The Yaaku People Of Mukogodo Forest – Laikipia – Reclaim Their Language

Last bid to save language of Kenyan ex-cave dwellers

Half a dozen old men, draped in traditional blankets, are chatting under an acacia tree here in the foothills of Mount Kenya; when they die the Yaaku language will die with them.

Its disappearance is unlikely to make headlines: over the past three generations more than 200 languages have disappeared and 2,500 others are in danger of disappearing, out of a total of 6,000 in existence, according to the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, published by UNESCO.

doldolExcept that these elders — many of whom are so old they no longer have teeth — have decided to fight for the survival of Yaaku.

“We are the last Yaaku speakers and before our generation disappears we need to pass our knowledge on to the children,” 87-year-old Johana Saroney Ole Matunge told AFP.

The Yaaku are a tribe of hunter-gatherers and beekeepers who lived in caves in their forest until the intermixing of different peoples in the 20th century changed their way of life.

doldol2From the 1930s the Yaaku were assimilated into the culture of the Maasai, a warrior tribe with expansionist tendencies. They took to keeping cattle and to wearing the checked magenta and scarlet blankets sported by the Maasai.

They neglected Yaaku, a tongue from a language group called Cushitic, in favour of the Maasai’s language Maa, which is radically different with roots in another group called Nilotic.

Behind this willingness to be assimilated was a profound feeling of inferiority.

It is only recently that the Yaaku realised it was time they make their voices heard.

“We are marginalised, seen by the Maasai as a people with no identity. So I said to myself if we are not Maasai, who are we? Can we re-discover our Yaaku culture?,” explained Manasseh Matunge, a 48-year-old former primary school teacher who is the driving force behind the Yaaku cultural renewal.

In the late 1960s, a German linguist Bernd Heine tried to revive the Yaaku language by convincing a tribesman by the name of Koisa ole Lengei to accompany him to Nairobi University and teach him the Yaaku language.

Lengei, who had spent his childhood in a cave, disappeared after two weeks in the capital, thought to have fallen victim to criminals, and the language project fell through.

doldol3In 2004 a team of Dutch linguists managed to put together a manual of the Yaaku language.

Manasseh Matunge, despite not being a fluent Yaaku speaker himself, has been teaching weekly classes in the language at the local school but his classes are limited to basic vocabulary.

A small museum built in 2009 houses, among other items, equipment for bee keeping, the speciality and pride of the Yaaku.

“The Maasai are afraid of bees,” Matunge says with a proud smile.

Cultural museum notwithstanding, the last three real Yaaku speakers identified by the Dutch linguists six years ago are now dead.

But an extinct language can reappear, UNESCO says, and this is what the Yaaku are trying to achieve. They have obtained funding from the French embassy in Kenya to build a classroom to house the language lessons the elders intend to give to schoolchildren.

“I’m afraid we have too little data on Yaaku grammar to revive the original language. The furthest we could get is to use the material we have and somehow ‘mix’ it with Maasai, which all Yaaku speak fluently nowadays,” said Hans Stoks, who has worked with the Maasai and Yaaku community since 1979 and who was part of the team of Dutch linguists.

“As a matter of fact the past generation of Yaaku speakers in the past two or three decades were already doing that. There is nothing wrong with mixing languages. It is done almost everywhere.”

The resuscitation of their language would help the Yaaku regain a sense of identity and in turn re-take possession of “their” forest Mukogodo (35,000 hectares or 86,000 acres), currently managed by Kenya’s forest authority.

Kenya’s new constitution, adopted in a referendum three months ago, recognizes indigenous peoples’ rights to their ancestral lands. The Yaaku have learned that cultural identity is a weapon.