Ever walked into an office and the persons sitting behind the desks look at each other, speak some jargon and giggle? Then you’re there wondering if they are talking about you before one looks at you and still, in a language you know nothing about, probably tries to ask you what you want?
Well. Despite Kenya being a multilingual country with two official languages, you will, in most cases encounter such, especially in most public offices that have completely been localized. This was actually made worse by devolution, with over 80% of the employees speaking one local language.
Its July 2009. First time to ever step in Eldoret. Am here to secure my admission in Moi University, deep inside Kesses Constituency. Am excited. So excited I am about to start my journey towards becoming a programmer, and probably an ethical hacker. That’s what fascinated me into pursuing a Bachelors in Information Sciences and later majoring in Information Technology.
FYI. I actually did code a program in Java to earn my undergraduate degree. But where am I and what am I doing now? Story for another day.
Outside the Student’s Centre are a whole lot of people from different places, some here for admission while others are parents and guardians accompanying them. Everyone is communicating in their own language, including us. I remember mum kept reminding me to hold safe the envelope that contained my fees receipt and my KCSE result slip, in Kisii, of course. So I wasn’t bothered by the many languages, at least not at this time.
My name is called out and it’s my turn to be served. Am then directed to a janitor in Upper Hill hostels who is supposed to allocate me a room. We find our way to her office. Without even looking up to see who she is serving, the seemingly old lady who should be in her late 50’s utters some words in Kalenjin. I look at my sister and silence follows.
Unapologetically she pulls off my room payment receipt that I was holding in my hand and looks ate me “wewe ni kisii, na mbona umechelewa hivi utapata nyumba kweli? Nenda urudi saa nane”. That’s it and she proceeded to serve the next client who spoke to her in their language as she was still holding my papers.
Days came and went. So many similar encounters especially with the house janitors. Peak of these being the beginning of the academic years when you had to really hustle and probably speak in Kalenjin to be given a priority. But through it all, the non-kalenjin speakers survived it all.
Yesterday. I walked into a salon in Kisii Town. Where, in a normal case, I shouldn’t be encountering a “language barrier” since majority speak my local language. It’s my first time here and seemingly, all workers in this particular salon are Kikuyu. Some guy ushers me in without a word but this doesn’t bother me, he is a stranger, anyway.
I explain myself in Swahili and a little English. What I want done to my hair. And that’s all I spoke for the 5 most boring hours I have had to spend in a place. There are like 8 of them here, typical Kikuyus. With workstations far apart, though not so far. So they keep shouting at each other, talking things probably none of the clients understood followed by noisy irritating giggles.
I wanted to step out and leave, with my hair halfway done. Then I remembered there was no power the better part of the town and Monday was here. I opted to make use of my phone. Went to social media. Then there was this one who kept snooping. She could then talk to the rest, as if telling them what she had seen. How uncouth!
I walked out feeling bad and promised myself never to go back again. Then I remembered how many time I do this to other people, with my friends. There is this one time in 2008 when we were taking an evening stroll in Bondeni area of Nakuru County with my sister. So many Sudan refugees stayed there, by then. Approaching us was hat seemed like a couple, so dark as they are meant to be. Then amid laughs, my sister and I made some funny comments about them. We laughed again.
Shock on us. Guy was Kisii. That typical Kisii with unmanageable levels of anger. He almost hi me, save for the Kisii in me too. Hehehehe. But these bad manners were done on the streets and can be forgiven. But workplace?
It’s 2018 and Kenya has 48 governments, literally. And I can’t stop imagining what people seeking services from these governments, so localized, encounter. Or even, the 30% that are supposed to be from other Counties. Bad situation growing worse.
This situation was already bad in 2011, when Kenya had just one government, forcing the then Maragua MP Hon. Elias Mbau to sponsor a motion in parliament banning the use of vernacular in public offices. A motion that the Public Service Ministry opposed. The argument of the opposers doesn’t hold water, so I won’t give it any attention.
All I know is something needs to be done. That when one day I wish to walk into Elgeyo Marakwet County in the Rift or Tharaka Nithi County in Central and secure a job, I won’t be met with unfriendly “local” colleagues who will be communicating in their local language, without caring if I understand what they are saying.
However, I have a feeling this should start with our top leadership. With Uhuru Kenyatta finding it uncouth calling Raila “Muguruki” whether there is a handshake or not.