My Mother’s Tongue

Intro: This piece is written by Tawi and I. Tawi is my younger sister and bestie. We’ve been together for 30 years and I’m not sure I fully know who I am without her.


I have spoken about this issue on numerous occasions. It persists and never fails to surprise me. Most times it’s just mildly irritating, but then I start to think about the racism or self hate (for lack of a better word) that is behind the questions.

And I must let you know also that in my international travels with my children, I have only ever been asked this question by Kenyans. Only Kenyans, I must reiterate.


I speak to my children in DhoLuo only (sometimes, I mix in English, but it’s the primary language I speak to them in. Here are the variations of the things complete strangers, colleagues, friends, and some family members have said:


“She understands you?”

“Does she understand Luo?” (This one was strange in the way it was asked, because it implied that I was a mad woman speaking to my child in a language they didn’t, or couldn’t possibly be able to understand)

“Hajazoea Kiswahili? Ndio maana unamuongelesha Kijaluo?” (She’s not used to Kiswahili? And that’s why you’re speaking to her in Luo?) (This one was the strangest one I have ever heard. The woman somehow assumed that ALL children on Earth come out speaking Kiswahili)

“Have you understood mum, or are you just floating?” (This person addressed Kendi directly, which greatly irritated me)

“Wow, its good you’re teaching her mother tongue?”

“You’re teaching her mother tongue?”

“Does she understand you?” (Again, another person who thinks I am a mad woman)

“You won’t confuse her?”

“And later, will she learn English?” (I just love this one (not really) because it assumes we were already in conversation as old friends, and are simply picking it up where we left off)

“Yeesss!!! I love it, keep it up”

“She speaks Luo?” (On hearing Kendi respond to or ask me for something)


The following are some of the responses we have made to the above statements:

“Would you ever think to ask a Mzungu (Caucasian) woman that question?”

“Would you ask a French woman speaking to her child in French this question” (This was Martin, my husband, at his wit’s end. I believe he was just done with people’s ignorance on this particular day)

“Yes” (I usually walk quickly away so as not to hit someone or further the conversation)

“No” (Same reason here)

“She can learn up to 5 languages by the age of 7”

“Yes, like a child born in the village”

“Yes, like an Indian baby”

*anguished silence* (I ignore many people. I feel bad, but it’s as much for my own sanity, as it is for their own safety. I am already tired of this conversation but they are having it for the first time. It’s not fair to yell at them)

“I don’t understand your question” (I actually understand the question, it’s the motivation that I don’t understand. Also, I say this to give people time to rethink. They never rethink. They usually just ask the question again. Urgh!)

“You know, if you don’t understand the language your mother speaks, you’ll starve”

“I’m not teaching her mother tongue I’m speaking to her”


The following are some of the things we wish we could say, but the way we were raised gives us pause:


“Of course not! No child understands their mother tongue” (This one I might actually try one day and watch people’s gears shift until they try to argue with me, then and only then, might they realize the folly of their question)

“Leave me alone please”

“Why do you hate your culture?”

“Why are you retarding your child by only exposing them to one language? Then later you will force them to take French in school.”

*silent scream* (I’ve actually done this one once or twice)

“Repeat your question slowly so that you can hear yourself”

“Amend your question please”

“Bye Felicia”

“All babies in the world are born automatically understanding English/Swahili”


This is my struggle. I will continue to educate, but truth be told, I am getting tired. So tired.

One thought on “My Mother’s Tongue

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