New Samia dictionary is the rave of two countries

The first Samia language dictionary. PHOTO | JENNIFER MUIRURI

What you need to know:

  • The Samia are a sub-tribe of the Luyia community that straddles the Kenya-Uganda border
  • Barasa is happy with the response so far

It is the people who are brave enough to venture into unchartered waters who help their communities to open new frontiers in all spheres of life. But the pioneers have not always had it easy. They have often come in for harsh criticism by those who see them as either too ambitious or show-offs trying to gain the limelight.

But this would never have bothered Irenaeus Wandera Barasa, a University of Nairobi-trained civil engineer, who has come up with what has been generally acknowledged as the first Samia language dictionary. The Samia are a sub-tribe of the Luyia community that straddles the Kenya-Uganda border.

The dictionary was launched at a well-attended ceremony, esidialo in Samia, on December 27, last year, at Majanji in eastern Uganda’s Busia District, which is the author’s home place. It is a whole 282 pages of a neat package between blue glossy cover pages and is published by Fountain Publishers of Kampala. At the launch were Abasamia from both sides of the border, and there was a strong representation from the diaspora, especially the US.

Barasa, who describes himself as a “language enthusiast despite my engineering background”, is a true East African. His late mother came from Samia (Kenya) and from early in Barasa’s life emphasized the need for strong links between the community divided by River Sio, a separation that was enforced by a colonial boundary that put them into two different countries.

He went to primary school in eastern Uganda and joined Makerere University, but at the height of dictator Idi Amin’s misrule, he transferred to the University of Nairobi, where he studied civil engineering.

Barasa was in the 1980s the resident engineer on the Ng’ethu water project to supply Nairobi. He has in recent years, spent a lot of time solving Tanzania’s water supply problems.

He was the resident engineer on the Shinyanga water project, the first in East Africa to draw water from Lake Victoria at Mwanza and transport it some 200 kilometres away. Today, Barasa is the resident engineer for the Bagamoyo Water Project meant to boost Dar es Salaam city’s water supply.

But this engineer is also a consummate social researcher with a profound interest in history and has been documenting the heritage of the Samia. Barasa’s maiden effort follows the translation of the Bible into Samia by Ugandan judge James Ogoola. Incidentally, the launch was at Lumino, about six kilometres away from where Barasa’s dictionary was unveiled.

For this project, Barasa says he traversed the entire Samia landscape in Kenya and Busia District in Uganda. Though definitely inspired by Judge Ogoola’s pioneering spirit, Barasa has always been a firm supporter of a revival of the language. He took advantage of new social media to foster debate on the language. He has two walls on Facebook, Learning Samia Together (LST) and Samias on Facebook (SoF).

But to make it even more interactive, Barasa has been sponsoring a language quiz and winners walk away with cash prizes in US dollars ranging from $10 to $100 – all from his own pocket.

The dictionary has generated a lot of enthusiasm in the two Samias, in the cities of Nairobi and Kampala and also in the diaspora. Barasa is happy with the response so far.


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