Memories of early encounters with English

Memories of early encounters with English

Photo: Main Hall and classrooms, King's College, Budo in April 1996 

© Muniini K. Mulera

 We all make grammatical mistakes in speaking and writing English. I certainly do. I frequently catch myself tongue tied as I struggle to extricate myself from a badly constructed sentence. Native English-speaking Canadians signal their failure to comprehend my words with a puzzled stare that invites me to try again. Mercifully, my second attempt is usually more successful. 


The malady afflicts a newspaper columnist, writing with a deadline looming. There are times when I re-read a script that I was initially pleased with and discover glaring errors that were known as “embogo” (buffalo) during our youth. “Okuteera embogo” (to beat a buffalo), a phrase I first heard at Kigezi High School Junior nearly 60 years ago, was slang for use of wrong syntax. A misspoken word or phrase could prove disastrous among male peers, and socially fatal if uttered in the presence of a damsel with whom one might have had hopes of establishing diplomatic relations. I exercise my right to say nothing further on this subject. 


Proficiency in the English language was a measure of “education.” Even today one hears false declarations that great native administrators like Sir Apollo Kaggwa and Martin Luther Nsibirwa of Buganda, Nuwa Mbaguta of Ankole and Paulo Ngorogoza of Kigyezi were “uneducated men.” In fact, their non-Anglophonic communication barely dented their administrative abilities. Is there anyone among today’s district and regional leaders with university degrees who come close in meaningful accomplishments? 


When I was at Kihanga Boys Primary School, a Native Anglican school in Mparo, Rukiga, the boys who were senior to us would frequently engage in impromptu debates with their counterparts from the Roman Catholic school at Katungu. The purpose was to show the opponents from “the other Christian sect” that we were better educated. They had a similar opinion of themselves. 


In the absence of a formal assembly place, we would stand in the middle of the road, the two groups facing each other, we cheerleaders emitting torrents of “yes, yes” in support of our chief debaters whose task was not to educate but to entertain and dazzle the listener. Of course, I had no clue what the great wordsmiths were saying, though I recall words like “perpendicular” and “photosynthesis” devastatingly used by our budding elocutionists. 


In Mparo, we had the advantage of being represented in Uganda’s First Parliament by the Honourable Eli Nasani Bisamunyu, a great scholar and master of Rukiga, English, and history, that was the first Munyakigyezi to obtain a university degree. People wanted to emulate him in speech, an uphill task for most of us whose mother tongue interfered with our valiant efforts. Bisamunyu was rumoured to have dispensed with English dictionaries, for he was not confident that their British authors were reliable sources. Another version of the legend was that he had no use for the dictionaries, for he knew the meaning of all the words therein.


Though he was a certified logophile (a lover of words), Bisamunyu was not a sesquipedalian (a lover of long words.) He spoke to be understood, not to impress. He spoke with supreme confidence and mastery of the colonialist’s language, but remained happily rooted in his traditions and Rukiga, his mother language. Legend has it that when debating grave matters of state in parliament, he would occasionally throw in a Rukiga phrase that had no adequate English translation. To assure parliament that he was very serious about his warning the government against hasty action on some matter, he reportedly ended his eloquent submission with the Rukiga phrase: “ahu tata ari!” (Where my father is!) 


To a Mukiga-Munyankore listener, Bisamunyu’s reference to his dead father’s address, was a signal of the grave consequences that awaited the land should his words fall on deaf ears. I do not know whether Hansard captured this, and I never thought to ask Bisamunyu to confirm the report. Whatever the truth may have been, it is one of those sweet stories that one enjoys when one recalls the debating exploits of great parliamentarians of the 1960s.  


Now, where were we? Oh yes!  The use of English as a badge of sophistication and education drove many to fake it, freely reaching into their language libraries to retrieve words that put the listener on notice that the speaker was a man of letters. (I do not recall women playing the game.) One semiliterate member of the Kigezi District Council in the late 1960s was fond of saying “zakitire” (exactly) to record his agreement with a fellow councillor’s well delivered argument. Never mind that the debates in the Council were held in Rukiga-Ruhororo or Kinyarwanda, more comfortable languages for the majority of Banyakigyezi. 


Likewise, a beloved Anglican catechist, a regular visitor to our home, who had never received formal western education, loved to thank my mother after eating a tasty meal by stating: “oweishemwe waatuta aha highest” (my sister in Christ, you have brought us to the highest point). The cognoscenti understood that the brother was speaking under the influence of my mother’s culinary excellence. These English words tended to add gravitas to their authors’ claims to belong to the learned class.


I recall many disastrous efforts by some of my junior high school classmates and I, as we navigated the transition from unilingual communication to addition of English to our speech. Mr. David Kanyeihamba, our mathematics and civics teacher, introduced us to the concept of a “benevolent dictator”. We put the phrase to good use, occasionally letting it slip in a conversation, hoping that one might be considered worthy of admission into the intellectuals’ club that often-held court at the Kisimenti, an open meeting place in downtown Kabaare that is long gone, now covered with ugly buildings. 


Imagine sitting with Tumusiime Mutebile, Ruhakana Rugunda, Kisimba Masiko, Shaka Ssali, and many other firebrand students, solving the world’s problems with an eloquence that would have made the great orators of ancient Greece, and the founding fathers of the United States, smile with hearty contentment. We listened. We learnt. By the time we started senior secondary school in Buganda, we had mastered serviceable English that offered us a linguistic survival kit in a school whose entire teaching staff was British or Australian. Whether they understood some us is a mystery they have kept to themselves. I have my doubts.


Miss Susan Gould (the future Mrs. Clay) was my first English teacher in high school. Her exacting standards left no room for vernacularized English. No doubt the same was true in other schools, which accounts for my generation’s pain because of what we read and hear these days. I know that language evolves. Sometimes that is a good thing.


However, I cringe every time I read things like “the deceased died from Mulago Hospital”; “he drove to where the road stopped from”; “he is lying you”; “the accused was accompanied by a one Tom Nduga; “she is a wife to the honourable minister”; or “can you borrow me some money?” Perhaps I will get used to it. 





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