By Brenda Guchu
In her acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature 30 years ago, the author Toni Morrison summarized the purpose of language thus:
The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn [describe] the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers.
If language cannot accurately describe people’s lived reality, or worse if it misdescribes it, then language becomes a tool of reality distortion, which inevitably spawns a new reality.
In Kenya corruption permeates many facets of the public discourse, be it in the media or in day-to-day chit chat at the metaphorical watercooler.
But for a people that discuss corruption as much as we do, the language in which we discuss corruption remains largely under examined. This examination is necessary, for it’s not possible to solve that which you cannot accurately name, and so we must correct the myriad ways we mischaracterize corruption.
One such way is that the language of corruption is colored by metaphors. If a public officer tells you “nunua chai”, “buy me some tea”, you know what they are asking for: a bribe.
This term draws its verve from our collective cultural agreement on what it means for one to buy another tea. Tea is not just a social beverage, but a communal one.
“Buying tea” is a minor but crucial act of generosity one does for friends. While the semantic framing might appear benign in and of itself, it serves an important purpose in perpetuating and normalizing corruption, for it unclasps the act of taking a bribe from the sphere of moral rot to being a social good at best, at worst morally neutral.
In recent times, the “nunua chai” (buy tea) has morphed into “za macho”, “for the eyes”, a phrase often used playfully and whose etymology no one seems to know but which is widely understood to mean anything from a tip to a kickback, which is trivialized and completely divorced of shame.
While we use these metaphors in the micro interpersonal corruption, when describing corruption in the grand or national scale we go in the opposite direction, where the language is unnecessarily unusual and complex.
At a recent meeting, someone made a poignant point that in our day-to-day language, and in our moral dictionary (including in religious texts), words such as embezzlement and grand graft simply do not exist.
In the African culture, taking something that does not belong to you is simply theft, universally understood as immoral. It is therefore curious that media corruption reportage is shrouded in language that is inaccessible to the common citizen.
In the cases where the language is simple and clear, it is unfortunately often disempowered and passive. This is where we anthropomorphize corruption and accord it autonomy that is beyond the control of people who commit it.
The oft used, “money was stolen”, or even more amusing if it wasn’t so tragic “money disappeared from the coffers”, denies existence of human action as we know it, as if the money acquired legs.
This anthropomorphizing tacitly accepts defeat, that nothing could have been done. It also takes many forms: sometimes the money disappears by itself, and sometimes it becomes powerful beyond our ability to manage it, becoming “a cancer”.
In certain cases, we have so normalized certain acts of corruption that we, in fact, do not have language to describe them.
In my African language, Gikuyu (from Central Kenya), there is no word for nepotism, at least none that I am aware of. Nepotism is not only not understood as corruption, but it is also generally expected that those in a position to extend favors, however unwarranted, to their families and friends have a duty to do so.
Arguably the greatest gap in our conversations about corruption, and as would be apparent in all the examples above, is how we obfuscate the effect of the corrupt acts.
Beyond re-orienting itself to apportion blame where it’s due, the language we use must also do a better job of linking cause and effect. Even in the cases where the media gets it right in highlighting corrupt actors, there is generally less to no focus on the effects of said corruption, which inevitably has a de-sensitizing effect.
To appropriately deploy language in the fight against corruption, we must link rampant corruption to its victims. The effects are all around us, such as the widespread use of private solutions to public problems for the upper and middle class and the alienation of the poor from the basic means to live.
It is critical to underscore the role of the media in leading this charge, and particularly traditional corporate media, who generally have the muscle and reach needed to radically transform how we discuss the problem of corruption.
In the PwC Global Economic Crime Survey (GECs) Webinar launch held recently, one of our audience members asked a most profound question: Given how aspirational illicit wealth has become in our society, is fighting corruption after all a losing battle?
The panel of experts on the webinar argued that we must fight corruption to win, and proffered many ideas on some of the ways we can ramp up our efforts as a society.
Thematically, these responses all revolved around one centerpiece: changing the culture. And what is a culture without language?
Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Kenya’s towering intellectual of language, in his book Decolonising the Mind aptly said: “language, any language, has a dual character: it is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture.”
To move the needle, we must learn from the Greeks, to call a fig a fig and a trough a trough, or as we have come to know it, a spade a spade.
The author is Manager, Advisory Services at PwC Kenya