A case of a mother tongue and another mother tongue in school: efforts at revitalization of Olusuba language of Kenya.

Author:Obiero, Ogone John
Position:OTHER PAPERS - Essay


An alarming decline in the number of languages has been reported in various scholarly works around the world. (1) The concern over the disappearance of languages could actually be dated back to the 5th Century. (2) In the case of Hebrew, for example, the decline was already felt by the 3rd Century. (3)

On the African continent, language decline has largely been accelerated by language contact between some minority and dominant indigenous languages. For instance, Swahili replaced several community languages in Tanzania, Somali in Somalia; and Arabic in the Maghreb region. In some other contact situations, languages of wider communication which were not necessarily colonial languages took over. This is perhaps the case with the hegemony of Amharic in Ethiopia, Bambara in Mali, Hausa in Niger and Nigeria and Wolof in Senegal over other indigenous languages. But in other cases in Africa, languages of retreating speech communities are suffocated by other relatively small indigenous languages with which they come into contact. Brenzinger (4) reports the Ethiopian case in which Ongota is replaced by Ts'amakko, Kwegu by Mursi, Shabo by Majang' and Harro by Bayso. Batibo (5) probably has the most comprehensive compilation of all the endangered languages across the African continent.

Despite such cases of widespread decline of languages, several minority groups are putting in place a spirited battle for cultural sovereignty, featuring language revival. Though a number of these revival attempts may sometimes bear political sentiments, most of them tend to begin with a language project. As is the case with language decline, language revival projects have also been widely reported across the world. There are dozens of accounts on language revival attempts reported with varying degrees of success or failure. (6)

Yet in Africa, apart from reports on cases of language decline on the continent, clear-cut accounts of language revival projects are yet to be posted: "very little has been documented on the process of language revival or revitalization in an African context". (7) It would thus be accurate to add that where there is scanty documentation on the process of revival as is the case with the African continent, evaluative studies on revival projects can only be near non-existent. The Problem is further compounded by the fact that whatever projects that may be launched to save an indigenous African language would come in the typical fashion of first attempts, which are bound to be haphazard, to say the least.

In Kenya, for instance, of the 56 indigenous languages, about 13 are highly endangered while a dozen are either extinct or nearly extinct. Among the highly endagererd languages in Kenya are Boni, Dahalo, Burji, Daasanach, Digo, Konkani, Malakote, Nubi, Sagalla, Sanye, Chifundi, Vumba and Olusuba. The extinct are Elmolo, Okiek, Yaaku, Omotik, Kore, Bongom, Degere, Kinare, Loekoti, Segeju, Sogoo and Ware. This is not to say that the dominant indigenous languages in Kenya are any safer.

In Kenya as in other African states, indigenous languages suffer the disadvantage of existing alongside either English (a former colonial language) or Kiswahili (a lingua franca), which may be attributed to the difficult choices based on the politics of language policy in a multi-lingual set up. But this unequal contact is worse within the school system in which Kenya's language policy for early primary appears to systematically suffocate the indigenous languages. As it were, the school curriculum here provides for the use of mother tongue as language of instruction between classes 1 to 3. At these stages, English and Kiswahili are taught as subjects, but may also be used for instruction where the mother tongue is not the language of the catchment area. In the current dispensation, the mother tongue is not only allocated little time but also discontinued once the pupils reach standard four.

The situation is however worsened where the government permits a formerly receding language to be taught in school. Taking what happens in Suba District as a case, Dholuo has been the language of instruction in early primary, but from 1995, the government allowed the teaching of Olusuba as a subject in early primary alongside English and Kiswahili in areas where Olusuba is spoken. However, when the pupils move to standard four (4), both Dholuo and Olusuba make an early exit. The consequence of this is that what the government views as a catchment language (in this case Olusuba) is only taught as a subject and like Dholuo, is not terminally examined.

