“I want the language to continue and also for generations after me to still speak it fluently as myself,” cries 80 year old Leituko.
I had travelled to Laikipia on a trip with the Ministry of ICT in their efforts to employ technology to preserve the Yaaku language. We travelled 250 km away from the Kenyan capital into the sleepy village of Kuri Kuri where this almost extinct tribe resides. Leituko and a few remaining tribesmen desire to see the Yaaku culture preserved. I couldn’t help but wonder about the effects of modernization and whether or not my culture will survive 100 years from now. I am Luo, which is a dominant tribe in Kenya, but we have another sub tribe, the Abasubas, who also cry to be recognized as a people with their own culture and language.
It’s one of those things I had never thought about until this visit, of how things that I take for granted can one day become things that I fight for to live. According to the Atlas of World’s languages in danger, published by UNESCO – 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.
At Manasseh Matunge’s fenced homestead one is able to view the magnificent view of the surrounding hills of Mukogodo in the vast Laikipia plains. Mannasseh is one of the few remaining members of his tribe and also one of their spokesmen.
In the Mukogodo forest, a name which connotes cave people, is a reminder of their past life – hunting wild animals and bee keeping which they have not yet abandoned.
‘The Maasai are afraid of bees,’ Matunge tells us.
Historically speaking, the Yaakus are believed to have migrated from Ethiopia to Kenya more than 100 years ago. They then settled in Mukogodo forest, in the western side of Mount Kenya and when the government gazetted the forest as a forest reserve, they were forced to live on the edges of the forest. Consequently, this affected their traditional way of survival since they can’t access the forest and have been partially assimilated into the Laikipia Maasai.
However, they still have their own distinct cultural identity. The Yaaku language is closely related to Rendille, of northern Kenya. The community has four clans – Orondi, Losos, Sialo, and Luno. Today however, only seven people can fluently speak the Yaaku language and all of them are over 70 years old.
Manasseh is joined by Leteiyo Leituko, an 80-year-old man and Lesi Kinyanyi, one of the few people in the village who can fluently speak Yaaku. He is draped in traditional blankets and claims his only fear is the survival of the tribe, when he dies.
He tells us that they loved marrying their own people to keep their ‘secrets’ and ‘so that the other tribes may not discover their way of life.’ But intermarriages brought cattle to them.
“The Masaai men brought cows as dowry and that’s how we began keeping livestock,” he says.
Eventually they also began wearing the checked magenta and the scarlet blankets sported by the Maasai.
Yaakus follow the Masaai’s traditional religion, and contact the spiritual being through animal sacrifice and supplication in times of great need. The Mukogodo also follow the Maasai age-grade customs, the moranship (warrior age-grade) and have a culture that centers around cattle-herding, bee keeping and occasional raiding of their neighbors. They are more traditional than the Maasai, though like the Maasai, changing conditions are causing them to make a transition to settled living and cultivation of maize (corn).
Behind this willingness to be assimilated there has always lingered a profound feeling of inferiority. Because of their lack of wealth, the Maasai call the Yaakus, ‘il dorrobo,’ ‘dorobo,’ or ‘torobo” which connotes “short,” “tsetse fly,” “cattle,” or “forest.” However, some argue that it simply means “the people without cattle.”
Presently, the Yaaku are deemed to be part of the Maasai by the government. Their population was 6,000 people in the 2009 census but it is said to have increased to about 10,000. The younger generation neglected the Cushitic Yaaku language, in favor of the Maasai’s Maa, which is Nilotic with radically different roots.
The village has a local primary school with roughly 230 Yaaku students who can use only a small number of Yaaku words. The official census cannot even count them as real Yaaku speakers. Furthermore, the biggest challenge to the language’s survival is the grammar of Yaaku, since they only have a small number of fluent speakers who are not capable of teaching it due to their old age and lack of teaching skills.
In the year 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 at the local school that are limited to basic vocabulary.
Eighty year old Leitiku is the only teacher, who has full-fledged knowledge of Yaaku grammar. He works with young children and tries to teach them at least Yaaku vocabulary and pronunciation and spends a significant amount of his free time outside the school teaching older Yaaku people their language – grammar or the unique art of the Yaaku conversation.