It did not matter

Jancan Limo, Elewa Teaching Facilitator

08 May 2018

I cursed the day I was born and wished that I would have gone to a day school instead. Of what importance was boarding school yet I had to not only shut my loose mouth but also keep vigil to avoid being caught in that particular police-marked environment? Fast back to my journey with the language in question, my trouble with it did not begin that day. It dates back to my first day in kindergarten.

I vividly remember having resisted going to school. After issuing many threats like I was going to set ablaze the grass-thatched latrine or I was going on a hunger strike and such landed in the deaf ears of my parents, I was forcefully dragged into a class room. During break time, a classmate, well-built and muscular than I was, who looked urban-like and well conversant with the two strange languages asked me a question in English that I could not understand. I just stared back. A slap as loud as a clap landed right on my ear and as I was staggering to regain my stability, he asked a question in Swahili. “Nyumbani ni wapi?” Kiswahili was equally strange to me but I had to prevent another slap. I answered, “Ni kwa Hapa.” Touching the wall of the mud walled classroom. I got another deafening slap.

As I was being escorted by the principal to his ‘slaughter house’, that is how we used to call his office, I felt too much pity to myself. I loved discussion groups and it was the only way that I made meaning out of learning. I was not only good in the concepts that was being tackled in groups but I was an active listener. To derive as much as possible from group work, I had to hoover from one group to another. But I had one big problem. I presented my arguments in my first language. I was a jargon when it came to story-telling in mother tongue but I could hardly construct a sentence in Kiswahili let alone English. A form four candidate who could not communicate in English. I could follow very well what was said but my legs became weak and frail every time I wanted to communicate using English.

“I was always the first one to complete my tests in English not because I had mastered the concepts but because I had nothing to write.”

I was good in attaching meaning to what was written once I have figured out one or two vocabularies in a sentence. I struggled much with subjects that questions were presented in very long sentences or paragraphs but I found refuge in Mathematics and Sciences. Ask me to write an essay and I will present to you in short bulleted sentences. Poor grades in English, Kiswahili and subjects that required extensive reading like History were common for me and I was comfortable with it. I was always the first one to complete my tests in English not because I had mastered the concepts but because I had nothing to write. The Teacher could mark the paper within minutes and hand over back as the others waited for weeks to be given back their papers.

On reaching the office, the principal who happened to be our physics teacher asked me to describe for him Newton’s First Law of Motion. My thoughts raced. I knew perfectly what I was to say. It was the simplest of all concepts. He would have even asked me to describe for him how the heart works, or how the kidney purifies blood. I kept thinking of how I can narrate the world war, Hitler, constitution of Kenya, action of rivers or even how to author an official application letter that will have you employed without a second thought. But of course, in the first language, throwing in a bit of humour and fun facts so interestingly.

I just stared at him back. I could tell from his eyes that I was in for a rude shock if I don’t explain it. I stood up, picked a book, a paper and an empty packet of chalks on his table and demonstrated to him without saying a word. To emphasize on the important areas, I stared directly into his eyes and demonstrated it in a slow motion once more.

How could I have possibly succeeded in English while all the emphasis was on parts of speech and getting pronunciation right, things that only came natural in my first language? How could I have mastered the languages when every sentence was governed by rules? How could used these languages for communication while everything I said was wrong in the eyes of the teacher? How could they matter if my simple mistakes mattered the most? I still received the beatings for not using English to communicate and using my first language to demystify a Chemistry concept in mother tongue.

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