June 11, 2011


In a move that is designed to promote unity, the speaking of mother tongues has been banned in Kenya’s public spaces. English and Kiswahili are the only languages now permitted to be spoken.

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Mother tongues banned in public spaces

It didn’t receive much in the way of media coverage – it was on page 40 of the Daily Nation, under ‘Provincial News’, and it featured as a small 12cm x two columns on the inside page of The Star – so you may have missed it but parliament has passed a motion, introduced by the Maragwa MP Elias Mbai (8th June), which seeks to outlaw the use of one’s mother tongue in public institutions. The motion makes it mandatory for all civil servants to only speak English or Swahili, (the two official languages in Kenya) in the office or while conducting official functions.

The proposal aims at enhancing cohesion and creating a common bond among Kenyans but Ikolomani MP, Bonny Khalwale argued that it was in contravention of various sections of the new constitution which requires the state to promote the diversity of languages of the people.

The motion however was well received by a goodly number of Kenyans according to news polls conducted by leading TV stations in the country. The majority of Kenyans feel that the move will promote harmony and peaceful co-existence among people of different ethnic groups, the poll findings suggested.

“I support the ban of vernacular languages in public offices”, wrote Ken Kimathi who emailed his opinion to The Star. “If this bill is signed into law, it will bring about harmonious coexistence between public officers and members of the public seeking help from the government institutions. A country like Tanzania is bound together by the Kiswahili language and hence her people are served with dignity, respect and fairness.”

“We are not telling anyone to throw away their language. In your house, speak your mother tongue. When you get out, speak the two national languages”, argued Assistant Minister Wavinya Ndeti.

Kenya being a multi-ethnic state with about 42 tribes the Forum hopes that maintaining a common language in public offices will prove to be a step towards making every Kenyan feel accommodated, accorded respect and given due priority regardless of his/her tribe. We do wonder though how feasible it will be to punish someone for speaking in the vernacular in the workplace.


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