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Only seven people in the world speak this Kenyan language—and now they are trying to save it

A young Maasai herder carries a kid that is too weak to walk on the road to Pakase village
Reuters/Radu Sigheti
It all depends on the next generation.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

The Yaaku people, of Kenya’s Rift Valley, number only around 4,000. And only seven people, all over the age of 70, can speak the ethnic group’s native language, Yakunte, fluently.

As the number of Yakunte speakers has dwindled, various efforts have been made to save the language. Yakunte speakers and a Dutch researcher wrote a Yakunte dictionary in 2004. Advocates of the people established the Yaaku People Association in 2003, dedicated to preserving its culture. Recently, according to a BBC report, a local school funded by the French Cultural Group is holding language classes twice a month for young Yaaku.

The Yaaku are believed to have migrated from Ethiopia (pdf) to Kenya, where they settled in the Mukogodo forest, west of Mount Kenya, more than 100 years ago. The Yaaku, whose name means “hunting people,” kept bees and began trading with the Maasai, the country’s largest pastoral people. Eventually the Yaaku assimilated into Masai culture, adopting the Masai tongue over their own Cushitic language.

Today the Yaaku are often considered a subgroup of the Masai and are not officially recognized as one of Kenya’s 42 ethnic groups. Yakunte is one of six languages in Kenya that have been classified as extinct by UNESCO. Seven other languages are considered endangered, according to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger:

Bong’omDefinitely endangered
BoniDefinitely endangered
DahaloSeverely endangered
OmotikCritically endangered
OngamoCritically endangered

African languages are especially vulnerable as governments adopt official languages while discouraging local ones, in hopes of better forging national identity. Of the 230 languages around the world that have gone extinct since 1950, 37 were in Africa.

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