Rush to preserve endangered Waata language as it’s linked with bad omens

Only 2,000 of the 12,000 Waata people live in coastal Kenya, the rest in Tanzania and Ethiopia.

In Summary

• Children won’t speak it as they will be stigmatised. It is said if a man marries a Waata, he will become poor.

• It is an oral language and experts are trying to compile a dictionary and dispel myths. Elders asked experts for help.    

In Kenya’s coastal regions, amidst the lush forests and small but vibrant communities, is a group whose language and culture are on the brink of extinction.

The Waata people, an Afro-Cushitic group believed to have migrated from Yemen through Ethiopia, are fighting to preserve their unique linguistic heritage despite the challenges of modernity and marginalisation.

Elders from the community approached the Department of Languages at Pwani University to have their language and culture documented for future generations.

With a population of about 12,000 spread across Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania, the Waata people are considered an endangered group due to their dwindling numbers. 

Dr Nancy Ngowa, chairperson of the Department of Languages at Pwani University, said in Kenya alone, their population stands at only 2,000. This highlights the urgent need for action to safeguard their language and culture.

“We have a classification of endangered languages and Waata is one of them. It is because the population is very low. And when a population is below 20,000, it's considered endangered. So, this one is 12,000. In Kenya, being just 2,000 is extremely endangered,” she said.

The Waata language, classified as endangered on a global scale, holds the key to understanding the rich history and traditions of this ancient community.

Ngowa, who is the lead researcher recounts her encounter with the Waata elders in 2019, a pivotal moment that sparked a collaborative effort to document and preserve their language.

"When the Waata elders approached our department, it was a rare and honourable gesture,” she said.

“They recognised the urgency of preserving their language, which was slipping away with each passing generation."

That was a very rare scenario because language scientists expect to go to the field to look for data. That has always been the tradition. They are always on the lookout to see which language is endangered and how they can document and preserve it.

“If possible, if the community is willing, we want to revitalise it or bring it back to life. But the Waata did the opposite," Ngowa stated. They came to the experts.

Despite being the original inhabitants of the coastal region, the Waata people have faced centuries of marginalisation and discrimination, leading to their reluctance to adopt their cultural identity.

"Our children are ashamed to speak our language. They identify themselves as Mijikenda or Giriama, distancing themselves from their Waata heritage due to negative attitudes associated with our language," Waata elder Barisa Hiyesa said.

He said the community has been associated with bad omens, hence, their children do not want to associate with their language.

“People believe if you marry a girl from the Waata community, then your property will diminish and you become poor. This is a myth that has no basis because we have people who have been married in other tribes and they are doing even better,” Hiyesa said.

Ginora Abajila said young people do not speak the language anymore.

“Waata youngsters don't speak the language at home. They don't speak it in the schools. They don't speak it anywhere unless maybe their parents tell them to, which is quite rare," she said.

“Now, their parents speak the language and want the language to be spoken by the youth. But you can’t force the youth to use the language.”

Another reason this language is endangered is through intermarriages.

“So you find a Waata is married to a Giriama and in that home, you can be sure it's Kigiriama that will dominate because it's the language of the region. When Kigiriama is spoken, it means the Waata language is dying,” Abajila said.

Some elderly people also avoid speaking the language for fear of stigmatisation.

“They’re not proud of it because of the cultural connotations that are associated with the language. So if you say, for example, you're a Waata and you're speaking the language, that means you're carrying all the negativity that comes along with that community," she said.

So people, the Waata themselves, tend to avoid speaking the language because they don't want to be associated with the negatives of the language. Now if they avoid the language, that means the language is becoming extinct.”

The linguistic challenges facing the preservation efforts are manifold. Variations in pronunciation and dialects among different Waata communities pose a significant hurdle. Additionally, past attempts at documentation, such as the use of a phonological system from a different Cushitic language, have further complicated the task.

"The first people who got into the Waata community to do something was Unesco. Because this language had not been written, they tried to use the sound system of the Orma, which is totally a different language. It's still Cushitic, but the pronunciations are very different," Ngowa said.

"We are working to develop a phonological system specific to the Waata language, laying the groundwork for future research and revitalisation efforts." 

Unesco also came up with the Waata Bible, which was translated and followed the Orma phonological system which made it hard for the Waata to read the Bible.

“Because the pronunciation is Orma and not Waata. It's as simple as saying probably they inserted some Waata vocabulary, but the books are Orma,” Ngowa said.

The university received funding from the Berlin Endangered Language Documentation Programme to document the Waata language and culture.

Throughout the project, researchers aim to compile a comprehensive dictionary, record traditional activities and document the medicinal properties of indigenous trees, all integral aspects of Waata culture.

"Our goal is not just to preserve the Waata language but to empower the community to reclaim their identity and heritage," Ngowa said.

As the project progresses, it is hoped the Waata people will once again take pride in their language and culture, ensuring that future generations can connect with their rich ancestral past.

Historically, the Waata were among the first inhabitants of the coastal region, preceding the arrival of Bantu communities and Arab settlers. They are traditionally hunter-gatherers, known for their deep connection to the forests, particularly the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest.

Despite their early presence in the region, the Waata have faced marginalisation and discrimination, leading to a decline in their population and endangerment of their language and culture.

The Waata language holds immense cultural significance as it is intertwined with the history, traditions and identity of Waata people.

The research will also deliver a dictionary for the Waata indigenous trees.

“Once you have the dictionary of the trees, then the data can be used by scientists. For us, we just produce the dictionary, the words and the uses of the trees. But scientists can pick it up from there and see which tree can cure what disease. They can do more research after that,” she said.

According to Woldena Watha, a group of Waata based in Taita Taveta, The Waata community first settled in the Mwangea Hills before spreading to Garbiti, Dololo, Shirango and Kilibasi and other parts of the coastal region.

In Dololo they practised farming (subsistence) to supplement food from hunting and gathering activities. Since they relied on nature for food, they ensured the ecosystem balance was maintained.

In 1948 the colonial government established the Royal National Park (Tsavo National Park), which forced the Waata out of Dololo; to settle in dry areas of Birikani, Kajire, Itinyi, Kisimenyi, Makinon Road, Kikobeni and other areas. This migration interfered with their socioeconomic lifestyle, pushing them to live in dire poverty.

In the first census conducted after Independence, the Waata were not captured as a distinct community but ‘Others’. Since then they have been marginalised until the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution, which recognises the right of the minorities and the marginalised.

The Waata are known to have possessed the biggest bows ever. That’s why they are also referred to as the Long Bow people.

The evidence that shows the Watha inhabited the Tsavo, many names come from Watha names of various places in Tsavo National Park.

Tsavo-Safo for evening, Aruba Dam-Dam for elephants, Bachuma for water gourd

Dololo is a swampy area; Kulo bisan means water is here; garbiti is a woman; dida hare means field of zebras, and galena means river.

“After many years of hunting for bush meat, the community has now turned to new initiatives including ecotourism and other sustainable income-generating activities,” Kazungu Ngonyo said.

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