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Banning vernacular radio not the answer to our malaise

Publication Date: 6/6/2008

FORMER PRESIDENT MOI went public recently complaining about vernacular radio stations. He sees them as key culprits in inciting ethnic tensions and hatred.

He is not the only one. Bigots – whether ethnic, religious or political – learnt the power of the media long ago, and radio has a unique appeal to those who want to incite mass destruction by way of propaganda.

There were many complaints of this nature during last year’s campaigns. Some of the language, especially on call-in shows, was reportedly strong enough to burn the ear from 100 metres away, and to warrant an outright ban.

Most of it was coded so that only those on the inside track could get the true messages. Using the richness of local idioms, we were told, entire communities were urged to rise up and defend their political turf even if it meant resorting to foul means.

Inciting people to violence is indefensible, and it is a sad day for the media when we sink that low. Yet recent history is filled with evidence of radio, the preferred medium because of its extensive outreach, being used to promote mayhem and genocide in Africa.

In the true Moi fashion, the former president reminded us that he said ages ago that the stations should be banned.

Bandit broadcasting is a pain in the backside and the fact that it afflicts many is not an excuse to allow it. But there is another way to look at it: declaring something illegal does not wipe it off the face of the earth; it only goes underground and becomes more explosive because you cannot even keep watch on it any more.

There is one thing to be said of the man: he is consistent in his beliefs. It was during his tenure that we saw the disbanding of tribal associations, complete with official spokesmen, such as the Gikuyu, Embu and Meru Association, the Luo Union and others bringing together large groups like the Luhya and Kamba.  Now we know better than to think that we can wish away problems that easily. It is all in the mind and heart.

Those associations were certainly not overtly active when Kenya went up in flames early this year. Yet we separated neatly into alliances and allegiances that were clearly grouped around tribes and regions. The smaller communities quickly learnt the magic words, “speaking with one voice”.

The re-emergence of Gema need not raise any hackles now. It never went away. Nor did all the others. A rose by any other name remains a rose.

Their reason for being remained solid and secure – and it is only the very naïve who believe that it is all about building schools and football teams to “empower” our communities. Try idle politicians who want to remain relevant instead.

IT’S NO COINCIDENCE THAT ETHNIC-based associations should enjoy a new lease of life simultaneously with talk of the 2012 succession.

It is truly obscene to initiate the scramble for power and glory at a time when hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people languish in camps, too frightened to go home and too poor to find suitable accommodation in a place where they can feel safe.

Those IDPs are where they are because of the same tensions that our politicians are trying to fire up again. They are victims of a complex power struggle that will never change their condition. If the argument is that we are homing in on communal organisations to promote our development, try another one.

There has been extensive migration throughout the country and no group will ever be an island again. Forget your origins and build strong bonds with your immediate neighbours, regardless of their ethnic background. They will be more useful to you when your house is on fire than retrogressive personalities living in wealthy seclusion far away.

Vernacular stations and languages do not promote tribalism and ethnic violence. It is people who do so. It is hate speech that destroys societies. We can ban vernacular stations, but it is difficult to see how this will stop Kenyans hell-bent on seeing The Others either as the enemy or as gullible fools they can step over on their way to power and ill-gotten gains.

If language were all that it took to breed nationalism, Kenyans would love each other to high heaven via Kiswahili. It is, after all, rare to find a Kenyan these days – even of non-Bantu origin – who does not know a smattering.

The hip hop generation has been good at incorporating words from different communities into their everyday language and music. Yet there is no evidence that young people voted any differently from their elders.

We tend to criminalise tribe and language every time we run into trouble. There is nothing to be ashamed of in being who you are. What is wrong is using it as a stick to beat and exclude others.

Vernacular stations can add value to society. They can help young people learn and appreciate local languages in a non-threatening way; they can also promote positive pride in being who we are and reduce ethnic tensions.

The first step to understanding and bonding with each other is to be able to communicate effectively without the distortions that our political leaders love to throw in our way. If anything, we should introduce vernacular languages in the school syllabus.

Write to the author

About SG

Secretary general of Chama Cha Mwananchi. This blog www.chamachamwananchi.wordpress.com, is based in Sweden.


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