskimos called Chukchi and Evenk would laugh at you if you indicated that you want to bathe? They would be interested to know why on earth you want to wash away God-given oils from your skin?

Among the Chukchi too, you will only get to know how a well-respected visitor you are when your host gives you his wife for the night of your visit.

Certainly, one man’s meat is another man’s poison. It is also natural to associate a people in appearance, manners and possibly thought patterns with the language they speak.

Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, says we use language for a social act. He compares language to a toolbox, which is fitted with tools for the jobs we intend to use them for, such as chisels, hammers, pliers and screwdrivers while there are others that can be used for all sorts of tasks.

Language plays a critical part in character formation for the young and the development of social values for adults.

Students of psychology have observed that language and the use of certain words can influence behaviour and ultimately one’s place in society.

The recent Ministry of Education directive on change of syllabus for the 8-4-4 system so as to teach ‘mother tongue’ as a subject in our schools is a good move. Though it is still not clear what this ‘mother tongue’ subject will consist of because we are 42 tribes, majority of whom live together in towns and have inter-married. But this is a show of political will.

Currently, there are over 3,500 documented languages throughout the world that are used in verbal communication. However, while speech is common to all human societies and writing is not. The number of written languages (those with their own alphabets) is much lower, with one estimate putting the number at no more than 500.

On the eve of celebrations to mark the United Nations International Mother Language Day, in February this year, United Nations Educational Scientific &Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Director General Koichiro Matsuura, was quoted as warning that more than 3,000 languages spoken today ( 85 per cent of the total) are endangered. Matsuura says experts consider a community’s language to be endangered when 30 per cent of its children no longer learn it.

In Kenya, how many parents are known to have discouraged their children from learning or speaking their vernaculars because they consider such activity to be uncivilized?

UNESCO says the most endangered are languages spoken in the Americas and Australia.

It adds that languages, among them, Kenyan – Suba, El Molo, Lorkoti, Yaaku, Sogoo, Kore, Segeju, Omotik and Kinare have died out. While Bongo’m and Terik are endangered.

According to the United Nations Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger of Disappearing, 50 European languages are endangered.

In France alone, 14 languages are endangered. In Siberia, for example, nearly 40 local languages are said to be disappearing. In Europe, minority languages, Basque and Catalan were targeted by repressive laws.

It is a fact that the roles languages may play within a given larger social unit, such as the modern state, is bound to be unequal. Some languages expand and become lingua-francas, while others shrink and possibly die out.

Languages also die out when they can no longer serve their community as an adequate tool for social interaction.

Another language takes the place of the dying one and grows in size and importance.

Is this the case facing Kenyan languages as well considering the danger facing vernacular, English and Kiswahili languages from the emerging Sheng?

All over the world, we have bilingual and multilingual nation states rather than monolingual countries.

For example, in countries which look like they are overwhelmingly monolingual like France, England, Sweden, Poland where French, English, Swedish and Polish languages are not the only ones spoken.

There are several other minority languages spoken in each of them. South and North Korea are the world’s two most ethnically homogenous nations because in them there are no racial or linguistic minorities.

Mozambique has 39 ethnic groups, Kenya has 42, Tanzania has over 130, Nigeria has 250, Papua New Guinea has over 750 languages spoken, though only a few are spoken by more than 1,000 persons.

Evidently, this kind of scenario calls for the choosing and acceptance of one or three languages to act as mode of inter-ethnic communication or in other words, a lingua franca.

A lingo is a language, which is used as a means of communication among people who have no native common language, like the role of Kiswahili in Kenya and the East African region.

Pidgin and Creole are a mixture of native and foreign languages and a lingua franca, which has no native speakers, are other examples.

All Kenyan languages should be encouraged, without speakers’ feeling inadequate.

As Philip Ochieng recently claimed: ” When I stopped learning Dholuo, I, also, stopped imbibing Luo culture, wisdom, history and aspirations .”

There is a need to be tolerant and that means developing, promoting and sustaining peaceful co-existence among Kenya’s ethnic communities.

Wayward politicians and people who are known to always whip up ethnic sentiments at will should be identified and isolated. Seeds of ethnic discord and disharmony should not be allowed to germinate.

By Isaiah Cherutich, lecturer in the Department of Communication Studies, Institute of Human Resource Development, Moi University, Eldoret.