‘Game changer': A Kenyan radio station is reviving a dying Indigenous language

Alex Kisioi tuned to Sogoot FM radio and seated under a tree, meters away from Mariashoni centre, Molo Nakuru County, Kenya. Photo by Minority Africa, used with permission.

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

Standing out within the Mau Forest complex, in a forested area approximately 210 kilometers (130 miles) west of Nairobi, Kenya, is an over-18-meter (60-foot) steel radio mast with an aviation light on top. Inching closer, a wooden fence intertwined with wire mesh separates the compound of Sogoot 97.1 FM from the houses around it.

The Ogiek people (also known as Okiek and Akiek) are dispersed hunter-gatherer communities living in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. Many are bilingual, speaking the languages of neighboring peoples, such as the Maasai in northern Tanzania and the Gikuyu in Kenya.

A community radio station, Sogoot, which in Ogiek means “leaves,” broadcasts in Ogiek from 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. daily, educating and giving direction to thousands of Ogieks within a 30-kilometer (19-mile) radius of the station.

“Sogoot FM is a game changer for us,” said Stephen Lele, station manager and a founding member of Sogoot FM. He added, “Within where we reside, we haven’t heard any radio station that broadcasts in our language. Our shows focus on everything that touches on humanity, from culture, health, education, leadership and governance, conservation, social, and economic empowerment”

According to UNESCO’s World Atlas of Languages, over 6,700 languages are Indigenous and highly threatened with extinction. In Africa alone, hundreds of languages are dying or are already considered “dead.” In Kenya, Ogiek is one of eight Kenyan languages facing extinction.

The 2019 Kenya Population and Housing Census (KPHC) says there are over 52,696 Ogieks in Kenya. The Ogieks, known for beekeeping and being hunters and gatherers, claim they have been sidelined in many development matters because of their minority status.

The area surrounding the radio station in Mariashoni. Photo by Minority Africa, used with permission.

Stephen Moitalel Njala, a grandfather and community elder, said the Ogieks’ woes began when the Kenya Forest Service “KFS” evicted them from their ancestral land within the Mau complex in October 2009.

Njala describes the eviction as a violation of the community’s human rights, which has had adverse economic, social, and political effects on them. He emphasized, “Our culture and language cannot thrive if we are deprived of our fundamental rights and freedoms. We lack representation in both the county and national assemblies, as well as in the national and county governments. “

“As a community, our culture and language are in the intensive care unit ICU,” Njele said. “What we are doing now is trying our best to resuscitate it. Despite encountering numerous technical challenges with the station, we take pride in our sole radio station, Sogoot FM, which has partnered with us elders to promote our language and culture.”

Wendo Nabea, a historical linguist and communication expert from Laikipia University in Kenya, says lack of practice, bilingualism, rural-urban migration, and natural calamities play a role in endangering languages across the globe:

“We recognize the diversity of cultures, acknowledging that some hold more influence than others. Specifically, young people often rely on these cultures for survival, leading to a dependency syndrome that ultimately undermines existing languages and cultures.”

Erick Kinya Muriuki, a cultural officer in Nakuru County, highlighted that the country's language challenges have historical roots dating back to the colonial era. During this time, Kenyans were prohibited from using their languages in the presence of their colonial masters. This marked the beginning of the decline of Indigenous or local languages in Kenya.

The station manager of Sogoot FM, Stephen Lele, on air. Photo by Minority Africa, used with permission.

“After independence, we were supposed to cut ourselves from the colonial mentality, but it never happened,” Muriuki noted. “The language of instruction became English, it became fashionable, and we forgot to safeguard our local languages.”

While modernisation and technological advancement should be used to save endangered languages, Nabea thinks they serve as a platform for championing the popular ones, instead:

“Majority of parents in Kenya pride themselves when their children communicate in English, which is an official language, and downgrade the national language, Swahili, and other native languages.”

Muriuki said measures are underway to bring back the eroded languages and culture through the formulation and enactment of Indigenous knowledge policies, which are at an advanced stage.

Some of these policies will safeguard Indigenous languages and “take care of all the culture that has been taken for granted,” he said. “All is not lost; we have resources and programs in place; we also encourage parents and guardians to allow and motivate their children to participate in extracurricular activities such as music, drama festivals, folk songs and dances to guard our culture and languages.”

For Lele, Sogoot FM is a way to ensure Ogieks have a voice, and all community members are informed, educated and entertained in their local dialect: “When your right as a community is deprived, you have no say; you aren’t even able to elect your leaders. Our language automatically ends up diminishing and dying.”

Thanks to the support from the community led by the elders, the station has continued broadcasting in the Ogiek language since it was founded in 2019.

At various times, the community has come together to fundraise to buy instruments or gadgets for the station. In 2018, they were able to build a modern broadcasting house, which includes a newsroom, office and studio. Community members help the young presenters create content by sharing knowledge on traditional life and organising gatherings to promote listenership.

“There is still a lot that needs to be done, especially in sensitising the communities to actively and holistically participate to ensure that the vulnerable groups in society can use multiple systems they need to protect their rights,” said Eunice Chepkemoi, the gender and youth officer of the Ogiek People’s Development Program (OPDP), a human rights organisation promoting, protecting and defending Indigenous peoples’ rights in Kenya

Funded by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and the European Union (EU), OPDP seeks to enhance networking and working relationships among the Ogiek community and their neighbours, government agencies, and human rights institutions to improve access to justice and increase awareness of the challenges faced by marginalised groups in Kenya.

“As an organisation, OPDP, through the support of other partners, we are engaging young people to document our culture and language for posterity,” Chepkemoi said. “We have published a book about the Ogiek community, we have recorded songs, and we are coming up with a Bible written in the Ogiek language,” she added.

Leon Ruto, a young Ogiek law student who neither understands his culture nor speaks his language, opines that speaking in a foreign language, such as English, does not mean one is educated. Those speaking in vernacular/local language should not be perceived as inferior.

“Everyone should be proud of their local languages; every language can carry the burden of your experience,” he said.

As the conversation continues, scholars like Professor Nabea insist that when we go silent on culture and language conservation, we risk history judging us harshly.

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