Monday, January 23, 2012

Can censoring indigenous languages prevent ethnic hatred?

Today, a status update on the Facebook fan page of the Daily Nation has clarified the guidelines that users are expected to follow when posting on the page. The rationale behind the guidelines is to promote spirited discussions that remain within the bounds of decency and the law. This is not surprising at all. January 23rd 2012 is an important day in Kenyan history. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has finally made the ruling that four Kenyan men will stand trial for allegedly committing crimes against humanity during the 2007-2008 Post Election Violence (PEV). The four men are William Ruto, Uhuru Kenyatta, Francis Muthaura and Joshua Arap Sang.

Many Kenyans have heaved a huge sigh of relief at the ICC’s ruling. They would like to see justice for those who were killed, maimed and terrorized during the PEV, and realize that this would be next to impossible in a Kenyan court of law. Of course the ICC’s ruling is not an indication that any of the men is guilty by law. They still have to go to trial for that to be established or disproven. Furthermore, some have pointed out that it took more than four people to engineer the bloody events of 2007 and 2008 and that, consequently, any justice achieved at the end of the day is unlikely to be complete. Regardless of the outcome of the trial, Kenyans can rest assured that the trial will force them to come to terms with the underbelly of Kenyan political culture.

This brings us back to the Daily Nation’s Facebook fan page, where various Kenyan critics and supporters of the four men have expressed their respective elation and anger at the ruling. In response to the inciting language used by some, the moderator of the page has seen fit to reiterate the guidelines for posting on the page. Some of the guidelines entail basic internet courtesy. They ask fans to be courteous, to avoid posting in ALL CAPS and to refrain from personal attacks against each other. Others are targeted at more serious forms of offensive speech. Defamation, hate speech, sexism, tribalism and racism in posts are forbidden.

The guidelines outlined thus far sound reasonable. However, the third guideline, concerning the use of language, is curious. It states, “Since participants in the forums are from mixed backgrounds, English shall be the primary language of conversation. Some widely "accepted" slang and pidgin - Sheng -might also be permitted.” This is a curious statement for two primary reasons. One is the fact that Swahili, Kenya’s national language is completely dismissed in a forum predominantly frequented by Kenyan speakers of Swahili. The second is the fact that Kenya’s other indigenous languages are dismissed with a simple flourish. The latter can be justified as a temporary measure to keep the discussion open and minimally-polarized but there is no legitimate reason to disallow the use of Swahili on the forum.

Considering that the Nation Media Group publishes Taifa Leo, the national Swahili-language newspaper, and makes regular media broadcasts in eloquent Swahili, disallowing the use of Swahili on the Facebook page makes absolutely no sense. I am not even going to pretend to understand the reasoning behind it. I hope that when the number of people complaining about that ‘oversight’ reaches critical mass, the moderator of the page will correct it. I will, however, spend some time discussing the connection between the guideline and Kenyans’ conflicted relationships with their indigenous languages. While Swahili is an indigenous language, it is also the national language of Kenya, more widely spoken than English and understood by most Kenyans. Thus some of my statements about indigenous languages below may not apply to Swahili.

For the record, I don’t think that banning the use of Kenya’s indigenous languages in ‘Kenyan’ virtual space will neutralize the hateful sentiments felt by many Kenyans about their fellow Kenyans. Any person determined to post in hateful language will do so, even in English or Sheng’. However, I understand the reasons behind this decision on the part of the moderator of this Facebook page.

Some Kenyans resort to the use of their indigenous languages when they want to express hateful sentiments about other ethnic groups. The indigenous language has become, for them, a code to unite ‘insiders’ and to mark them as unique and different from the hated ‘outsiders.’They post divisive and inciting statements in their respective languages, often using objectifying code words to refer to the ‘other.’ Interestingly, the average person that does this seems to be of the opinion that speaking in his or her indigenous language offers protection from public scrutiny. The person erroneously believes that members of other ethnic groups will not understand these statements and that all members of his or her ethnic group will sympathize with them.

