Longalonga on Citizen TV has become one of my favorite TV shows of late. If you aren’t familiar with the show, it the last segment of 7 p.m. Friday news. I envy just how fluent the news anchors at 7 p.m. are in Swahili. I should be that fluent – that versatile with the Swahili diction as much as I am with this foreign tongue. A tweet I came across recently reminded me of just how much of an offense it used to be to speak Swahili across primary and high school. In primary school, we had one day for which Swahili use was permitted. On other days though, it was a punishable offense to be caught by “the authorities” speaking Swahili.

The same case applied in high school, where the punishment was more creative. I particularly recall that verse-speaking was the penalty for being caught speaking Swahili on any day other than Wednesday. Verse-speaking involved cramming a passage (often the Desiderata or IF poem, but it was up to the prefect to choose any text he wished) and reciting it after a few days to the relevant prefect. Writing about said punishment temporarily fazed me, simply recalling the amount of BS we went through in the name of education. But we’re still alive, and Kenya isn’t burning (yet). I’m no prophet of doom, but you can only have so much inequality until it’s too much. I digress.

Swahili is a beautiful language. Don’t you just love it when people from the Coast speak to you in that fluent Swahili drawl. Mmmh. I already know it’s one of the two official languages, but too much emphasis is still placed on English rather than Swahili, a tongue born on our very own African East Coast. Emphasis on “this our very own”. Swahili is a language we can own. Unlike English, which was birthed in a region that has winter…and snow. The only place I’ve seen snow is on TV. A language comes laden with its geographical origins. To use a language is to accept its history, the history of its peoples, their tradition, cultures, norms and other thingamajigs. That’s why many English expressions don’t immediately make sense because we are far removed from the context within which that phrase was created. I understand that in this information age the etymology of most words and phrases can be swiftly traced. Hence, we can easily find out that the word “house” has Germanic origins in the word haus. However, just because we can explore the history of the language, does not mean we’ll own it. We’ll understand it better, yes, but it will never be ours.

I’m a Kisii by ethnicity, but I don’t know Ekegusii. I might understand a few words and phrases here and there, but in an actual conversation, I’m out. I’ll hardly understand half the things being said. I’m envious of people who can speak their “mother-tongue”. Because for 99% of them, they didn’t have to consciously learn it – they learnt it by default. It was the language that their mother/father/guardian spoke. My mother spoke English. She speaks multiple languages, on top of her mother tongue, Gusii, but has never once addressed me in Gusii – Even Swahili is a rare occurrence. English might as well literally be my mother tongue. For me though, Swahili is my mother tongue. It’s what I’ve spoken throughout life with family, friends, and a majority of the people I encounter on a daily basis.

Back to Citizen TV. Each week Longalonga introduces me to a new Swahili word or phrase. Now I know that buzi  means sponsor (yes, that kind of sponsor…not those who sponsor events and sports teams) and kwenda kwikwi means hiccupping. Kiswahili ni lugha tamu, sio?

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