I wish I grew up speaking my mother tongue. I really do. If I could go back to the past, that’s one thing I would change. I would ask my mother to speak to me consistently until I spoke back.
I used to, once upon a time. You see, I was born and lived my formative years in Nyeri town Central Kenya. At 2 years old, I was that cute little toddler who could speak Gîkûyû fluently. It was literally my first language. But when I started nursery school, I quickly forgot it in favour of English and Swahili.
That’s what happens when you move to Nairobi.
So I grew up as that city child who “can hear a little but can’t speak”, as my aunties used to say. It was meant to be a sort of consolation for not joining in their conversations. And because of my little knowledge, I missed a lot of the hot gossip in the salon every other week. Sometimes it was about me not cooperating; I could feel it even though I could not prove it.
I loved and dreaded travelling upcountry during Christmas. During those annual visits, I was among the children being laughed at for replying to Gîkûyû greetings in Swahili. That was the luxury of growing up in shagz. You could sit on your high horse and laugh at the poor born taos. I let them have it, even though it still stung.
Maybe this shame is what drove me to enrol in a Gîkûyû class after class 8. Because like French or German, there are physical classes for Kenyan languages. So during December, I joined a group of curious adults at Community near Upperhill Nairobi to learn Gîkûyû grammar; I must have been the youngest in the class.
Unfortunately, I quickly forgot what I had learnt because I barely practised reading, writing or speaking it when I joined high school the next year.
I gave up trying after that. After all, it was too late for me.
Four long years later, I was finally in university – and not just any university but the United States International University of Africa! I could speak English and Swahili fairly well, and I was learning French, my favourite foreign language. But I still felt something was missing.
Going back to basics
Everything changed in 2017. That is the year I first heard Shuga Mami by Ayrosh. But who was this cool kid singing this insanely catchy Afro-pop song in Gîkûyû? And how was he making mugithi sound so fresh?
My innate curiosity led me to meet him, befriend him and become one of Mûrasta’s biggest fans.
I later learnt the reason why he could speak and sing in Gîkûyû so well is that he grew up in Maragua, Central Kenya. He was one of the lucky ones.
Even though my ignorance was excused, I still felt left out amongst my Gîkûyû speaking friends. I couldn’t contribute anything to the conversations, not with my limited vocabulary of “îîni” and “thengio”. My cousins, now older but not wiser, would still mock me at family gatherings for being the clueless Gîkûyû.
But the thing I regret the most is being unable to talk with my grandmother for more than a minute. The matriarch of the family knew a lot of Gîkûyû but very little Swahili, let alone English. The privilege to hear the wild stories of her life was only reserved for relatives who could understand her.
With time I realized I wasn’t the only one. I met many more young people who were itching to learn their native language. Like me, they were tired of being left out of inside jokes. They wanted to reconnect with the culture they had been stripped of by growing up in this multicultural city.
And it all starts with knowing your language – so you can absorb ancient knowledge from tribal elders and read important books written about your people.
It is said music can help you learn a language. Maybe that’s why I love Kenyan Afro-fusion musicians so much; they teach us our local languages through their magical music. And so I started listening to more Gîkûyû music, from Kwame Rigii to Joseph Kamaru. I read a couple of Gîkûyû blogs too, aided by the little grammar I had learnt in that Gîkûyû class.
Some African history books by Maina wa Kinyatti were still too complex for me.
From learning Gîkûyû online through blogs and vlogs, I picked up a couple of new words and added them to my growing dictionary. But it was not enough. I had basic theory, now I needed practice.
Another spark was lit in 2019. I was attending my friend’s graduation party at his home one afternoon. Back when we still had public parties, remember?
To be honest, I’ve always admired how his family, from the children to the parents, speak Gîkûyû to each other. Even in the middle of suburban Nairobi.
On my latest visit, his ever friendly father seems to read my mind. What language do you speak at home? Your mum should speak to you in Kikuyu!
I went home that night and thought about it. Yes, it’s her responsibility to teach me our language – I reasoned. It’s called mother tongue for a reason, right?
So a few days later, I gathered some guts and told her I wanted her to speak to me in Gîkûyû from then on. And she did – for one day. Then she forgot and we continued with our usual programming.
But when I came back from my Kilifi New Year 2020 extended stay, I noticed something. Whenever she was with her friend who’s a regular guest, they always spoke in Gîkûyû. But when she addressed me, she would swiftly switch to English.
“Why do you do that?” I enquired one day. “Oh,” she realized her mistake. From that day, she vowed to speak to me in Gîkûyû. And whenever she would go back to her default settings, I would reply in Gîkûyû. And she would remember her promise.
Stuck in Murang’a
It’s as if the universe wanted to help me out. In March 2020, we travelled upcountry for my grandmother’s burial. It was around the same time that Covid-19 had just touched down in the country and events in Nairobi and all over Kenya were being cancelled one by one. Because of this, I carried a bag of clothes to last me for one week in the countryside. After all, no dundain was waiting for me in the city.
One week turned into three months of “lockdown” in Murang’a. Those were some of the best months of my life. Other than the fresh air, endless greenery, abundant food and freedom to move, I finally had the chance to work on my lifelong goal.
