Accents, Position and Reflection


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Bed, bad, bird and bud. Hat, hurt, heart and hut. One of the greatest achievements of my International school education was the ability for the audience to distinguish these words in my speech. Those who know Kenyans would appreciate that the various accents lent no help to oral discernment of these words, as most of the indigenous languages are phonetic. Bed and bad were discernible in the Nairobi accent, but pronouncing bad [baad] could represent bird and bud as well. Saying ‘haat’ could represent hat, hurt, hut and heart. It takes a superior form of intelligence or intuition to distinguish, which word someone meant (kidding). Hearing ‘mbed’ could mean bed, bad, bird and bud. So [mbed ngal] could mean bad girl or bed, girl-requiring one to quickly tap into that intuitive resource. It might get messy if I tried to get into the details of the possible 42 other accents and versions. I recall when the British headmaster (for some reason they were always white), asked the students at the assembly to pronounce these words. I was personally shaken that he might point me out as I hadn’t quite mastered how to pronounce ‘bud’ and ‘hut’ distinctly from the others. And so Peter McGrath (name withheld), a British boy, solely raised his hand and confidently walked to the front of the assembly to loudly pronounce the words. An applause ensued for his pronunciation abilities and braveness. Pity the headmaster gave no attention in assembly to enunciate ning’inia (hanging), nong’oneza (whisper in ear), ng’ombe (cow) or nung’unika (complain). I’d have certainly been able to compete without fear of failure.

Rewind. The first time I went to a IGCSE school in a suburban area bordering a sprawling slum-Kawangware, I tirelessly worked to pronounce the r’s in words as my headmaster, teachers and some of the students did. It was a deliberate effort, which soon formed part of my natural speech. Recently, I came to reflect my position then, I concluded that it was prestigious and cultured to be able to enunciate words well-that way I was equal to the Mzungu. That way I could fit into my new environment. A symptom of unsuccessful decolonisation, as really my efforts then were to be more like the Mzungu. I must say I experienced praise and taunts in equal levels from two societies. Praise that I “spoke well”, words which would come to irate me in South Africa, particularly because they mostly came from Caucasian South Africans. As though a beast had mastered how to utter words while concomitantly performing gymnastics. I later learned that circumstance was unkind to the quality of education in black areas-it still is. And it was unusual then for white South Africans in Port Elizabeth to mingle with Blacks who had a good command of the English language. The taunting was sometimes in the eyes of fellow Mwanainchi and behind my back, jeering that that was indeed not my true accent. Lingering accusations of being disingenuous and feeling superior because of my international schooling, once they established I had not studied out of the country. Sadly, those early days of practice and mimicking had paid off and how I pronounce words is deeply embedded in my speech. The awakened Pan African in me found it dishonest to attempt adopting the prevalent Nairobi accent. In a bid to embrace my “Afrophilia”, I started using yanihaiboeish, and jamani, a culmination of my Kenyan and South African experiences. Using these words were against the linguistic puritan recipe I grew up on in early school life. I guess it was my way of giving due importance to my “Africaness”-symbolic of shedding off a layer of self- hate.  I still can’t believe we were discouraged to speak Swahili in primary school or worse still mix English and Swahili. Our linguistic innovations were indeed hindered.

I was mesmerised by the myriad of students from all around the world *Salma the Pakistani, *Alice the American, *Jane the Korean, *Luke, the Swazi, *Ike the Beninois, *Phoenix, the artistic and flamboyant Ugandan. It was a stark contrast to my “8-4-4” days, where we were all rather uniform in mannerisms and only those who excelled by scoring the highest marks were noticed. I soon started to realise that teachers were our equals in my new school and we were encouraged to ask questions and express ourselves politely. One was no longer pinched and humiliated for getting an answer wrong as my Swahili teacher would in my previous school. I soon learned that it was ‘cool’ to scare the teacher, that one time when *Gino and the gang put a caterpillar inside the teacher’s desk, so she could scream before class. Life was a bit more like a localized version of Francine Pascal’s “Sweet Valley Kids”. Every school day was an adventurous ordeal to look forward to.

But wait, where I’m I going with this? It all started with self-reflection and meditation in a bid for self-improvement, which was motivated by a spiritual awakening. “The whys I am the way I am”.

A couple of years after being in school and urging my mother to relax my hair, I began pushing my hair behind my ear. Except it was more like placing my hair behind my ear-you see it never quite flowed as silky hair would. My concepts of beauty were already deeply distorted thanks to the Bollywood and Hollywood shows, I had watched since a toddler. I wanted my nose narrower, my hair silkier and my frame thinner. At the time, there was no natural African beauty or role model I looked up to, I had long forgotten Mbilia Bel and she wore wigs anyway. Yondo Sister had taken to bleaching herself-which even at the time seemed odd.

Most importantly I wanted the bespectacled exotic American boy who pushed his hair behind his ears and occasionally stared at me, to like me back.

It took me 17 years of processed hair slavery before I went natural (or nachoro as the people of the Kenyan slopes would say). I had counselled myself for 2 years that I would manage, that I needn’t fear my course hair, that my hair was beautiful and at least, I didn’t have to worry about rain or swimming with natural hair. The last layer of self-hate was exfoliated when my mother cut the last section of relaxed hair. It was exhilarating and liberating!

*not their real names