On language

The official languages in Kenya are Swahili and English. But that is an oversimplification of the situation. Most people learn English in secondary school, which only some of the population attends (education here is ostensibly free but most people you ask will say that the price of uniforms, books etc can make it prohibitive). Nevertheless all government proceedings (as far as I can tell), most countrywide newspapers, and all medical charts/medical meetings are held in English. In the face of the upcoming elections next year it has got me thinking about the ability of the average Kenyan to be an active participant in their government, their health care, or even understand what is going on when watching, as we have been, the selection of the next Chief Justice on TV, when it’s all carried out in English. How can we expect a population, already saddled by poverty, corruption, and tribal tension, to have a representative democracy or to take ownership over their health care when it is carried out in a language that they may or may not speak?

It gets more complicated when you realize that the language that people use when they are talking to each other in informal settings is sometimes Swahili, but more often than not a tribal/indigenous language such as Dholuo, the language spoken by the Luo tribe here in Kisumu. Most Kenyan’s refer to this as their mother tongue, and it is the language that they grew up speaking, more often than not, in their home. For some living on the coast this is Swahili, but most of the time it is neither Swahili nor English. This results in a large portion of the population that speaks neither official language well. We’ve run into this problem in clinic when a staff member does not speak Dholuo well, which is the most common language spoke in this area, and the client speaks neither Swahili nor English. Even our safari guide Simon could not tell us the Swahili word for rainbow, he only knew it in Gikuyu (another local language) – and he went to university.

All of the above makes it that much more amazing when in clinic I hear the patients faithfully recite their anti-retroviral medications from memory. I’m always amazed when I hear them eeking out complicated, multi-syllabic, scientific words like zidovudine or efavirenz. Some of my US clinic patients don’t know their drugs and can’t pronounce those words either.  But these issues  I’ve encountered do make me wonder how much of what we deem progress in a developing country, like Kenya, is held back by issues of language and just simply understanding each other.

Published in: on May 11, 2011 at 6:25 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Very much like the Philippines.

  2. I was thinking of the same comment as the one all ready sent to you. Most of the care givers here at the Hyatt speak Tagalog but many of them also speak their distinctive dialogues like Bagri (?) Ray do you speak Tagalog? Also here in the states most major communities are faced with a multitude of foreign languages spoken in the community. When you go to the DMV you will see a row of Ca. Driving rules in about 12 to 14 languages. So when everyone is entitled to have a native speaker in a legal matter you can realize that America not only is it being colonized by peoples of the world but it does create some special problems. Should we teach Esperanto? That was some bodies dream> Papa Norman

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