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The complex economics of the misunderstood Swahili lingo

By XN Iraki | June 15th 2021

One TV station recently invited me for an interview in Swahili.

The topics ranged from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan conditions to this year’s Budget.

By the time the interview was over, I was having a headache. It dawned on me how difficult the Swahili language is, particularly when used technically.  

I have a perfect excuse for my struggles with the language: in our days, Swahili was not examined from primary school to high school.

It was optional. I was relieved to drop it in Form Two. But coming to school in the city (the real one) forced me to learn it.  I also learnt a bit of Sheng, a language that has lost ground to English.  

Swahili is a great language; I wish I was better at it. It’s only that we tend to use it when annoyed or joking.

The beauty about Swahili is that you speak it from the heart, not the mouth. It also one of the youngest languages and is very rich in terms of vocabulary and other elements of language.  

It has been growing since its birth along the East African coast. It’s a mixture of Arabic and Bantu languages. But the recent growth is “forced” instead of organic. 

Without the Constitution declaring Swahili an official language, its growth would have been muted. Examining Swahili is another way to force the growth of the language.  I have no doubt many children, particularly from the middle and upper classes would not take Swahili in school given a choice.  

I recently heard one child say that on Swahili days in her school, she might as well not talk. In most private schools, English outperforms Swahili. Kenyan intellectuals are not expected to talk good Swahili and no one makes a fuss about it.  

Despite its centrality in the Constitution, Swahili seems to be facing some headwinds. Why? 

One media group has a Swahili week once a month. Rarely do our representatives in parliament use it. Rarely are public meetings, political or otherwise conducted in Swahili. 

Any listed company that conducts its board meetings in Swahili? I don’t think it has to do with some members being foreigners. 

Swahili is one of the many local languages. It, however, faces stiff competition from other languages.

An average Kenyan talks their mother tongue, Swahili and English. Add the other languages taught in schools such as French, German, and more recently Mandarin (Chinese).  

We should teach languages from neighbouring countries like Amharic and Luganda.

I must add Somali. Learning the latter is one way to integrate Somalia into the community of nations. And why can’t I get a BSc in Kamba, Chagga, Reddille or other local languages?  

Two, we associate English with class and status. Being eloquent in the Queen’s English is a dream we all harbour.  

Many parents are teaching their children English as the first language. This tends to degrade Swahili because it is seen as other mother tongues.

Parents would be surprised to learn that their children are more likely to perform better in English exams if fluent in other languages.

A child who talks Dholuo or Chagga is likely to do better in English than a monolingual child. It’s counterintuitive but a fact.  

Raised status

Remember a language is not just the words but emotions and the culture encapsulated in it.

Learning one language only is like living in a bedsitter. It also cuts you off from cultural enrichment. 

Three, the proliferation of vernacular radio and TV has given Swahili competition. We used to listen to Swahili radio and TV because our choices were limited. Few could talk English. Rising literacy has squeezed Swahili further. The vernacular voice-over on Bollywood (Hindi) movies is a stroke of genius.  

Four, the language of the Internet is English, which has raised its status. How many of you search the net using Swahili?  

Five, Swahili has no stars to promote it. How many musicians and actors are native Swahili speakers?

How many opinion-makers are proud of speaking Swahili? The political elites should be at the forefront in promoting the language.

Russian and French leaders prefer using their languages at international meetings, even though they are fluent in English. Why can’t our leaders do the same? Noted how Tanzania leaders own Swahili?  So what’s the future of the language? The economic growth of Tanzania might be the best saviour of Swahili.

As our southern neighbour economy expands, her status will rise and so will the use of Swahili. Noted the proliferation of Mandarin as the Chinese economy grows?  

If the leaders and opinion-makers take Swahili seriously and use it in business, its status will rise.

Entrepreneurs might promote Swahili if they see money in it. Money from movies, radio, TV broadcasts, books, magazines, and websites.  

What about exporting Swahili? If other countries, such as the US, India and China start using Swahili, it would become more popular here at home.


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