Multilingualism and First Language Maintenance: Nubian Language Speakers in Western Kenya.

Author:Mose, Peter N.


This work reports on multilingualism and L1 maintenance among the Nubian ethnic community of Kisii Town of south-western Kenya. Although the Nubians are spread in other parts of Kenya like Nairobi, Mombasa, Kisumu and in Uganda, Tanzania, and Somalia (Amone 2013; Samantha 2012; Timothy 1997), this presentation treats the Nubians in Kisii Town as a distinct ethnic minority because their fellow Nubians live far away in Kenya in which case their neighbours belong to different ethnic communities. Data indicate that the population of those in Kisii Town are about 2,000, and Balaton-Chrimes (2015) puts their population in Kenya to be between 20, 000-30, 000. Kisii Town is the headquarter of Kisii County-one of the two counties inhabited by the Ekegusii-speaking people of western Kenya. The other is Nyamira County. Both have a population of about 4 million (Kenya National Bureau of Statistics [KNBS] 2010).

The Gusii is an industrious community who engage in various economic activities mainly crop and animal farming due to rich agricultural soils and ample rainfall throughout the year. They majorly practise subsistence farming and their main cash crops are tea and coffee. They are also a very religious people and most of them are members of either the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) or the Catholic Churches. Evidence of their religiosity is the almost empty streets and closed businesses in market centres on Saturdays and Sundays, the days of worship for the SDAs and the Catholics respectively. The religious aspect is significant in this study as indicated in the discussion. Few Gusii people belong to the Islam religion. Kisii Town is also settled by several people from other Kenyan ethnic communities many of whom are business people, college students, or civil servants. These include the Luo-Gusii neighbours to the west; the Agikuyumainly business people from central Kenya. Lately the Somali-mobile telephony/electronics and cloth business people from, originally, northern Kenya.

The Nyanchwa Estate where the Nubians have lived for a century is predominantly settled by members of the SDA Church. On the other end of the Estate is an SDA complex consisting of a primary boarding school, a high school, a teachers' training college, a mission hospital, and a regional headquarter of the church. There is also a missionary-built church-the pioneer spot of the SDA movement in Gusii, which was started in 1912 (Nyaundi 1997).

According to Heine (1982) and Elfversson and Hoglund (2017) the history of Nubians in Kenya started at the end of First World War (WW I), when those who came to the country were rewarded with land in Kibera in Nairobi for their successful service in the British Army. Timothy (1997) states that Nubians had been recruited to serve in the King's African Rifles by Captain Fredrick Lugard in 1891. Others are said to have settled in Uganda, others in Tanzania, and in Somalia (Amone 2013). Some of those in Kenya later moved to other parts including Kisumu in western Kenya and a few settled in Kisii Town (Adam, Matu, and Ongarora 2012).

From the interviews conducted in this study, those who migrated from Nairobi may have moved to various locations in the larger Nyanza and western Kenya regions. Respondents cite the early 1920s as the initial appearance of the Nubians in Kisii Town in which they have lived, as a small ethnic community, to date. Their houses, built many decades ago, have remained unchanged in design and style (see Figure 1), possibly due to economic reasons; Amone (2013) however indicates that their dislike of western education has made them not to pursue school education (generally western in ideology), which to a greater degree, is a passport to public employment in many African countries. Ng'ang'a (2006) confirms that Nubians prefer Madrasas, a preference which in many cases exposes them to harsh economic realities. Therefore, the fact that majority of them do not have jobs has made many live in the old buildings. Hence, Balaton-Chrimes (2015) argues that as an ethnic minority, the Nubians of Kenya are struggling for equal citizenship by asserting themselves as indigenous and autochthonous to Kibera, one of Nairobi's most notorious slums, and secondly, that for an understanding of citizenship one must consider multiple component parts: status, rights and membership, which are often disaggregated through time, across geographic spaces, and amongst different people that can generate important insights into the risks and possibilities of a relationship between ethnicity and democracy that is of broad and global relevance.


Multilingualism is a combination of two words 'multi' and 'lingual'; the former referring to 'many' and the latter to 'to do with language.' Therefore it refers 'to do with many languages'. In the literature, the term is associated with many other words as described below. It is generally used to refer to people who speak many languages, usually more than one, and in this case, some studies use it interchangeably with bilingualism (Ng and Wigglesworth 2007; Rooy 2010). However, some linguists indicate that multilingualism cannot be so simplistically described; one scholar observes that, "a multilingual identity extends from the language of intimacy through the language of proximity to languages of regional, national, and international identification. As the layers are peeled off, a complex network of relations can be observed. In this scenario each language is representative of an overarching culture" (Pattanayak 2003, 57).

Pattanayak speaks to other scholars' view of the term who observe that definitions of the term are represented on a continuum ranging from full fluency to the use of different languages known at different levels of proficiency, driven by specific needs (Bialystok 2001; Rooy 2010). The term has had multiple associations but for the purpose of this study, the following terms will be described: Individual versus societal and national multilingualism; subtractive versus additive multilingualism; and elective versus circumstantial multilingualism. Individual multilingualism refers to incidences where individuals are able to use more than one language in their various circumstances of life while societal/national refers to instances of use of more than one language by people living in a particular region/country (Ouane 2009; Rooy 2010).

Subtractive multilingualism occurs when the learning of more than one's first language inhibits the learning of that first language, while additive multilingualism occurs when the learning of other languages does not inhibit the learning and development of the first language (Prah 2009). Elective multilingualism (also referred to as elite multilingualism; Todeva and Cenoz 2009) refers to cases where persons choose to become multilingual while circumstantial multilingualism refers to instances where persons find themselves required to become multilingual. The Nubians in this study are circumstantially multilingual, to a greater extent.

Multilingualism is increasingly becoming a common phenomenon even in Europe (Ouane 2003; Skutnabb-Kangas 1995) but it is commoner in Africa in which many find it intrinsic to their language acquisition with two to three languages learnt concomitantly (Gerhardt 1990; Ouane 2009; Prah 2009). Researchers attribute both psycholinguistic and cognitive benefits of multilingual persons. These include an advanced ability in the cognitive process of analysis, advantage in the cognitive process of selective attention and inhibition, and an enhanced ability to learn more languages (Baker 2012; Datta 2000; Edwards 2009; Cummins 2009; and Jessner 2008).

Multilingual Kenya

Kenya is a multilingual country with more than 60 different languages spoken by the population (Lewis 2009). While there are individuals who are multilingual in more than one African language, majority are circumstantially multilingual (in their mother tongues, Kiswahili, and English) since the school system teaches both Kiswahili the national language (and also official) and English the second official language from grade one up to the end of high school. Furthermore, English is the language of teaching in post high school institutions. I have, however, in my research encountered persons who use more than four African languages whose knowledge they got from living in various parts of the country or by engaging in prolonged business activities with neighbouring ethnic communities. These include Ekegusii-speaking business people and public transport operators who, for instance, operate between Kisii and Migori Towns; these speak their own Ekegusii, Kikuria, Luo, and Kiswahili-all African languages. Generally though, most persons without school education speak two languages; their indigenous language and Kiswahili the national language which is used for inter-ethnic interaction, and mainly in cosmopolitan centres across the country. Kiswahili has been identified closely with the country's post-independence history and some scholars attribute its use by the general public to its being considered a neutral language. One of the groups of people who are circumstantially multilingual and speak more than the about two/three languages are the Nubians of Kisii Town of south western Kenya. Details of how they manage this multilinguality are presented in the findings section. This study is significant in the sense that its findings suggest that, in spite of UNESCO listing scores of African languages as facing extinction in the near future, some of these...

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