This past week, President Uhuru Kenyatta launched the train service on the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR), over a century since the “Lunatic Express” made its maiden journey from the Kenyan coast to Kisumu on the shores of Lake Victoria.
The service is expected to ease travel between the capital city and the tourism hub in Mombasa, and is the biggest infrastructure project in the country since independence.
It is expected to boost the economy significantly through jobs created as well as cheaper transportation of people and goods in both directions.
Unfortunately, the grand occasion was sullied by what appears to be carelessness on the part of the managers of the project, and might even be interpreted as a show of disdain for the people of Kenya.
A friend in the media shared photographs of notices posted at one of the train stations in languages closely resembling English and Kiswahili.
One was a long winded attempt to instruct users on how to use a toilet that ended up looking like a technical manual on the maintenance of some vacuum contraption.
The grammar was atrocious and destroyed the intention of the notice.
A second notice on the use of an escalator had information in English translated into Kiswahili.
The translations were a meaningless jumble of words which some readers suggested might have been sourced from an automated online translation programme.
“7. Do not lean out of various parts of the balustrades” translated as “Wala konda nje ya sehemu mbalimbali za balustrades”.
The Kiswahili translation is a word salad that would make absolutely no sense to any reader.
Translated back to English, it would go something like this: But lose weight outside of several sections of balustrades.
Others were just hilarious. “8. No pets allowed” was translated as “Hakuna kipenzi kuruhusiwa”, which is poorly constructed Kiswahili for “No lover allowed”.
None of the 10 statements is correctly translated into our national language.
The Chinese company running the SGR operations must be told in no uncertain terms that they have displayed extreme insensitivity that cannot be tolerated anywhere outside China.
One cannot go start a business in a foreign land and then proceed to hideously mutilate the customers’ language and expect to get away with it.
Even if the Chinese had fully financed this project (they haven’t) they would still be expected to show some respect for the users by communicating to them in a language that is clear and coherent.
Amazingly, when I raised this matter on social media a number of readers either saw nothing wrong with the language or suggested that it was a small problem that should not detract from the grand achievement itself.
Some suggested that pointing out this problem was part of a political agenda to discredit the government, with the most egregious of the lot reading ethnic bigotry into it.
With every accusation it became clear that, as is usual in this country, my interlocutors were themselves so blinded by political or ethnic lenses that they could not read anything I wrote with any degree of objectivity.
They see every statement anyone makes as either for or against the government, no matter the subject.
Our inability to separate matters from the ethnopolitical mudfight in this country has enabled people without our national interests at heart to take advantage and profit from our misfortunes.
Most obviously, our politicians have cultivated an atmosphere of never-ending contests that pervades every sphere of our lives, creating the illusion that everything we do is in furtherance of a political agenda.
This enables them to divide us along ethnopolitical lines and measure their political strength based on their tribal affiliation.
Less obviously, though, foreigners like the Chinese have taken advantage of our political polarisation to piss on our national symbols, including our national language.
As expected, anyone who raises concerns about this will be labelled an opposition sympathiser who is against anything the government does.
We need to come out of this stupor and realise that no matter our political leaning, when the country sinks all of us will drown in it!
Atwoli is Associate Professor and Dean, Moi University School of Medicine [email protected]