When language, skin colour get us all talking

Living in East Africa has taught me so much about the people that make up the region. Maybe it is just me who is simply obsessed with observing behavioural nuances among those I live with.

Living in East Africa has taught me so much about the people that make up the region. Maybe it is just me who is simply obsessed with observing behavioural nuances among those I live with.

In the recent past, so much talk has been generated by the ‘discovery’ of a one Lupita Nyong’o. If you still do not know about her then you need to look for the movie, 12 Years a Slave, where she features. It is her role in that movie that has earned her an Oscar nomination alongside other awards.

Lupita happens to be a daughter of Prof. Anyang Nyong’o, the current Senator of Kisumu County in Kenya (also a former Guild President of Makerere University). With the media flashing photos of Lupita in our faces every day, a debate raged on how beautiful she is or for some, how she is not.

Many of my Kenyan friends were not amused when it emerged that a certain international magazine had published pictures of Lupita after alterations that made her appear much lighter than she really is. I found this interesting because the Kenyan media has been doing the same thing just in a different way.

The Kenyan media is known for subliminally promoting the lighter skinned Kenyan females. Just find some time and watch any Kenyan TV station for a week and you will soon realise that almost all the adverts feature light skinned females and the same can be said about most TV presenters. Kenyans have bought into this narrative so much that even on Twitter you will always find lots of foul jokes about so called ‘dark skins’.

There are also times when these debates move from skin colour to language proficiency. On the Rwandan social media streets for example, there is uproar about the upcoming Miss Rwanda 2014 competition.

Some videos of contestants struggling to answer the questions from the judges have gone viral for the wrong reasons. They have been shared by those who want to laugh and later drown in embarrassment about the brains bit of the beauty and brains theme that many beauty pageants love to aim for.

Many of the contestants can barely speak good English or French, the languages in which they are required to respond to questions from the panel. Now some are arguing that only Kinyarwanda should have been used while an old friend pointed out that if they have been exposed to English or French as a language of instructions for about ten years in school and they can’t express themselves in any then we are simply showing the world the shameful gaps in our education system.  

On the whole, language in the EAC region language remains an enigma for many. I have seen Swahili speakers from DRC lost when a Kenyan speaks and yet my Tanzanian friends would not even want to refer to what the Kenyans speak as Swahili.

While many of us who do not understand the language thing it is one spoken quite fast, the people from Mombasa and other coastal areas seem to prefer a slower version of the same. But even the Tanzanian Swahili sanifu is slowing being diluted by the Bongo Flavour trend that runs through the urban music scene of Dar es Salaam. Although that is nothing compared to what the Nairobians have done to Swahili with their Sheng version.  

When Swahili is being mentioned, the people in Kampala are likely to bury their heads in their matooke and rolex because we seem to have totally failed in that line. The Tanzanians may not laugh at us because we could play the English card and settle a score.

Beyond Swahili, Uganda still has a major language issue even within its border. Being the only country in the region without a national language, it becomes funny when for instance I see NTV Uganda’s Maurice Mugisha asking a Jinja politician in Luganda only for him to respond in Lusoga!

As a writer the differences continue to amaze me. Five years ago I was surprised to learn from a Jamaican friend that each of the English speaking Caribbean Island had its own accent. These are over ten different small Islands each with its own accent of the Queen’s language. I have learnt that when you master these speech differences then it can be easy to identify someone just from how or what they speak. So it is not such a bad thing really.

Blog: www.ssenyonga.wordpress.com
Twitter: @ssojo81


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