Kenya came under British rule in 1895. English became the lingua franca in 1929. Kiswahili, which had previously been widely spoken in the East African region, was encouraged by the colonial administration alongside English until 1953 when it was banned. The 1950s were difficult years in Kenya, with emergency rule being declared in 1952. The tensions and undercurrents of those years are expertly captured in Jonathan Kariara's short story 'The Coming of Power' (Kariara ).
At least five education commissions have been set up in Kenya between 1963 and 2000. All five have been thoroughly scrutinised by Mbaabu in his 1987 UNESCO/KU manuscript. It is instructive that although these commissions were established to deal with education issues, they all consistently touched on the language question in their recommendations. The first, the Ominde Commission, was set up in 1963 immediately after independence. It published its report in 1964. Although the Ominde Commission ratified the use of English as the medium of instruction, it made a case for Kiswahili so strong that Kiswahili was (re)introduced into the primary school syllabus as a compulsory subject, and a department of linguistics and African languages was set up in Kenyatta University College in 1969.
W. N. Wamalwa and his team published their report in 1972. On their recommendation, two new foreign languages, French and German, were added to the secondary school syllabus. More importantly, they managed to push for Kiswahili to be taught to adults, primarily civil servants, at the Kenya Institute of Administration (KIA) and at the Kenya Institute of Education (KIE). Four years later, in 1976, Gachathi's team expanded the language arena by recommending that Kiswahili be examinable at primary school and that the vernacular languages be used as medium of instruction during the first three years of primary school.
It was Gachathi's team that highlighted the crucial issue of instructional materials. For the foreign languages, English, French and German, there were foreign governments who were quietly expending resources in the teaching of their languages. It was noted that even though Kiswahili had become a compulsory subject in primary school in 1964, very little had been achieved in the creation of instructional materials. Gachathi's team recommended that KIE produce reading and instructional materials for Kiswahili and the African languages.
Mackay's team, set up in 1981 to consider the establishment of a second university in Kenya, made drastic changes to the Kenyan education system. This is the team that introduced what has come to be known as the 8-4-4 system of education. Among other recommendations, this team made Kiswahili compulsory and examinable at all levels of the education system. Kiswahili was to be compulsory in the second university as well. The efforts made in favour of Kiswahili have begun to bear fruit. There is a very large number of Kiswahili readers for children, and the number of adult texts is increasing. A similar campaign needs to be made for each of the mother tongue languages if creative output in these languages is to prosper.
What Ngugi, and Kenyans in general, needed was an intellectual and cultural environment which would liberate the creative force within each individual. This basic right was denied to Kenyans by the prevailing language policy. Some highly resourceful types managed to adapt and camouflage their message. For example, tucked away discreetly in Section V of Kariara and Kitonga's () anthology is a collection of poetry, whose themes are little different from Ngugi's in Petals of Blood. One such poem is Jared Angira's 'Hospitality':
by friendly baton
The unripe rubble of them all
came back after a kind persuasion
of the yellow sheet
The first quartile
of the celebrated score
to the countryside
where peasants scratch
But someone left to the unknown
who once blew the whistle
And the ground where once he stood
Is mined and barbed
Is mined and barbed (63)
The use of words such as "hospitality", "kindly", and "friendly" in the heading and in the first stanza of this poem may deceive a casual reader into thinking that the message of the poem is benign. In point of fact what the poem is describing is the brutal evacuation of students from the University of Nairobi in 1969. The students had been holding a demonstration to agitate for the construction of a tunnel under Uhuru Highway to provide safer crossing between the halls of residence and the lecture halls. The key word in connection with this poem is "brutal", especially in view of the fact that the students were unarmed and the request they were making made logical sense. It takes an interest in poetry and careful reading to access Jared Angira's message. Creative works which criticise an oppressive regime such as the above poem are not always easy to find. In the case of Kenya, the majority of such gems remained unwritten in the minds of the artists.
Daring writers, like Ngugi, became openly defiant and wrote in their indigenous languages, preferring perhaps (to paraphrase the words of a famous wordsmith) to die writing than to live in silence. The majority of Kenyans played it safe by not engaging in creative writing. Incidentally, the underpass the students had been agitating for was eventually constructed, as quietly as the indigenous languages were allowed into the formal education system.