People who have been following the ICC hearings will point out that media broadcasts and speeches by public personalities in indigenous languages were characterized by the same problems and ultimately played a significant role in fracturing Kenyan society and inciting the different sides to violence in 2007-2008. Others will point out that various Kenyan discussion boards and blogs allowed the same kind of unmoderated hate speech in indigenous languages, and consequently made the situation worse. It is this history of the misuse of Kenya’s indigenous languages that makes any Kenyan entity that maintains an interactive forum online or in the mass media wary about allowing indigenous language contributions. It is not surprising that some of them would opt to completely do away with Kenyan indigenous languages and the logistical complications of trying to moderate comments in these languages.

Kenyan indigenous languages have clearly earned a terrible reputation, particularly in recent years. But is this reputation fair? Are these languages primarily the vehicles for the expression of hatred? Of course the reputation is unfair. Indigenous languages are not primarily used to express hatred and create divisiveness. Indigenous languages are vehicles for the expression of every aspect of culture- the good, the bad and the ugly. So is English, and so is Sheng’. In fact, many Kenyans who spend time online will attest that tribalism, racism and other forms of hatred are predominantly articulated in English on Kenyan forums.

Hatred is not brought into being by indigenous languages. In reality, many Kenyans live in cosmopolitan communities and are, consequently, multilingual. They worship together, go to school together, do business together, often intermarry and learn each other’s languages. So Kenya’s indigenous languages are the collective heritage of the Kenyan people. Banning the use of these languages in cosmopolitan forums is not a long-term solution for anything.

That said I cannot blame the NMG for trying to keep things simple on their Facebook page. Disallowing the use of Kenya’s indigenous languages is probably a wise move in the short term: it will make the page relatively easy to moderate in a time of heightened sensitivities. However, they will eventually have to come up with a sustainable approach to moderating comments that does not involve the censorship of entire languages.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.


  1. Language is such an interesting question. When we are children, we don't know how to think about the world until we are taught the words used by our cultures to divide that world into its important parts. The words teach us what to want, how to function, what to fear - where the lines are that define a thing, excluding some shapes, including others. And every culture sees the world, then, through its words.

    I am an English speaker, almost exclusively. But I have studied other languages and the history of my own, and I see that the way we see the world is in our language, and that our language is in the way we see. Eskimos have many words for degrees of snow. English has few. But English is so full of words, and so full of cultures, everything does, to a certain degree, get mixed up into a sort of average whole.

    It seems to me that smaller, more concentrated languages may have much stronger personalities, much more specific and local views of the universe. It is not as if all of the English speakers in the United States see the world in the same way, but it does seem to me that, using that language and living in that very broad culture, people speaking to one another share a fairly large context. And thus, share many common concerns that are less specific to region or geography or cultural tradition.

    There is great beauty in the smaller languages - and mysteries to explore, other eyes to see out of. But the more differing ways of seeing and the more differing words - I can see how confusion and conflict and the chance of missing specific meanings may increase as the number of languages increases.

    I suppose a person who runs a forum may make his or her own rules. But when there is a country that tries to make such rules, a country that is not defined by common culture, but by politics or by geography, that is a problem of equality and respect. Still, one can imagine the government of such a country trying to bring its people into more unity and understanding by encouraging a central language.

    A country that tried to survive using many different currencies would have a difficult time. And are words not a sort of currency?

    So the question you bring up here is hardly an easy one to answer. But it's interesting. And I thank you for that.

  2. I couldn't have put it better myself if I tried, K. Thank you for your lovely post!

    Our languages do indeed shape the world (as we perceive it), and the world does shape our languages. It is absolutley true that the more widely spread out the people who speak a language, the broader the worldview(s) encompassed by that language.

    It is a difficult balance trying to maintain a people's unique place in the national community and the sense of a shared national culture. I like the idea of thinking of words as some form of currency. That's something to ponder on!