LAIKIPIA, KENYA — In Africa, hundreds of indigenous languages are on the verge of extinction, according to the U.N. culture organization UNESCO. That includes at least 13 languages in Kenya. This week, Kenyan civil society groups met in Nairobi to discuss a proposed bill to help preserve and safeguard these disappearing dialects.
One-hundred-two-year-old Leriman Letiko sits under a tree, passing down knowledge of a culture and a dialect that may be near its end.
Letiko and his 95-year-old brother, Leteiyon, are the only two left in a tribe of about 10,000 who can speak fluent Yakunte.
UNESCO classifies the Yakunte language as extinct, but the Yiaku, an indigenous tribe in the Mukogodo Forest and its environs in Laikipia, a county in north central Kenya, are fighting to keep it alive.
“Both my mother and grandmother spoke Yakunte. The period when we started interacting more and intermarrying with the Maasai, that’s when the language started to get lost. When we married into a different tribe, we adopted their languages.”
Most Yaakus now speak Kimaasai, the language of their Laikipia Maasai neighbors.
Leriman Letiko has been using oral tradition to pass down the language and cultural knowledge to his son and other Yaakus.
Effort to save dialect
He says the only way to save the Yakunte dialect is by introducing it in local schools.
“Right now we have schools and we have education. If the language is introduced in schools in this area, get teachers and the older Yaakus involved, I am confident the language can be revived.”
Civil society groups and the Kenyan Ministry of Sports, Culture and the Arts have drafted a bill to document and promote indigenous languages in Kenya.
Josephta Mukobe is the principal secretary in the ministry's State Department of Culture and Heritage.
“My state department is charged with languages, so we are developing a policy to see whether we can preserve some of these languages. But as I said, a language is only important when it is used, even when we develop that language and there is no one to speak it, we will never hear of it.”
Kimani Njogu, a linguist who also is a member of the Academy of African Languages, says languages can die like anything else.
“Because of globalization and urbanization, and because we do not have very systematic transfer of languages across generations, we have older people not transferring their language to younger people as well as systems of education where certain languages dominate the systems of education, so quite a number of languages are endangered.”
Can IT help?
Njogu adds that information technology should be used to capture these languages before they disappear.
This is the goal that the Yaku Laikipia Trust, an organization mainly dealing with advocacy issues around the Yiaku, is championing. Jennifer Konate is the trust's director.
“What we want to embark on is documentation, taking the voice of the elders that are available, bringing them together to continue talking, so we want to have a place where they will be talking and we will be recording their language.”
If that happens, and the bill on language policy passes, Yakunte and other indigenous languages may live on - something that would make Leriman Letiko feel his efforts were not in vain.