‘Tag the trees': The disappearing Kenyan language being saved with afforestation

Illustration by Minority Africa, used with permission.

This story was originally published by Minority Africa, and this edited version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing partnership agreement.

A stroll through the Mukogodo Forest in Laikipia County, Kenya’s largest national and dry forest reserve covering a landmass of over 30,000 hectares, reveals a sight: metallic tags adorning the trees, each bearing two words. One word is in English, while the other is its translation into Yaakunte, the language of the Indigenous Yaaku people.

The tags, for example, one with the English word “Elephant” and its counterpart in Yaakunte Sogomei, are an initiative of Ann Naibini and Juliana Kageni, sisters working hard to revive their dying Yaakunte language and traditions. They are the grandchildren of one of the three remaining elders of the Yaakunte tribe.

“The words are in English, and their translations are in the Yaakunte language to make it easier for young learners to understand,” says Kageni.

In 2020, Yaakunte was declared among the critically endangered languages in Kenya by UNESCO.

The Yaaku people were a traditional hunter-gatherer community that migrated from southern Ethiopia to Mukogodo Forest more than a century ago. They settled in Laikipia County, Mt Kenya region. The Yaaku resemble the Rendille and the Somali people living in northern Kenya.

The community migrated away from the forest in 1977 after the government banned all kinds of hunting in the forest, which affected their way of life. Since then, the Yaaku people have been losing their cultural identity to the neighbouring Maasai community and other tribes like the Kikuyu. Today, many of them cannot communicate in their own language.

“We have been assimilated by the neighbouring Maa (Maasai) community, therefore slowly killing away our traditions and language,” says Naibini.

Her sister, Kageni, 30, a teacher by profession, is using her skills and knowledge to revive her forefathers’ language by teaching the community members how to write and pronounce it.

Kageni has a total of 390 learners in her classroom, which comprises adults and children. There are 100 adults and 290 children in her class. She conducts her weekly classes in Mukogodo village, near Mukogodo forest. According to Kageni, on average, a person can speak or write Yaakunte after six months of learning.

”As a teacher, I ensure that by the end of the week, at least the majority of the attendees can add a Yaakunte word by knowing how to pronounce it and maybe how to write for those who can write,” says Kageni.

Kageni further explains that the higher the number of children who are willing to learn, the greater the chances of the revival of the language in the future. It is similar to the sisters’ own experience, where they developed an interest in learning Yaakunte while living with their grandfather, Lerima Letiko, following the death of their parents when the girls were very young.

“Children are the pioneers of future generations of any community, so when we see them coming here in large numbers, we see, and we believe that our traditions and language will be revived very soon as this shows some interest in young people, which will be transferred to the many generations to come,” Kageni says.

This mirrors a similar sentiment shared by their grandfather Letiko, who is approximately 110 years old and is now the pioneer of Mukogodo Location Resource Center, a community-based organisation championing the revival of Yaakunte and the conservation of Yaaku traditions.

Since leaving the forest over four decades ago, the elder looks back with a sense of satisfaction about the progress made.

“Living outside the forest really affects our traditions and the way of life,” says Letiko, who remained after the Yaaku people left the forest in 1977.

He notes that thanks to the efforts of Naibini and Kageni, some people have started to understand words in Yaakunte, and he firmly believes that as time goes on, more people will be able to have conversations in Yaakunte.

“None of my sons can speak the language, but I applaud my granddaughters for learning the language and now teaching others,” he says.

According to local historian and linguist Peter Chamasuet, many young people believe that using English and Swahili is a way of modernizing. However, this mindset has a significant impact on local languages.

This is not the first language to suffer this fate. Says Chamasuet, “Many have gone, and many are yet to follow due to the way of life where people are embracing foreign languages,” he says.  “When Yaaku found that their numbers were declining, they decided to intermarry with the neighbouring Maa community and accepted to be assimilated, and this has really affected their traditions.”

But today, this story is changing. The classes and the tags in the forest are turning the tide. According to Kageni, people herding livestock or collecting firewood from the forest also have an opportunity to learn the language without necessarily attending classroom lessons.

“We’ve decided to tag the trees because not all people will be able to attend classes,” says Kageni. I’m sure many access the forest while herding their livestock, collecting firewood, or just touring it. They will be able to learn the language while there.”

Beyond helping to revive the language, this initiative has also taken on the mantle of reviving the forest that was originally home to the Yaaku people.

In 2010, the Yaaku community, under the guidance of Letiko and supported by the Yaaku Laikipiak Trust, embarked on an initiative to plant more trees. This initiative has already planted about 600 tree seedlings in the Mukogodo Forest from their tree nursery and has pinned the tags with different names.

So far, more than 300 trees have been tagged. Their target is to plant, tag and transfer more than 3,000 trees to the Indigenous forest annually.

According to Naibini and Kageni, well-wishers have donated more than 50,000 tree seed balls, and in the coming years, they will ensure that all these trees are tagged and planted inside Mukogodo Forest.

“I am optimistic that one day, the Yaaku community will be like other tribes that enjoy, and are proud of, using their language,” says Kageni.

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