Kiswahili becomes Kenya official language

By Wahome Thuku

Kiswahili is now an official language, meaning you can demand to be addressed in it in any office.

With the promulgation of the new Constitution, Kiswahili has become one of the two official languages in Kenya.

Section 7 of the new Constitution declares Kiswahili and English as Lugha Rasmi (official languages) in Kenya.

And under Section 7 (1), Kiswahili retains its previous status as Kenya’s national language. For this language, the journey to its new status has been long and grueling.

Kiswahili had to overcome all odds in the 1960s and 70s even to be accepted as the national language.

On July 25, 1969, then Attorney General Charles Njonjo strongly objected to the introduction of Kiswahili as an official language.

Then Embu East MP Kamwithi Munyi had tabled the Motion to have Kiswahili declared the official language in Government offices and in the National Assembly.

But according to Mr Njonjo, only 40 per cent of Kenyans then could competently speak in Kiswahili and a lot of work would have to be done to encourage the other 60 per cent to accept the language.

Njonjo argued Kiswahili was an Arabic language and if all foreign languages were to be done away with then it should be among them.

"Nearly every MP has his own way of speaking Swahili and to use it here would make the House like the Tower of Babel where nobody would understand whatever the other said," Njonjo told Parliament. And he could not comprehend how laws would be made in Kiswahili.

On July 4, 1974 President Jomo Kenyatta declared Kiswahili a Parliamentary language, the following day, Parliament was treated to drama as MPs attempted to make contributions in the language. It was even news when Kenyatta addressed Parliament in Kiswahili.

Cabinet minister Robert Matano, himself a Swahili speaker, was among those who pushed hard for its recognition.

Leaders such as former Subukia MP Koigi wa Wamwere and Gender Minister Naomi Shaban now prefer to use Kiswahili in Parliament.

Today, Kiswahili is compulsory and examinable in schools. The Chama cha Kiswahili cha Kitaifa has for years been pushing to have Kiswahili upgraded to official language. Now it can be used in official documents and laws.

However, the law still recognises English as the only language of proceedings in the High Court and the Court of Appeal.

Judges, even those who competently speak Kiswahili, insist that evidence adduced in that language be translated into English by court clerks. Sometimes this causes the cases to take nearly twice as much time they require to be heard and determined.

Although there are many radio stations exclusively broadcasting in Kiswahili including the Standard Group’s Radio Maisha, there is only one daily newspaper published in the language.