In the Kenyan capital Nairobi, rap music artist Martin Nderitu, 24, is having trouble laying down lines in his mother tongue for an album expected to drop in early March.
His album is composed in a slang called Sheng – a mix of Swahili, English, and 42 local languages, popular among the urban youth of the East African country.
In modern Kenya, the entertainment industry, politicians, schools, and even places of worship use this slang, which has now developed into a hybrid tongue.
Like many other kids in his country, Nderitu grew up speaking a foreign language, a practice which has become a status symbol for many.
“My lines are very deep, they speak about society and our day-to-day life,” he said.
Unable to speak in his local language, he holds society and his parents responsible for not teaching him his mother tongue. He said that he can speak the English part of Sheng, but has trouble pronouncing his own mother tongue.
“My parents speak Swahili and Kenya’s slang called Sheng. They don’t speak their traditional languages. I blame them for the person I’ve become because it was their duty to pass the language onto me,” Nderitu said.
Similarly, Peter Waithaka, 25, said he can understand Kikuyu, his mother tongue, but is unable to use it to speak.
“I can hear the Kikuyu language but I can’t speak it. I feel like mother languages are just things of the past which in this modern era where we have computers, laptops, and the internet, these languages will disappear,” he said.
With over 40 tribes inhabiting Kenya, it is home to numerous languages and dialects, passed down from generation to generation.
The country has adopted Swahili and English, which are taught in schools, as the two national languages. The local languages which connect people to their ethnic groups are only learned at home when children grow up.
According to studies by linguists, most Kenyan youths can barely speak their ethnic languages.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Clara Momanyi, a linguist at Kenyatta University in Nairobi, described the phenomenon as worrisome.
“The upbringing of kids these days isn’t like the way we were brought up, because parents are neglecting some of the traditional roles which we’ve had in Kenya since time immemorial,” she said. “They’re not teaching kids our culture nor our languages.”
She said that many young parents do not know their languages themselves, so they cannot teach them to their own children.
They feel it is better to teach them Swahili and English than their own mother tongue, which is why they grow up not knowing these languages.
“Sooner or later we have these languages disappearing because of a lack of teachers,” warned Momanyi. “They will disappear and of course, our culture will also disappear because languages are the vehicle in which languages are passed on from generation to generation.”
Waithaka, who is a young musician, says that in big cities, schools punish students for speaking in vernacular or ethnic languages.
“We’ve been urged to speak mostly English. You can speak Swahili twice a week,” he explained. “This has been [policy] in Kenya for a long time to improve English speaking and comprehension of students at the cost of languages like Kikuyu, Luo, and Kamba.”
Parents to blame?
Many also worry that the government is indifferent to documenting and doing research to keep the local languages alive.
Kimani Njogu, a university teacher of Swahili and African languages, said parents have to take most of the blame for not passing down these languages to their children. She also faults the government for its indifference.
“It’s important that we try and learn our mother tongues because they connect us with our history and our identity and give us a sense of belonging,” she said.
The government has also failed to preserve the languages, says Njogu.
Martin Njoroge, a linguist at the US International University in Nairobi, said the Sheng has evolved and is being used as a first language by some speakers. He said it is no longer slang.
“A language must have culture, history, geography, and solidification of its grammar and vocabulary, so in my view, Sheng is on the path to becoming a language,” he explained.
“I do not think that Sheng will go away, it will continue adjusting itself and very soon we will have first language speakers of Sheng.”
He said Sheng has a future now, as other communal languages are on their way to extinction.
The Yaakunte language of the Yaaku tribe, once indigenous to Ethiopia and Kenya, has been listed among six local languages (Sogoo, Lorkoti, Kinare, Kore, and Elmolo) which have gone extinct, according to Jennifer Koinante, executive director of the Yiaku Laikipiak Trust, a local advocacy group .
The Yaaku tribe, former hunter-gatherers and beekeepers who once numbered over 5,000, have been assimilated into the Maasai tribe.
The Yaaku over time gave up their language in favor of the Maa language of the Maasai.
Today, only seven people speak Yaakunte, all of them over 70 years old.