This native Kenyan tongue soon to become extinct

The Yaaku people, of Kenya’s Rift Valley, number only around 4,000. And only seven people can speak the ethnic group’s native language, Yakunte, fluently.

African languages are especially vulnerable as governments adopt official languages while discouraging local ones in hopes of better forging national identity, and social contexts value foreign languages as more prestigious. Of the 231 languages around the world that have gone extinct since 1950, 37 were in Africa—the Zeem language in Nigeria, Berakou in Chad, Kwadi in Angola and Kw’adza in Tanzania among many that have become extinct in the last decade.

Doldol, Kenya – Rashid Njapaa bends down to check on a newborn sheep. Credit: Aljazeera

A member of the Yaaku tribe of Kenya’s Rift Valley, Njapaa, a 78-year-old man, is one of seven people who can still speak the group’s native language, Yakunte. All the remaining Yakunte speakers are over the age of 70.

“It’s disturbing to see that young people who are supposed to take over from us have decided to abandon this beautiful language,” Njapaa told Aljazeera

The Yaaku are believed to have migrated from Ethiopia to Kenya, where they settled in the Mukogodo forest, west of Mount Kenya, more than 100 years ago. The Yaaku, whose name means “hunting people,” kept bees as honey was their staple food, and began trading with the Maasai, the country’s largest pastoral people who were pushed out of their vast grazing lands by white farmers.

The Maasai people derogatorily referred to them as Ntorobo, meaning poor people who do not own livestock. They could ask men from the Yaaku to herd their livestock and this way, the forest dwellers came to admire the language of the intruders. Eventually, when they were fully assimilated to the Maasai culture, adopting the Maasai tongue over their own language, they moved out of Mukogodo forests, some starting cattle keeping.

“That’s when our language started dwindling slowly,” Njapaa said. Numbering only about 4,000 people in Kenya today, most of whom do not speak the language, the Yaaku are considered a sub-clan of the Maasai by the Kenyan government. 

One-third of the world’s languages come from sub-Saharan Africa, UN world heritage group UNESCO estimates. The organisation says as much as 10 percent of the over 2,000 languages spoken in the African countries may disappear within the next 100 years and in 2010, released a report of the world languages in danger. Yaaku is among 6 Kenyan languages listed as extinct. The others are Elmolo, Kinare, Kore, Lorkoti and Sogoo. Local attempts to revive the language have struggled to get off the ground.

Manasseh Ole Matunge, a 52-year-old man in Doldol, has tried to convince young people in the village to learn Yakunte while the elders are still alive. “If these old men die, that would be the end of this language,” said Matunge, a father of five whose grandmother, Ms Naruato Matunge, aged 105, was one of only two women in the village who could speak pure Yaaku language—Yakunte—fluently without using words borrowed from the Maasai community, before her death in 2010. Manasseh Ole Matunge, together with his wife, Eunice Sirankasio, started a cultural group  to bring young people and the few fluent Yakunte speakers that are left together, and even published a dictionary of Yakunte words and phrases translated into Kiswahili and Maasai, together with a Dutch researcher, Fleur Wensveen.

Ms Eunice Sirankasio displays the Yakunte dictionary. Ms Sirankasio has been distributing the dictionary, a glossary of Yakunte words translated into the Maasai language, in an effort to preserve the language of her Yaaku people. Credit: Mwangi Ndirangu

Maarten Mous, a professor of African linguistics at Leiden University in the Netherlands who has extensively studied the Yaaku people, said it is impossible for the community to revive the dying language in its original form. “A more realistic goal”, he said, “would be to incorporate Yakunte words into the more widely used Maasai language.”

“Continue to speak Maasai but reshape some of the words; bring in your old remembered words from the swallowed language,” Mous advised.

Rashid Njapaa is one of fewer than 10 people who still speak Yakunte. Credit: Osman Mohamed Osman/Al Jazeera

Yakunte is among the languages which have since been declared endangered according to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. The remaining Yaaku elderly men and women are convinced that after their demise, the language will die since children and youth are not interested in learning it, generally percieving the language and culture as inferior to the Maasai and of no use as there isn’t a sizable number of speakers.

According to Professor Okoth Okombo, a professor of Linguistics and Communication Skills at the University of Nairobi who spoke to Africa Review, Africa should worry when this happens.

“Language is like a reservoir of culture. Most of the cultural wealth of a community is stored in its language: their philosophy of life, their stories, their medicinal practices,” said Prof Okombo. “The death of a language is like the burning of a library.”