Opinion Piece Luganda: The Challenges of Inclusion

By choosing to include everyone, Luganda has laid itself bare to abuse and insult.

By: Sembatya Rosey

Before Buganda became Buganda, it was called Muwawa and its people, Balasangeye. By the time Kintu changed the kingdom’s name to Buganda, the people who spoke the language were geographically restricted to three counties – Kyaddondo, Busiro and Mawokota. Today they make up the two districts of Wakiso and Mpigi. However, Luganda has spread to other parts of the country. One must be able to speak the language to ‘belong’, especially if one lives and works within and around Uganda’s urban centre.

 When a language is the lingua franca in a particular place, it becomes laden with superiority undertones. For a language that has been suggested or intimated to suffice as Uganda’s national language, Luganda is considered a more inclusive language than other languages. This is supported by the fact that a majority of Uganda’s 36 million people are said to speak the language. This may appear to be an egotistical claim for Luganda and its native speakers; that is, until this very inclusion takes this language from its high pedestal to the ruins of vulgarity and other desecrations.

Map of Uganda’s Central Region

 One may argue that Luganda is not alien to vulgarity considering that it popularised the ‘Ssenga’ notion throughout the country. Ssenga is the idea and performance that surrounds particular female relationships to their culture, including pleasuring a man and preparing for marriage. It became complete with recordings, books, tapes, sessions, lubricants and others. This example makes me wonder what happens when this very language leaves its formal ‘confines’ and ‘heads south’ to vulgarity that comes in the form of posts and shares on facebook, those that have gone viral! One may also argue that by being in several derivative forms like the tapes, Luganda has left the tongue and has a possibility to transform into something we may have never imagined.

 I think that even then it is still guarded within the confines of sanity, for particular age groups are not allowed to access some of these forms. By choosing to include everyone, Luganda has laid itself bare to abuse and insult. What I consider the most ‘vulgar’ pornography (in terms of appeal and the people who view it) on, especially facebook and other social media outlets, have gone viral in Uganda. Luganda has become a language that many people, irrespective of geographical ancestry, can understand. I am using the word most vulgar deliberately here because when one sees vulgarity in plural forms (having been used repetitively), then it’s bound to be described with a superlative. What would have happened if this pornography had been in a language with fewer speakers, would it have elicited the same viral reaction it does on facebook?

 I guess that is the way every language grows, through stages that test its zeal, profundity and the people who call it their own. Like Spanish was with the conquest of the Americas when with each place the Conquestidors arrived at, was given a Spanish name. The British practiced the same colonial renaming with Nalubale to be Victoria and Kiira becoming the Nile. From languages of conquest, comes a languages of survival and acceptance for most of the world.

 Maybe allowing other people into your language is allowing anything to happen to the language; for its use will come to them the same way they learnt it – for survival, for acceptance. Or maybe, because of the nature of language, one cannot restrict its influence. When one wants to communicate, it’s not a weight of subject and how, but merely the desire to communicate.

When I started feeling strange things when chancing upon on pornography performed in my mother tongue, Luganda, on facebook. I felt all things terrible about inclusiveness — about allowing several people into a language without them having an intimate attachment to it — only looking at it as a language of communication, learnt by propinquity.

 What is inclusiveness to Luganda’s native speakers: Immortality or the sense that when several people speak the language, they are like conquestidors? Perhaps that’s what keeps the sanity of the native English speakers, even we who took on Their language will have glitches speaking it. For the native speakers, then, there is a bit of their language that only those who are ready to respect it enough would bother with the idiosyncrasies of the language.

If a language has not appealed to anyone beyond a communicative premise that also denotes inclusiveness, one is bound to say things with a careless abandon that makes the native speakers, the ideal owners of the language, apprehensive of the term inclusiveness. We need to ascertain that there is an ounce of belonging that has remained in the language; that we have people who can still claim the language and desire to protect it. Thinking about it, by the very nature of language, can ownership be claimed by a given people? Is language like a child that needs to be protected?

I propose that it needs to because people performing rituals or cultural activities will use a language that they claim as their own, a language that to them is their way of life. Just imagine performing the ‘imbalu dance’ using songs in English and not Lumasaba, wouldn’t the ritual lose its sacredness, its spirituality?

For me, attending and listening to performance poetry in Luganda makes me think of the appeal of the language. I can close my eyes and feel the nuances of the language when a performer cares enough to intone and sharpen the edges with the beauty of the words. I have also experienced performances in Luganda that are empty – without any poise, which then shows me that the performer doesn’t care about the language enough to allow it to express. The latter is usually a performer driven only by the knowledge that several people in the audience can understand the language. With that knowledge, the performer does it with no care for the intricate detail of the language.

I find that with my deep associations with Luganda as my mother tongue, it is difficult to use vulgarity beyond the accepted intimate spaces. This is because I was taught to speak in context, being mindful of its purity. For me, it was not for acceptance or survival but it was a way of life. I could say certain words in other languages without batting an eyelid, with no remorse at all because I never learnt that other language as a way of life, rather as something in passing. And of course I would desecrate the language to the chagrin of those who care about it. Is it not better to take on a language that does not belong, like the Nairobians have done with Sheng? It is inclusive, it is exclusive, it is empty and it’s full. We can do with it whatever we please with the impersonal linguistic other and preserve the languages we care like fine china.

So I wonder, are native language speakers ready for the challenges of inclusion?

Sembatya Rosey is a native Luganda speaker with an opinion.