John Sibi-Okumu on ‘What language to use when writing?’ at #CreativesAcademy

Good people, perhaps talking to young people, there is only one debate we should present as a non-debate and not spend too much time on it. This has everything to do with this issue of the choice of language. Do excuse me if I sound like am speaking Queen’s English, Oxford English, it is a historical construct, I didn’t want to be born this way but what to do.

I think that I myself, am, capable of expressing myself in quite a few languages. If I speak Kiswahili people say, “Ooh you speak Kiswahili as well.” if I speak Olinyala….they say, “Oh my God we thought he was Luo.”

But look at this very insidious thing that is happening, when I speak my mother tongue and the digital clock goes to say, “We thought he was Luo.” Does that mean I should be ashamed?

Historically, building into the whole sphere of ethnic dialogue the minute I cease being Luo, and suddenly become Luhya, then all of a sudden, two great mass of Kenyans have gone up a knot. We are heading to the concentration camps people. Beware of this attachment of positing language as a form of identity.

As I walk across this room and I look at ‘daktari’ (doctor) and her culture, there is nothing about her aspect, there is nothing about her mode of dress that tells me she is intrinsically…I don’t know what she is intrinsically and I have no desire to know. So beware.

The other thing is this idea that there must be an element of craft, not only of storytelling but of craft. For whatever historical reason, you must pervade your craft in the language which you can use with as much certainty, with as much nuance. We have gone from the stage where grandma sat with the pot and said, “How did the zebra get his stripe?” If you are a two year old you say,” The zebra was walking along the bush and then somebody came and scratched him on the back and that is why.” Is that what you want to make your millions from, from whatever press? Surely not. Choose the language which you know best. Once you have chosen a language, you have to work really, really hard at being a master of that language. A lot of our books are written in English, but I am as black as coal, Some of that English is quote and quote, bad incorrect English. So there is another argument to be heard about which language we have mastered. If you reckon Kiprop that Kalenjin is the language which you speak best, abandon English, write your book in Kalenjin, let it be translated into good English. I will do the translation and then all of us can read it.

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