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Why Africa should strive to make Kiswahili continental language

A Maasai girl takes her fellow pupils through a Swahili language lesson in Samburu. [Getty Images]

Today is World Kiswahili Language Day. The fete is being celebrated globally for the first time since UNESCO designated July 7 as the official day to commemorate this particular lingua franca.

And while Kiswahili represents a recognition of our unifying language as a region, not so many people from the East African Community can actually speak it. Kiswahili is a Bantu language native to the Swahili people who live along the Indian Ocean coast of East Africa. The number of Kiswahili speakers, be they native or second-language speakers, is estimated to be 200 million.

As a Swahili speaker and a citizen of the East African region, I faced a language barrier as I crisscrossed Uganda and Rwanda. A fact-finding mission on how widely Kiswahili is spoken in East Africa, first took me to Zanzibar. A majority of Zanzibaris in the semi-autonomous island of Tanzania are made up of people from the Swahili ethnic group.

Everybody speaks Kiswahili there though not the kind that is normally spoken in the Kenyan capital Nairobi. Nonetheless, Kenyans and Zanzibaris can communicate with ease.

In May, I took a break from work and toured Uganda and Rwanda. This journey, though exciting, proved just how language can impede regional integration and trade.

My road trip in Nairobi headed to Kampala via the Busia border. I have used this route before so it was pretty much easier to navigate.

One fascinating experience I have had while travelling to Uganda and which I wouldn’t want to miss is eating chicken sold at the edge of Mabira Forest, just before Kampala.

7 July of each year is World Kiswahili Language Day. [iStockphoto]

People here sell roasted chicken, goat meat and bananas and refreshments. For Ush1,000 (KSh94), you can get a huge piece of a well-roasted chicken. Sadly, the old East African joke that Kiswahili was born in Zanzibar, grew up in mainland Tanzania, fell sick in Kenya, died in Uganda and was buried in the Democratic Republic of Congo starts to become a reality in this region.

Ugandans have been historically very poor when it comes to speaking Kiswahili. President Museveni has repeatedly called on Africans to speak the language in order to aid in unifying the continent.

Kiswahili in Uganda has for decades been a preserve of the armed forces, which could explain why Museveni is fluent in it.

But there is renewed hope for citizens. On Tuesday, Uganda adopted Kiswahili as an official language.

Uganda’s ICT Minister Chris Baryomunsi on Tuesday said that the Cabinet on Monday approved the implementation of a directive by the 21st East African Community (EAC) Summit that Kiswahili be adopted as an official language of the community, Xinhua reported. Uganda now has two official languages – English and Kiswahili. Kampala residents speak broken Swahili.

If you want to take a perfect exploration of the city, from Old Kampala where the Gadaffi mosque is located to the Kabaka’s palace in Mengo, Kampala, a boda boda ride is the most efficient means of transport. Unfortunately, communication is a problem because many riders do not understand Kiswahili. And those who do, their proficiency is limited. One boda boda rider says: “People here have a negative perception of Kiswahili”.

This could be precipitated by how the Ugandan forces commandeer them using Kiswahili phrases such as “Piga magoti" and “Inua mikono” (Kneel down and hands up).

On Monday, the Ugandan Cabinet directed that Kiswahili be made a compulsory subject in primary and secondary schools. This will help eliminate the kind of language barrier I faced in Kampala.

Ugandan lawmakers gather in the parliament in Kampala, Uganda September 21, 2017. [Reuters]

It will be remembered that in 2017 at the EALA Parliament, a motion tabled to adopt Kiswahili for assembly debates was dismissed. The idea of Kiswahili as a pan-African language was pushed in the 1960s by Tanzania’s first President Julius Nyerere, who used the language to unite his nation after independence.

If Kiswahili is to become truly pan-African it will take political will, an economic imperative and financial investment to rope in all regional blocs and the African Union.

In Africa, Kiswahili should not be an alternative to English, French or Portuguese as is the case today. The three languages should be the alternative to Kiswahili. African nations should use Kiswahili to fully integrate and perhaps even achieve a long-held dream of having a United States of Africa. 

Happy Kiswahili Day!