A language lesson on elections, candidates, Senates and ballots 

The parliament buildings in Nairobi.

The Parliament Buildings in Nairobi. 

Photo credit: Jeff Angote | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Wananchi are right in expecting a high level of candidness, honesty and integrity in their candidates at every level of leadership.]
  • Those who want to play politics as a “dirty game” are not dressed in white and they are not good candidates.

I am a simple language teacher, “masquerading in Literature”, as my dear departed friend, Prof Okoth-Okombo, used to call me in his endearingly teasing style.

So, what can I contribute to the historical choices we are poised to make next week, on August 9 (Tisa Nane)?

I am largely neutral in politics, but I would not be honest if I claimed that next week’s big choices are not uppermost in my mind, as in most people’s minds.

I thought that, by way of sharing, I would reflect with you on the time-hallowed basic terms associated with elections and their significance.

I adopt what is called an etymological approach, delving into the origins of the terms and their meanings.

There are, of course, many other valid ways of approaching language in this mighty exercise, including an analysis of the language used by the various contestants.

Starting with the keyword, “elections”, it comes from the Latin word “legere” (lego, lexi, lectum).

It has two different but relatable meanings, that is, “to read” and “to pick”.

When you add the prefix “e-" to it (elegere), you get the suggestion of “picking out” or “reading out”, “elect”. This, indeed, is what we do, or should do, at an election.

“Read out”, that is, seriously scrutinise the candidates and level-headedly “pick out” or choose the most credible.

Campaign shenanigans

It is a tall but not an impossible order in the hullabaloo of emotionalism, demagoguery and other shenanigans around the campaigns.

The reading out should, I think, focus on the moral, ethical credibility (adili) of the candidates.

“Candidates”, in its Roman origins, means “people dressed in shining white”.

The term “candid”, which suggests honesty or frankness in our usage today, originally meant simply “white”.

We know that in conventional contexts, white symbolises cleanliness, purity, and spotlessness.

Wananchi are right in expecting a high level of candidness, honesty and integrity in their candidates at every level of leadership.

Those who want to play politics as a “dirty game” are not dressed in white and they are not good candidates.

As you can see, there are serious and challenging significances to the terms we apply to our governance processes.

“Parliament” itself, as we are often told, suggests a place where people “speak”.

Its nearest point of entry into English is the French verb “parler” (to speak), probably dating from 1066 A.D., when the French-speaking Normans took over power in Britain.

Back to us, however, how many of those elected to the “house of speech” over the decades have consistently “spoken out” for those who elected them?

Have you heard of those who never uttered a word in “the house” throughout their five-year terms?

Incidentally, when wananchi call their elected leaders “honourable”, waheshimiwa, do all those leaders feel that, by their behaviour and bearing, deserve the honour (wanastahili heshima), as our National Anthem has it?

"Upper chamber"

One of the chambers of Kenya’s Parliament is called the Senate.

Referred to as the “upper chamber” in some countries, it would be the equivalent of what is called the House of Lords in Britain, from where we inherited our version of “Westminster Democracy”.

The Brits are very class-conscious and naming their upper chamber after the “Lords” suggests leadership by the traditional land-owning hereditary aristocrats.

These are contrasted with the “Commons”, the ordinary wananchi, who form their own forum, the “House of Commons”.

Wherever you have a bicameral or two-chambered parliament, as in Kenya, Britain or the US, the upper chamber, like the Senate in Kenya and the US, is expected to scrutinise and moderate the resolutions and decisions of the lower chamber and advise as necessary.

This presupposes greater experience and wisdom among the members of the Senate than among the members of the lower chamber, the National Assembly in Kenya or the House of Representatives in America.

The Romans, from whom we got the Senate institution, believed that such wisdom comes mainly from or with age.

Indeed the word “senate” (senatus, in Latin) literally means “old age’ or “house of elders”. It comes from the word “senex”, elder or old person. It is built on the root “sen-“, from which we get such words as “senior” and even “senile”.

I hate being regarded as senile, but I love being called me a senior citizen. I will not comment on the age of the candidates for our Senate, but we hope they all have the wisdom, experience and seriousness expected of their senior roles.

On a lighter note, we may look at “ballot”, another term closely associated with our elections.

Did you know that it may have something to do with football or other ball games?

Well, a ball (of the playing type) is called “balla” in many Latin tongues. Its diminutive or “littling” form is “ballotta”.

In the old world, voters cast their votes by putting different-coloured little balls, each colour representing a candidate, in a large bowl, the equivalent of our ballot box.

The candidate with the largest number of same-coloured “ballote” was the winner.

This reminds me of an episode in George Orwell’s anticolonial novel, Burmese Days, where a Whites-only social club is voting whether to break the “colour bar” and, for the first time, admit an Asian gentleman to membership.

They are using the different-coloured ball, “ballotta”, system.

But the diehard racist, Mr Ellis, is so incensed and angry at the whole process that he grabs the ballot bowl and smashes it against the wall, scattering the balls far and wide.

The moral for us is that there should be no strife (uhasama) and anger (hasira) in our balloting processes.

We should be calm and rational, casting our votes and letting the best brother or sister win.

After all, anger leads to loss (hasira hasara) and one unprepared to accept the winner in a fair contest is not a worthy competitor. Remember January 6, 2021, out there.

In any case, our deepest and dearest prayer is to remain in peace, brotherhood and sisterhood (amani na undugu/udugu).

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected] 


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