“Does this train make a stop at the Penn Station?” A tall, heavyset, handsome, young man with shiny, curly hair asked me, while riding a 2-train which he boarded at the 96th Station, Broadway.
“Yeah, it does. Where you going?” I asked.
“To Philly…” he replied.
“Great city, passed through their last Christmas,” I told him as a way of starting a conversation, having sufficiently established he is at least from Africa.
Startled, he asked me, “You must be from Kenya?”
Startled, I asked him, “How did you know?”
“From the way you talk. I lived in Kenya shortly in the mid-1990s before coming to the States.”
“Where you from?” I asked.
“Rwanda, but lived in Uganda and Kenya briefly before I came here.”
End of conversation.
It was rather a surreal coincidence. Earlier that week, while buying my lunch from some Egyptians who sold hot meals off their small truck outside the Columbia University gate (116St) on the Amsterdam Avenue side, a South Sudanese national had overheard me make my order and promptly said jambo! Which again caught me off-guard. Because growing in Kenya, I had been made to believe that our spoken English is very British and hard to distinguish.
“I can tell any Kenyan from their accent, whether I’m here or in Australia…”
He was a student, doing his Master’s in Sociology or any social science. And it was the first time someone had mentioned that there is such a thing as an exclusively Kenyan accent.
When I joined graduate school in New York, there were a few African students. Two South Africans ladies whose English was very South African. A resolute Ugandan lady whose English was very Ugandan. The kind that we Kenyans like to ridicule, thinking we are better than them on that score, but we are just rubbish in that regard. There was a Ghanaian brother whose English was very West African. One distinguishing fact about the lot, they seemed to be very comfortable and spoke in their respective accents not faking like Kenyans are wont to do, especially Kenyan women when abroad. I met the Chinese, Indians, Iranians and people from Eastern Europe who never had the burden to speak in ‘good’ English as we do in Kenya.
Accents matter in Kenya as much as gold and diamonds matter to other countries in the continent. It is common to measure someone’s intelligence on account of how they speak English.
In fact, my favourite professor at the University of Nairobi, an unapologetic Anglophile and very pro-American was always pushing us to pronounce stuff right.
To know the kind of person he is, he thought Achebe was was not the greatest African story teller (he was, no question about that) and he always held, Joseph Conrad was not racist in his depiction of Africa and Africans in that controversial classic Heart of Darkness. Conrad was a racist.
Many people have made a career out of ridiculing various communities’ accents. Comedy shows such as Churchill and Redyukulas, Red Korna, Vioja Mahakamani and the rest have comedians whose job description is limited to speaking in broken or accented English, depicting how Central Kenya, Luos, Luhyas, Kambas and how each tribe speaks their second language, never making any decent jokes worth any discernible laughter.
While some accents can be laughable, at an intellectual level, it is the driest source of comedy, anywhere in the world. We have Willis Ochieng’ who comes to KTN on Fridays to teach how to pronounce English words. A very useful exercise, as I have learnt a few pronunciations, but it is ridiculous. I wonder what if someone from Britain came and found that we have someone who comes at Prime Time to teach us how to pronounce words!
But he earns from it. We usually make a fuss, if a public official tries to speak in accented English. When Justice Philomena Mwilu and Chief Justice David Maraga read their judgements, their accents were a source of doubts about their intellectual abilities, compared to Justice Ojwang and Njoki Ndung’u. But the substance of the two rulings was like day and night. Both Ojwang and Ndung’u engaged in sophistry and circumlocution, what Americans call filibustering. Mwilu and Maraga, given the weight of the evidence they had gathered evidence were brief and to the point. And they carried the day.
I have noticed people who speak in the so called great accents are usually very empty and some of the people with the thickest accents are deep and very knowledgeable. I love Indians especially, because they never struggle to impress much trying to speak the best “British English.
If you learn a second language on top of your mother tongue, of course you will have an accent, unless you take a studious approach to rid yourself any legacy of your native accent. But it is largely a futile exercise. Kenya is the most brainwashed country in Africa and the most westernized. We are particularly very averse to anything made in Kenya. We insist on naming our kids the most American (especially African American) names, we only listen to American music (the whole world does, but some countries have struck a formula of giving their countries’ music and art a fair share of their time). In Kenya we accord Kenyan art and any creative efforts, the shortest shrifts of time. That is why we have a very shaky patriotism, torn asunder by our noxius negative ethnicity.
For other countries like Nigeria, you will scarcely know if they have internal tribal problems between the largely Muslim North and the largely Christian South.
We saw last week Kenyans arriving in London where Raila was addressing a crowd, and there were two sides of the crowd. Those fighting for democracy, respect for human rights, and having credible elections and credible institutions. And then, there was another group airing their dirty linen in public, without any hint of irony, really disgusting.
Michael Skapinker, writing in the Financial Times recently said that we are all stuck with our accent, can as well as make the most of it. He told of a short BBC film about Kasha, who has spent 20-odd years in Britain and has tried to rid herself the Polish accent. I have read books by British satirist and humourists and they all have a thing against Eastern Europeans that is credited for the Brexit vote last year.
According to the article, an ITV poll found that 28 per cent of Britons had been discriminated against because of their accent, 14 per cent at work and 12 per cent in job interviews. Even in America, the problem is just as pernicious. There are ‘good’ accents, and there are ‘bad’ accents.
And when you think, people can be discriminated because of that…
Skapinker says, “accent is, objectively, as worthless a means of assessing ability as race and gender. The smartest employers know that, so search for them.”
The best way of knowing a country’s accent is to listen to their president. That will be the average accent of the country's national language that in Africa will be either English, French, Arab or Portuguese on top of two other native language. It is not to be laughed at. It is not to be ridiculed. As long you are speaking someone’s national language, trying to speak it better than the native speakers will be an impossible task. The president usually will be as polished as the average citizen of the country will be and his or her spoken English will the commonest accent in the country.
I have argued before, what Khaligraph Jones speaks is not African-American slang. It is his own creation. If an African-American listened to him, he will not make head or tail of his flow. That is why he sounds all the more ridiculous, despite his number of fans.
People who sing or peddle their craft using our vernacular language, or ordinary language, will always get better feedback. There is a reason why we love Bongo music. There is a reason Ugandan music rocks, if you love it. They sing in their language. Same locally, musicians who sing in vernacular have become rather popular, and even ordinary sheng, has made Meja and Madtraxx household names.
I love Omondi Tony and Ben Githae (not that silly song he did for Jubilee, and this has nothing to do with my political affiliation.) So, if obsessed with accents, it is time you grew up and stop the pesky preoccupations. I have met ladies who can't date me because of my deep Ekegusii, accent.
Also, there is nothing wrong about the Ugandan accent. Nor the Kiuk accent. Not the Luhya accent. Every accent. If you can hear what the other party is saying, that is what communication is all about. But I would add, it is perfectly OK to admire a certain way people some people speak. I love how the Coast people speak their Swahili compared to sisi watu wa bara. British accent is good, but not superior. Similarly, I have no beef whatsoever how Italians speak English, or Portuguese (Mourinho, anyone). And I will never look down anyone because of their accent.
Presidents and how they speak.
3. South Africa