Kiswahili 'not only for Swahili', experts say on language's fete

Latifa Nizamdi displays Swahili  pot to guests in Mombasa on  July 7, 2022. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]

Yesterday marked the first World Kiswahili Language Day, celebrated in several locations globally. This comes only two days after Uganda officially adopted Kiswahili as a national language. 

The World Kiswahili Day, July 7, was designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) during its 41st Member States’ session held in Paris, France in November last year.

In Nairobi, a procession was held from KICC at 10am and culminated in a display of Swahili exhibitions at The National Museums of Kenya.

At the coast of Kenya, the cradle of the language, celebrations took place simultaneously at various locations, such as at the Lamu Fort Museum library and at Fort Jesus. 

A Kiswahili conference with practitioners of the language was held at the Lamu Youth Alliance Utamaduni Hall, which was unveiled on the same day. 

Speaking at the conference, which was conducted entirely in Kiswahili, renowned Swahili scholar, poet and religious leader Ustadh Mahmoud Mau said having a day set aside to celebrate Kiswahili globally was an honour, and showed that it is an important language to the world. 

"Kiswahili is spoken by more than 200 million people. It is not just a tool of communication, but also works as a means of preserving our traditions and culture," said Mau.

Mau is also the Imam of the oldest mosque in Lamu, Msikiti wa Pwani, estimated to be about 900-years-old (built in 1317AD), and is an important cultural hub of Swahili culture and language. 

He said the language had it's origins in Bantu languages like Pokomo and Giriama, but that Kiswahili itself gained prominence out of all the coastal languages due to factors such as trade. 

"Kiswahili has many other words in it from other languages such as Portuguese, Hindu and Persian. About 30 per cent of Kiswahili words are Arabic but that does not make it an Arabic language, as is misunderstood by some. Kiswahili grammar is completely different," he said.

The scholar explained that the Kiswahili language was crucial to the development of East Africa. He urged the Swahili people to be more involved in official discussions about the language.

Lali Abdalla Shelali performs during World Kiswahili Language Day celebration in Lamu. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

Ustadh Mau also decried the fact that the 13 dialects of Kiswahili are not officially recognised, meaning that Swahili students who use their native Kiswahili dialects, rather than Standard Swahili (Kiswahili sanifu) fared worse in Kiswahili national exams than students from other parts of the country.

He said some of these sentiments through a poem he wrote in 2005 when he watched a conference on TV that was about the Kiswahili language but had no Swahili people in it. 

Abubaker Khuchi, an education officer and scholar of Kibajuni, a dialect of Kiswahili, said a lot of words were getting into Kiswahili, with the language used the wrong way, even officially and professionally, such as in automated messages from mobile phone service providers.

"Kiswahili does not belong to the Swahili alone, so let it be taught to everybody. We need some control over the words getting into the language as well. Let us use it as much as we can, in official settings and documents," he said. 

Firdaus Mjamal Salim, the deputy headteacher at Lamu Boys Primary School, said the language was getting corrupted by youth and needed to be salvaged, and that efforts were being made to improve Lamu's performance in Kiswahili in the national exams. 

The conference was the first event of the day held in the Utamaduni Hall, which was launched by the Creative Arts Spaces in Kenya (CASiK) project through the French Government’s Solidarity Fund for innovative projects, civil societies, Francophonie and human development.

The hall was unveiled last evening, in the presence of representatives from the French Embassy and the Alliance Française. The occasion saw one of Lamu’s oldest live performing bands – Anoor Band - showcasing the vivacity of Taarab music, following a musical residency with the Nairobi based guitarist and arranger, Eddie Grey and the bassist, Michael Munene.

Kiswahili is among the 10 most widely spoken la languages in the world. When June 7 was announced as the World Kiswahili Language Day, it became the first African language to be recognized by the UN. In February this year, the African Union also adopted the language as an official working language.