How Laikipia's Yiaku community is using afforestation to revive their dying language

Yakunte community elder

Mzee Stephen Leriman, one of the remaining four elders who can speak the Yakunte language fluently. The majority of the 2,000 Yiaku community living near Mukogodo forest in Laikipia County do not understand the language of their fathers.

Photo credit: MWANGI NDIRANGU I Nation Media Group

Faced with the possibility of their native language becoming extinct in the next few years, it is now a race against time for the Yiaku community from Laikipia County.

Though declared dead by UNESCO among the critically endangered languages in Kenya, at least three septuagenarians in a population of about 7,000 can speak the Yaakunte language.

Until two weeks ago, there were four elders but the only surviving woman conversant with the language, Rebecca Naibini passed on at the age of 93.

The Yiaku are a Cushitic group bearing great resemblance to the Somali and Borana ethnic groups. Traditionally, they are hunters and gatherers said to have migrated from Southern Ethiopia to the Mukogodo forest long before the arrival of colonialists.

Over the years, this minority community has lost its cultural identity including language after being assimilated by their neighbours, the Nilotic pastoral Maasai.

Today, about 2,000 have pure Yiaku genes but they cannot communicate in the language of their forefathers instead speaking fluent maa language.

Several initiatives have been made to revive the dying language since 2010 but little achievement has been made due to a lack of interest by the locals and the vandalisation of Yiaku Heritage Centre at the height of conflicts brought about by migrating herders in 2017.

But undeterred by the many challenges to revive the language, three granddaughters of one of the surviving Yaakunte speakers, Mzee Stephen Leriman,102, have not only re-established the cultural heritage-cum-language teaching centre but have also diversified their language teaching strategies.

Having grown up in the homestead of Mzee Leriman after the death of their father, the siblings developed an interest in learning the indigenous language and today they are the only youngsters who can speak the Yaakunte language fluently.

The sisters have come up with strategies to keep their dream alive, having promised their ageing grandfather that they would ensure the indigenous language does not become extinct.

“We are aware the danger of our cultural centre being vandalized again is real since migrating herders from neighbouring counties drive their animals to Mukogodo forest during drought. It is the reason we are exploring more secure ways of keeping our dream alive,” explains Ms Juliana Kageni.

Ms Kageni, 29, is a trained teacher but currently utilizing her skills to teach members of the Yiaku community the language. Locals attend lessons twice a week - on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Besides the classroom lessons with a total of 367 learners (100 adults and 267 children), the language teachers have come up with word tags which are pinned on trees growing inside the nearby Mukogodo forest.

“The names are inscribed on metallic tags which are then pinned on trees. These words are in English and their translations in the Yaakunte language to make it easier for the young learners to understand,” explains Ms Ann Naibini, an elder sister to Ms Kageni.

She adds: “For instance, we have the tag with the name of elephant in English and on the same tag we have the word sogomei which means elephant in Yaakunte language”.

Ms Naibini says they have already transferred some 300 tree seedlings into Mukogodo Forest from their tree nursery located within the cultural centre. They target to tag and transfer to the indigenous forest 3,000 trees annually.

“Recently we received some 50,000 tree seed balls from a supporter and in the coming years we shall ensure these trees are tagged and planted inside Mukogodo Forest. As the tree grows, youngsters herding livestock or collecting firewood from the forest will have an opportunity to learn the language without necessarily attending classroom lessons,” adds Ms Naibini.

Besides helping in preserving the language, planting of trees will help in the afforestation campaign in the 700-acre Mukogodo forest which is the traditional home of the Yiaku community.

Traditionally, the Yiaku were hunters and gatherers who lived in the caves, deriving their livelihood from forest products such as honey, wild fruits and wild animals. Up to date, some have put up houses inside the Mukogodo forest and on the edges where they reside.

In recent years, the forest, one of the few community-managed forests in the country, has seen migrating herders turn it into their home, destroying indigenous trees in the process.

The Government has declared it a “disturbed and dangerous area” with a security operation currently ongoing to kick out the armed herders who have been accused of contributing to insecurity in the neighbouring villages.

“The ongoing security operation has affected our students and their families, many of whom had put up homes in the forest but have now been forced to migrate to safe areas as ordered by the Government. But we remain optimistic that the operation will end soon so that we can continue with our campaign of reviving our dying language,” says Ms Kageni.

In their campaign, the siblings have teamed up with 11 other volunteers who have been sacrificing their time and resources towards this new initiative. One of the volunteers is Ms Kageni’s paternal uncle, Mr Abraham Kosma, 67, who confesses that he cannot speak Yaakunte language fluently.

“All along we have considered Maasai language superior and that is the reason I was not interested in the language initially. However, now I understand the need to preserve our culture and identity,” says Mr Kosma.

They have appealed to the Laikipia County Government to allocate funds for the project through the Department of Sports, Culture and Social Services.

With the three remaining elders conversant in the language now in their subset years with the youngest being 97, the hope of rescuing Yaakunte language from extinction lies with the youngsters.

Other Kenyan languages listed by UNESCO as critically endangered include Terik, El Molo, Ogiek, Omotik, Bong'om and Sogoo.