Suba--Luo contact

According to Okombo and Rottland, (8) this contact favoured the Luo in two ways. First, the Luo outnumbered the Suba where they settled together (at that time 650,000 Luo people to only about 60,000 Abasuba). Secondly, Olusuba language had no official status at any level and wasn't then written. However, the actual population of the Abasuba people as opposed to speakers of the language differs from author to author. Gordon (9) quotes Larsen's estimate of the Abasuba in Kenya as numbering 129 000 people; UNESCO estimates the population at 119 000 people both in Kenya and Tanzania, while Wikipedia (10) estimates the Abasuba at only under 30 000 people.

Presently, the Abasuba are settled on the Northern Eastern shores of the Lake Victoria, Mfangano and Rusinga Islands. According to Ogot, (11) the Abasuba migrated from Uganda about the second half of the 18th century. Lexicostatistical analyses such as the one conducted by Kembo-Sure (12) between Olusuba, the language of the Suba people, and Luganda, spoken by the Baganda, among other languages actually demonstrate that the Abasuba are Bantu, of the Niger-Congo affiliation, and that their language exhibits a high linguistic intelligibility with Luganda.

From Ogot's account, the Luo encountered and engaged various Bantu speaking groups then settling around the present day Southern Nyanza in 1776, pushing them southwards. The contact between the Abasuba and the Luo has therefore lasted more than a century, creating room for intermarriage, intergroup trade, intergroup communication (leading to bilingualism in Dholuo) and all manner of intergroup influences and engagements.

Deriving from their case history of the Suba and quoting Ogot, (13) Okombo and Rottland (14) add that:

Luo and Suba contact dates back to the middle of the 19thC when the Luo expanded towards the Suba territories. The ensuing assimilation o first motivated by trade and intermarriage, gained strength and motivation with the beginning of the colonial times, since any European achievement--spiritual or material--that reached the Suba, came via a Luo, or, if they were whites, used the Luo language. In the eyes of the colonial powers, the whole of the Suba--Luo area was Luo, and any political influence, any success with those powers was only to be achieved via a Luo identity. Thus social mobility became a strong motivation, and the modern, educational and Christian minded Suba opted for Luo. Since the Luo were the dominant of the two groups, Luoization of the Suba did not meet a strong resistance. With the passing of time, the Olusuba speakers apparently gave up their first language in favor of Dholuo, a Western Nilotic language spoken by the Luo. As is the case with other instances of cross-cultural assimilation, the Luoization of the Abasuba had been to the extent that the Suba have sometimes been referred to as Luo-Abasuba, or simply Luo (since 1940). (15)

Olusuba revitalization program

In 1995, the government of Kenya, some non-governmental organizations and the Suba people themselves tried to revive both the Suba culture and the language. Through the Ministry of Education, the government initiated the Olusuba language project that has already been tried out in certain primary schools in Suba District. The measures put in place included introducing Suba-as-subject in primary school, revivalist initiatives in the form of cultural festivals, sports, a vernacular radio service, and a language panel created for this purpose at the Kenya Institute of Education (K.I.E). The Bible translation and Literacy (BTL) together with the Summer Institute of Linguists (SIL) have also been involved in literacy, translation and documentation programs in the language.

The program picked up in earnest. Beginning with the question of language status, the government of Kenya, non-governmental organizations, and the Suba community itself, all got involved in language status-raising activities in favor of Olusuba. In 1995, the government established the Olusuba language development committee at the KIE to write a syllabus for Olusuba for primary schools and to produce reading materials. Together with the BTL and SIL, they produced transitional primers for schools and translated all the books in the New Testament. The standardization of this language was also achieved with the joint efforts of the KIE, BTL, SIL, the local education offices, and the local Olusuba language committee whose membership comprised of representatives from all the Suba speaking regions. The choice of Olusuba (the dialect indigenous of Mfangano island) as the model is an indication that the selection stage was successfully concluded. The documentation or codification stage too can be said to have been concluded. The primers have effectively been in schools since 1997 and work is about to begin on the Old Testament and a Dictionary. The elaboration stage has been ongoing; the primers were already introduced in the 26 pilot schools while the radio broadcast at Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) Kisumu has been on air since 17th July, 1995. The standardization process was expected to create a firm ground for an improved status for the language. However, 13 years on, Dholuo persists as a mother tongue even in the Suba schools that were set aside for pilot purposes, regardless of the revival program...

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