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151 When the filing of the second charge of murder against Tom Cholmondeley dominated the headlines after 2006 (see chapter 3), his reputation as a killer of indigent Africans was so toxic that most settler descendants tried to distance themselves from him. Yet he also had a nucleus of supporters who rallied to defend his character. The New York Times, for instance, reported that although some people living near his ranch branded him hot-tempered, Cholmondeley’s “white friends” described him as “much different: charming, genuine, a good listener, a father involved with his two sons, the type of rancher to speak Swahili to his workers and look them in the eye.”1 Taking the claim further, a couple of friends of his informed me eagerly that he was “studying Kikuyu” while on remand—an overstatement, as Cholmondeley himself would later inform me, but a telling rumor given that the deceased man in the second case, Robert Njoya, was himself Kikuyu. These claims drew on an assumption that circulates widely among today’s settler descendants; namely, that there is a link between their competence in African languages and their ability to treat Africans humanely. We have seen why white Kenyans today might feel insecure about how welcome they are in Kenya. Many families that stayed after Independence insist they love the country, but in the past decade they have suffered from bad publicity, which repeatedly evoked the evils of colonialism. Some, in Laikipia, have been asked (unsuccessfully) to do penance in the form of land redistribution; Cholmondeley’s incarceration, meanwhile, 5 Linguistic Atonement 152 | Linguistic Atonement felt a bit like a punishment for settler history. And there are psychological and social barriers to settler descendants’ full integration, including their own mixed feelings. They struggle to feel like cultural citizens, particularly when their race suggests their lack of autochthony; their privilege means that most don’t relate to the difficulties of the “man on the street”; and their patterns of socializing and marrying, for most, include a noticeable degree of self-segregation. The comments surrounding Cholmondeley and his language, then, are not merely characterizations of a man in an exceptional bind. They speak to sweeping matters of national belonging among white elites in contemporary Kenya. In fact, white Kenyan aspirations and anxieties are at the heart of what they say about language—particularly Kiswahili, Kenya’s national language and lingua franca. (Ki- is a Bantu prefix indicating a language variety: “Swahili” and “Kiswahili” designate the same language; “Swahili ” is the anglicized name for it.) A key component of nationalism among settler descendants is a shift from colonial disparagement of Kiswahili to a more congenial attitude toward it, particularly among younger generations.2 Public interracial romance is still frowned on in the settler descendant community, and the use of African languages seems to offer a safe symbolic version of social intimacy. Many of my younger white Kenyan respondents talk about Kiswahili with an attitude I call “linguistic atonement”; a stance of enthusiastic feeling about African languages, pitched as if to mitigate a history of colonial discrimination. Part of linguistic atonement is the hope that Kiswahili might help them achieve a sort of “connection,” a mutual sympathy of sorts, with Kenya’s majority, while signaling their eagerness to be part of the nation. Some add that Kiswahili feels good to speak, opening expressive possibilities of warmth, candor, and philosophical equanimity that, in their account, are more sealed off to them when they are in a more European (for some, “English”) mode of personhood . For some settler descendants, then, linguistic atonement amounts to a symbolic and emotional corrective to the condescension of their predecessors. But while their linguistic attitudes seem to reach for reconciliation—the mending of pathological colonial relationships— I also suggest that these amends are limited. Linguistic hierarchies remain, tenacious, not only among white Kenyans but among all Kenyans , and in their talk about language varieties, my respondents again seem hampered by structural oblivion, largely unaware of the ways in which their own language ideologies continue to support a structure that privileges them. Linguistic Atonement | 153 Before I pursue this argument further, it is vital to offer a bit of history about colonialism and language in Kenya. When Cholmondeley’s friends touted his African language abilities, they were suggesting he didn’t have the attitudes one would expect from someone with an ubercolonial heritage. As a rule of thumb, colonial settlers all over Africa were disdainful of the languages they encountered...


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