The crowd stared at me impatiently; I had taken far too long to think. With a deep breath, I began in Swahili, “Gogo was one of
the kindest people I have ever met.”
Whispers broke out in the crowd, the elders staring at me in disbelief, and the youth barely hiding their amusement.
Nevertheless, I stuttered throughout the rest of my dedication and rushed back to my seat, scattered claps following in my
wake. I was furious with the crowd for laughing at me, and with myself for giving them a good reason to. The rest of the
ceremony went in a blur. At tea time, I dragged myself to the smoky kitchen, trying to ignore the loud whispers and sniggers
that followed me. Aunt Chelimo stood up to stretch herself just as I got in, and when she caught my eye, she said, tongue-in-
cheek, “Ehe, the city girl who cannot speak Kalenjin, even at her grandmother’s memorial!”
In the uncomfortable silence that ensued, Mum sieved the tea, quietly handing the thermos flask over to me to take to the
Elders’ tent. My great uncle, Kipchirchir, looked at me suspiciously as I approached and talked to me in Kalenjin. I replied
apologetically that I couldn’t understand. With a morose shake of his head, he turned back to the elders, and said in Swahili, “A
tree with no roots.”
A tree with no roots. I left that ceremony feeling worse than I had ever felt in my life. On our painfully silent journey back home
that evening, my mind wandered back to the older days; Kalenjin was initially the secret code, spoken by my parents when they
wanted to have a confidential conversation, while the languages of instruction to us were English and Swahili. I was 11 when
Mum attempted to teach me Kalenjin, but my preteen self so stubbornly refused to cooperate that she gave up on me. My
flawed reasoning was that we were ‘urban’, and therefore had Swahili for ‘authenticity’. During various family gatherings and
trips to Sangurur, our home village, I always felt a distinct desire to understand the peculiar pronunciations and intonations of
Kalenjin, but I pushed it to my subconscious. However, that memorial day, it refused to stay there.
As I stayed awake in my bed that night, feeling guilty for desecrating my grandmother’s memory with my ignorance, and being
a stranger to my own tribal tongue, I remembered that merely having guilty feelings would not right my wrongs. It was time to
change. I needed to learn Kalenjin.
From that month onwards, I tried different methods of learning, from listening to Kalenjin radio stations and putting traditional
music on my playlist (this amused my friends), to instructing my parents to speak in Kalenjin only, with necessary translations. I
even started reading the Bible in Kalenjin, and keeping a diary of the new words I learnt daily. Performing as a soloist in a
traditional Kalenjin song during my final music assessment in High School imparted in me knowledge of our colorful traditional
garb, dance and vocal ornamentation. It has not been easy; many times I feel ashamed in holding a conversation with my fluent
cousins, uncles and aunts in the broken Kalenjin I have learnt. Nevertheless, I try, and I have noticed that things I used to see
with indifference, such as mursik, our traditional drink, and Kalenjin proverbs, poems and sayings, are becoming meaningful to
That night after the memorial, I resolved to learn Kalenjin in a bid to prove myself; to show that I was worthy of my second
name. But since then, I have realized that learning my native language is not a competition, it is a journey of self-awareness
and appreciation of traditions that have been in my family for generations.
I may never pass the litmus test of Kalenjin fluency, but this tree won’t stop growing its roots.



  1. Shadrack Lilan · January 22, 2015

    I feel you sister, I feel you!

  2. Elijah · January 26, 2015

    Norah. ..I’m going back to my roots’ by Lucky Dube may be a good listen for you. Cool writing(as always)

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