Yakunte language on the brink of extinction

Only seven people, all aged over 70 years, can speak Yakunte fluently, a language native to Yaaku people. As we mark International Mother Language Day, we look at efforts being made to preserve this tongue

Harriet James @harriet86jim

In the sleepy Kurikuri village, about 250km from Nairobi, is a tribe unknown to many— and an older generation seeking to preserve its culture, especially their Yakunte language.

At Manasseh Matunge’s home, one can view the magnificent surrounding hills of Mukogodo in the vast Laikipia plains. Mukogodo Forest, a name which connotes cave people, is a reminder of their past life when beekeeping and hunting wild animals, practices they have not abandoned to date, thrived.

While he is not fluent in the language, Manasseh, a Yaaku spokesman, together with the few elders, have been desperately trying to save a dying culture. “I want the language to continue and for generations after me to still speak it fluently as myself,” says Leteiyo Leituko, an 80-year-old man and one of the fluent speakers of Yakunte alongside Lesi Kinyanyi.

So far, there are only seven fluent speakers of the language, all over 70 years. Yakunte is closely related to Rendille, spoken in northern Kenya. The community has four clans – Orondi, Losos, Sialo, and Luno.

From the 1930s, Yaaku were assimilated into the Maasai and Samburu culture through intermarriages, something that the older generation never encouraged.  Leituko tells us they kept marriages within the community to prevent other tribes learning their way of life.

“The Maasai brought cows for dowry and that’s how we began keeping livestock,” he says, adding that eventually they started wearing the checked magenta and the scarlet blankets synonymous with the Maasai.

Leteiyo Leituko and Naruato Matungo are among the seven Yaaku people who can speak Yakunte language fluently.

The Maasai then pushed them into the forest during the colonial period. 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 Yaaku in favour of Maa. Despite being assimilated, they still have a strong desire to retain their language and culture.

One of the biggest challenges is that there is only a small number of fluent speakers incapable of teaching others due to old age. They also lack teaching skills. Leitiko, the only teacher, with the full-fledged knowledge of Yaaku, fights to keep the language alive.

He works mainly with young children, teaching them at least Yakunte vocabulary and pronunciation. He also spends a significant amount of his free time outside the school teaching older Yaaku people advanced lessons in their language such as grammar or art of Yakunte conversation.  Matunge has also been teaching weekly basic vocabulary classes.

Since their discovery, a lot of people interested in culture have visited them with the promise of change. Blood and saliva samples have been taken to trace their origins. Sadly, nothing has been done since the late 1960s, when a German linguist, Bernd Heine, attempted to revive the language.

Heine convinced a Yaaku tribesman, Koisa ole Lengei, to accompany him to the University of Nairobi to teach him the language. The man, who apparently spent his childhood in a cave disappeared after two weeks in the capital. Police searches have borne no fruit and it is thought that the man might have fallen victim to criminals, something that has made the elders bitter.

Efforts by a team of Dutch linguists, which managed to put together a manual of the language in 2014, have done little to preserve the language.

The Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Authority is considering developing an application to support other efforts to preserve the Yakunte language and save it from extinction.

The app is set to not only document and preserve language, but also make it accessible for the young generation enthused with using technology in line with the authority’s effort to promote the positive use of ICT The proposed app will have three sections: audio, video and dictionary. Anyone with the app will be able to learn the language.

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