The same cousins and aunties who would laugh at me were now the ones teaching me Gîkûyû. And I could learn from anyone, from the innocent shopkeeper to my 5-year-old niece who is more fluent than me. Every day, I wrote down new words I learnt in an online note I still revise to date.
But that three-month crash course was not easy. As I constructed a Gîkûyû sentence in conversation, I would often get stuck halfway and stop in my tracks. Or I would confidently say a word only to get a round of stinging laughter in return.
I would rather be laughed at for making a mistake than for not knowing my language – I consoled myself.
Many times my relatives would not understand me because I did not have the right accent. And I would have to repeat myself like a broken record.
Was I really learning or was I just fooling myself?
One thing I can say I learnt is there are similarities between Gîkûyû and my favourite languages. For example, both French and Gîkuyu have accented letters. “G” in both languages sound like “gh” in Swahili. In Gîkûyû, “û” sounds like “o” and “î” sounds “e”.
Putting an accent or omitting one can change the meaning of a word, I discovered. It could make the difference between wanting (ndîrenda) and not wanting (ndirenda).
Also, b sounds like “f” and “c” sounds like “sh” or “s” – depending on which part of Central Kenya you’re from. Now, try saying “cabi”.
Gîkûyû and Swahili are much closer; after all, they are Bantu cousins. It’s easy to translate from one to the other: a pineapple or “nanasi” in Swahili is “inanathi” in Gîkûyû. But the toughest lesson was learning Kikuyu’s noun classification and which words belong in which ngeli. For example, I had to learn the plural of ikondo riaku is makondo maku (i.e. your avocados).
Excuse me if my love for fruits is showing.
How you continuously combine the object, subject, verb and tense in a single word is still baffling to me. Let’s use an example from Serro’s debut album KUWE.
Track 10 of the Kenyan Afrofusion album is titled “Nîûradukania”. In English, it translates to “you are confusing me”. Quite confusing, I think.
Going back to Nairobi after the lockdown, the Gîkûyû lessons continued with less intensity. But now I had the firm foundation to construct full sentences that I couldn’t last year. It amazes me sometimes.
My practice partners are my mum and a few friends. Even strangers on these streets help me out.
Did you know 1 in every 3 Kenyans speak Gîkuyu? Okay, that’s not necessarily true but you know what I mean. Every time I eavesdrop (I am not ashamed to admit it), I pick one catchy phrase someone says and repeat it to myself.
When we talk, I am more of a listener as my mum winds her long stories – now in Gîkûyû. Si you know how mums love to talk.
I only speak when I need to. Sometimes I get it right and sometimes not. Sometimes I get stuck in the middle of a sentence and have to complete it with English. But she’s proud of my progress. She’s my biggest cheerleader. She never laughs, only corrects.
I know my Gîkûyû accent is not yet fully downloaded. But a few more trips to Murang’a will take care of that.
Other than Gîkûyû, I am also relearning Swahili, lugha ya mama Afrika. Why? Well, because it’s such a beautiful language. And it’s ours.
This African lingua franca is so beautiful it’s currently being taught in Rwanda, South Africa, and all over the world.
I know what you might be thinking: “Kiswahili ni ngumu.” We’ve been conditioned to use that as our default excuse. But what if it seems that way because we don’t speak it as often as English?
At the Kenyan coast or in Tanzania, it’s a different story. When you travel to Dar es Salaam or attend Sauti za Busara Festival in Zanzibar, your tongue picks it up fast. You might even adopt the sweet Swahili accent, like I have while living in Kilifi. And what a proud feeling you get speaking in one language with the friendly locals. You feel like you’re part of the Coastal community.
This Idd Aziz song made me cry the first time I heard it. Still does
That is why I consciously speak Swahili (and sheng) to my 5-year-old niece and 8-year-old nephew. The latter keeps asking me why I keep speaking to him in Swahili. He thinks English is posh, as most people of our generation do. This only fuels my inner fire.
If we don’t own Swahili, know what will happen? Foreigners will come and take our own heritage – as they always do.
When’s the last time you had a conversation in Swahili?
Passing on to the next generation
All my 26 years of learning, unlearning and relearning have prepared me for this moment. Speaking my first language has now become second nature. I’m listening to (and enjoying) more mugithi songs, si you know the ones with endless verses following the same melody.
I can now sing the whole of Nuu by Ayrosh and Muringi thanks to my cousin in Murang’a #MeNMyCousin. If I can sing Mwene Nyaga by Kwame aka the Gîkûyû national anthem by the end of this year, then I can proudly say “Mama I’ve made it!”
(Update: I did it!)
Mwene Nyaga, twakûhoya
The next step in my journey is to read and write Gîkûyû, with all its accents and tenses. And teach the children by speaking to them in our languages. I don’t want them to go through the same struggles I did growing up. I want to make it easy for them to know their African roots.
That’s why I’m so happy whenever I hear a child speak their mother tongue fluently (Swahili included) thanks to their parents and guardians. Like Kwame’s children. It gives me hope for the future. I know they’ll be grateful to have grown up speaking it. Like I would have.