With more than 50 episodes under our belt, the team on Kenya’s
TV and radio debate show Sema Kenya (Kenya Speaks) has the show’s many
production tasks down to a fine art. But that doesn’t mean it’s always smooth
sailing. Take, for example, the process of inviting panellists on to the

For our latest episode, a special show to mark 50 years of independence in Kenya, the producers drew up a fabulous wish list of potential participants: scholars, advocates, artists and opinion leaders, freedom fighters, politicians, writers and activists. People who had shaped Kenya’s political and social history, and people who had strong opinions about its future as well as its past.  I was excited just reading the list. 

But, of course it’s one thing to make a wish list, it’s another to execute it.  So with a few weeks to go, the producers and researchers hit the phones.

Sema Kenya’s studio audience watch the debate during a special episode to mark 50 years of Kenya’s independence. In the centre: Evans Gor Semelang'o, Chair of the Youth Enterprise Development Fund.

Opening gambit

First comes the mheshimiwa opener.  This means ‘honourable’ in Kiswahili and
recognises a person’s status coupled with an added dose of flattery for good

Next comes the explanation about the programme and why this
person’s contribution in particular will add special value.  After this the location – Sema Kenya
travels to different counties around the country most weeks. 

Once the logistics are out of the way, the killer question
is dropped into conversation: “And you know, of course, the programme is in

At this point any one of a number of responses occur:
outright refusal followed by silence as the producer or researcher listens to
the previously enthusiastic guest frantically back-pedalling; reassuring noises
from the producer about the quality of the panellists’ Kiswahili; and at the
end of the call, if the producer has been successful, the guest accepts and the
producer does their ‘happy’ dance.

But for our special independence programme, we learned that
a large percentage of potential guests didn’t feel confident enough speaking Kiswahili
to participate.

National language?

The lingua franca of business in Kenya is overwhelmingly
English despite the fact that Kiswahili is taught in schools as a second

A Kenyan MP recently tried to have Kiswahili declared the official
language in government offices and in the national assembly. But it was found
that only 40% of Kenyans could speak it competently.

Saying that, most Kenyans speak a minimum of three languages – their mother tongue, Kiswahili and English. The young hipsters of Nairobi
also cannibalise English and Swahili to make their own language – sheng.
In rural Kenya people also speak many dialects of local languages. 

50 years on

On the far left, former Mau Mau freedom fighter Gitu wa Kahengeri; on the far right photographer, human rights campaigner and activist Boniface Mwangi; and on second row, far right, Leonard Mambo Mbotela, a veteran of Kenyan journalism.
Language considerations aside, thanks to the enthusiasm of
our production team and our panellists, the special episode marking 50 years of
Kenya’s independence was full of poignant and dramatic moments.

Instead of the usual format where audience put questions to
a panel, we decided to allow people time to reflect on whether Kenya is where
they hoped it would be after 50 years of self-rule. Kenyans from all over the
country - including Mau Mau freedom fighters, veterans from the struggle for
multi-party democracy, rap artists and outspoken bloggers – took part.

Juliani, a well-known musician, was seen consulting a
Kiswahili dictionary before the show, so keen was he to express himself well.

Johnson Sakaja Chair of TNA, the ruling party in Kenya,
talks to an audience member from the coast who recalls seeing the Union Jack
lowered and the Kenyan flag raised in Uhuru Park in 1963.

Lingua franca

Having lived in Kenya for several years
I often reflect on why my spoken Kiswahili is almost non-existent. Once Kenyans
realise I am British, they waste no time practicing their generally excellent
English on me.  Of course a bigger issue
is that I am no linguist and being based in the capital Nairobi it’s much
easier to make myself understood in English than weak Kiswahili.

Perhaps this is the same challenge our
potential panellists face? 

It doesn’t necessarily follow that
Kenyans are losing touch with their roots and culture because they struggle to
speak the national language. In my experience Kenyans are enterprising and
dynamic, quick to latch on to what they can use to get ahead. If this is
English, then so be it. 

It’s not surprising then that more and
more people I meet, from street hawkers to businessmen, are now enrolling on
courses to learn Mandarin.

Related links

highlights from the show on BBC Swahili

BBC Media
Action's work in Kenya

Media Action's work on governance

Follow BBC Media Action on Twitter and

Go back to BBC
Media Action