Language and Education in Kenya: Between the Colonial Legacy and the New Constitutional Order
In August 2010, citizens of Kenya voted for a new constitutional order in a referendum that, for many, heralds a new beginning in important domains of national life. Arguably among the most revolutionary of the provisions of the new Constitution is the elevation of Kiswahili to a co-equal status with English as the country’s official languages. The Kenyan government is now in the process of drafting the Official Languages Bill, which, once ready and enacted in Parliament, will articulate in greater detail the nature of this co-official relationship. What, then, are the implications of Kiswahili’s new national status in the education of Kenyan children? This chapter seeks to explore the educational policies that have framed English and Kiswahili over the years, from the colonial period to the postcolonial phase associated with the new Constitution. As in much of the rest of Africa, Kenya’s ethnic diversity is reflected in its linguistic landscape. The country has over 45 local languages, which are primarily known to and used by members of the respective ethnic groups. Some of these, like Gikuyu and Dholuo, are home languages to rapidly growing populations of speakers that are estimated to number in the millions. Others, like Suba and Okiek, have numerically small and declining numbers of speakers, with the languages being in danger of extinction. In addition, Kenya has been fortunate to have two trans-ethnic media of communication, one local (Kiswahili) and the other imperial (English), which have experienced changing fortunes since the days of British colonial rule. An imperial language is defined as one that has acquired a dominant role in a given society as a direct result of conquest or colonization by another power, without being the mother tongue of those who were conquered or colonized. It is in this sense that English can be considered an imperial language in Kenya. But precisely because it lacks a local ethnic constituency, it has sometimes been seen as a neutral medium of inter-ethnic
communication. On the other hand, though Kiswahili is local in origin, only a very tiny population of Kenyans speak it as a home language. As a result, because it is not regarded as posing any potential danger of ethnic hegemony, it could more easily acquire national status and popular support. Over the decades, colonial and postcolonial educational policies placed the two languages, English and Kiswahili, in competition with each other at some times, and in complementary spaces at other times. Will the new language legislation now affect the contours of this relationship? Following a historical account of language policy in Kenya, the chapter will conclude by examining the significance of Kiswahili’s new, constitutionally mandated status as an official language in Kenya and the prospects offered by the new Constitution for a significant policy shift that would enhance the role of the language in educational instruction.