As a black Kenyan woman writing in a language that was not invented by or for me, my stories often demand that I write them in a language that can imagine them. In the same way, writing is a way for me to find a language that can imagine me, a language that sees me. English is the language of my formal schooling, but the kind of English I inhabit contains all the languages of my life—the language of my mother, of Nairobi, of music, of my dreams, and of my memories.
I want to inhabit English in a way that allows my stories to stay alive and feel at home. It is a language that allows me to be in the in-between, to inhabit the tongues that I choose for myself. Beckett calls it a transitional space. It is beyond the limits of English, Kiswahili, and Kikamba. It is a composite language that allows me mobility between text, photography, music and dance. I am mixing and matching and experimenting and making rules as I go.
I am not there yet, but this language is slowly becoming.
A love affair with sentences begins with a copy of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I am nine years old and have not yet started reading English. But there are things I know. I know that English is what we—the people in school and those we meet out there—hope to speak someday. English is the measure of intelligence. It is also a measure of importance.
My father has gone to sleep and his copy of The Grapes of Wrath sits on the coffee table. With the curiosity of a child, I open the book and begin to peruse it. There is nothing I understand here. The language of instruction in lower primary school is Kikamba, and occasionally, Kiswahili. Even the English lessons are instructed in Kikamba.
The words in this book mean nothing to me. They are shapes. But these shapes look like the kind one should know if one is to know English. And so I begin to copy these words onto a piece of paper. I misspell some even though I am copying them directly from the book. I duplicate sentences and pretend to have written them myself.
I want to write big words and sentences like these. I want to write the kind of English that no one understands. The good kind of English.
It is 1995. Nairobi is the city under the sun. Nairobi is also the city of English. Those who go to visit their cousins in Kariobangi and Kayole come back with tales of a city where everyone speaks English, where we would not even know how to order water in a restaurant.
How wonderful it must be to speak a language as sophisticated as English. How do the words feel in the mouth as they move from the back of the tongue to the tip and to the lips? Are they soft? How do they taste? How heavy do they weigh? Surely they must feel different from the unworldly Kiswahili and Kikamba. These two require no labour. They come to you, even in your sleep.
I am terrified of this city and this language I cannot speak. I might have things to say but what is one without the language of the city?
I have no place in that city.
The ritual of Monday and Friday morning assemblies is to pledge loyalty to the president and to the state, and to pray to the father in heaven in a language I cannot speak. I memorize the sounds, the way one would commit to memory the sounds of a song one loves, but does not understand. The language of music is different. It is sounds.
I pledge my loyoyo to the presede of Kenya
Awa father who’atineven. Alod be thane.
Smatterings of English.
Tongue twisters and laugher. How fast can you say this?
Betty Botter bought some butter but, said she, the butter’s bitter.
If I put it in my batter, it will make my batter bitter.
The accent always betrays.
There is a wooden shackle one must wear around the neck for speaking Kikamba during school hours, the burden of one’s own language. We are encouraged to speak English and Kiswahili, but mostly English. Kikamba is a place one returns to once he or she leaves the school gate.
During English classes, we immerse ourselves into the cadences of the Queen’s language. The good English is about using words that are beloved by the English teacher. I master these words and ensure that they make an appearance in my English composition: cantankerous, cacophony, supersonic.
The good English is also about using figurative language so that one’s writing is more powerful.
Like a chameleon, sitting on a merchant box, waiting for its master.
My feeble legs were shaking like leaves in the wind.
We are teenagers. We develop the language of love.
Dear, my sweet little lovely lollipop. When I see you, I die.
My heart, my lungs and my liver belong to you.
Reading Ken Walibora’s Siku Njema. Kiswahili is music. It is music.
There are other languages of the city. Some even exist without sounds. There is the language of biashara, the language of music, and the language of River Road.
What language holds my memories? In what language do I remember? What is the language of my dreams?
First attempts at writing: writing to me seems like the mastery of big English words. This is expressive power. I am posting Facebook updates with unintelligible words and using the thesaurus to replace each word that sounds too ordinary with a synonym that is more sophisticated.
A first degree in English and Literature at Kenyatta University.
There are questions and hesitations from others and from me when I think of myself as multi-lingual. I am proficient in English, Kikamba, and a little Kikuyu and Kiswahili. I am multi-lingual. But am I? Which languages count?
In re-reading Ken Walibora and revisiting other Kiswahili texts, I realize that I can no longer write Kiswahili or Kikamba as well as I used to. In my pursuit of English, I have moved away from these other languages. There is nothing but remorse, and so I begin to collect old Kiswahili texts to feel closer to these languages. I immerse myself in music.
I suspect that my love for Bongo and Taarab music is partly a residue of this guilt.
I was recently in Nairobi and eavesdropping on a conversation in the bus. A young woman and a slightly older man are in each other’s silent company. The woman is resting her head on his shoulder. Suddenly, she lifts her head and whispers something to his ear, to which the man stridently responds, as if to get the attention of anyone who cares to hear: In English that is grammatically incorrect.
In which English? She responds.
When speaking about English and refusing to apologize for her unfamiliarity with the language, my grandmother will often say: English came by ship.
Let us think about water for a minute and what it does to things. Water dilutes, it omits, and it adds.
Maybe English came by ship is to say, let me have my Englishes, please.
Someone asks on Twitter, “In what language do you dream?”
I like to imagine that there is a language of thinking in all of us that is inaccessible to other people and to the facilities of other languages that exist in us. This language has its own structures and allows us unique mental processes. So we move from the language of thinking to the language of expression.
It is possible that so much is lost in translation from the language of thinking to the language of expression. We feel it. There is something in us that needs to be said, but we say, I just can’t find the words.
While reading Dust, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor reminds me that it is possible to invent one’s own language and forms for the stories where existing languages and forms are inadequate.
In an interview with Novuyo Tshuma Rosa, Yvonne says, “I treat language as both a palette and also a container. And I think there’s this subversive self that wants to know, what would Luo sound like if it was English?”
Phoebe Boswell, On Love, Language and Lizards writes, “In order to truthfully, authentically communicate what it means to be me in the world right now, my language needs to be pliable enough to squeeze into Kikuyu corners and also eek itself into English edges.”
And then, Jumpha Lahiri, “I think, like any artist or any writer, I just want to have that pure freedom of expression and of thought—the freedom to explore and move in unexpected ways.”
Do I feel at home yet?
Ndinda Kioko is a Kenyan writer and filmmaker. She was recently listed and published in the Africa39 project, a selection of 39 writers under the age of 40 from Africa. Her works have also appeared in several other publications including The Trans-African, Fresh Paint – Literary Vignettes by Kenyan Women and Jalada Africa. Her short story, “Jagged Edges of a Disappearing Woman” was adapted for radio by BBC Radio 4. She has produced one TV show for M-net Africa. Ndinda is a Miles Morland scholar for 2014 and is currently enrolled at the University of Oregon completing her MFA in Creative Writing.