While it has been around for more than 700 years and has about 200 million users in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo-Kinshasa, Malawi, Mozambique, Southern Sudan, Somalia and the Comoros, Kiswahili has failed to unite eastern Africa and the Great Lakes region. BETHSHEBA ACHITSA with OGOVA ONDEGO writes.
Though Kiswahili is a national language in Kenya, the language is equated with low levels of literacy and all official communication is conducted in English. This not only works against the status but also the development of Kiswahili.
However, perhaps the biggest threat to Kiswahili is the development of Sheng, a mixture of English, Kiswahili and other local languages that grew out of densely-populated informal settlements of Nairobi starting from the 1970s.
With so many speakers, one would have thought that Kiswahili media would be booming. But that is hardly so.
Kenya, considered commercial and cultural powerhouse in the region, has only one ailing Kiswahili daily newspaper: Taifa Leo. Hardly any one who is someone considers advertising one’s products and services in a Kiswahili paper. This lack of interest, declining sales and lack of advertising led to the swift closure of another daily, Kenya Leo, in the 1990s.
While Uganda has no Kiswahili newspaper, Tanzanian Kiswahili media”seven daily newspapers”are vibrant: they are popular, circulate widely and command lots of advertising.
Manage to plant Kiswahili firmly in the country?
Founding father of the Tanzanian nation, Julius Nyerere, who made Kiswahili the national language in 1962 to unite an amalgamation of fractious nationalities referred to as “Tanganyika”. Putting them in socialist villages and preaching to them the “evils” of “man-eating-man” capitalism and its language”English”Tanzanians embraced Kiswahili for more than 30 years during his reign and continue to do so even after the late Nyerere handed over power.
In Congo-Kinshasa, which some people refer to as Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kiswahili is blamed for the political instability in the eastern part of the country that shares a lot more with eastern than the central Africa that the Congo belongs to. That the late Laurent Kabila who led a successful rebellion against an ailing Joseph Mobutu Sese Seko was based in eastern Congo and spoke Kiswahili and that his son, Joseph Kabila cannot speak the country’s Lingala lingua franca and in 2006 elevated Kiswahili to a national language alongside Lingala, Chiluba and Kikongo, has not helped much in the 66-million strong nation.
Socio-political instability may not be a good thing, but it is benefiting Kiswahili as returnees to Rwanda, Burundi, southern Sudan and Somalia who have picked it up in refugee camps in Kenya or Tanzania adopt the language.
That Burundi and Rwanda are also seeking closer economic and political ties with the Kiswahili-speaking East African Community-member nations could boost the status and use of Kiswahili were it not for its bad historical baggage bequeathed it by brutal Arab slave dealers, colonial authorities and post-colonial dictators like Idi Amin Dada, Milton Obote and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda.
While colonialists and slave dealers used the language to dominate and rule over Africans, Obote and Amin used Kiswahili to oppress their political opponents; Amin even decreed that Kiswahili should become a national language in spite of the many government brutalities that the Ugandans associated it with. Two decades after shooting his way to State House in 1986, Museveni made the language examinable in schools in 2007 and his government has been promoting the language despite its unpopularity in the country, especially among the older generation who witnessed the military and political brutalities associated with it and the influential Baganda who fear the threat Kiswahili would pose to their own language and culture.
But what is Kiswahili and where did it come from?
Kiswahili grew in settlements along the eastern Africa when Arab traders intermarried with local Bantu communities during the 14th and 15th centuries AD. The language they spoke, the culture they shared and the people became known as Swahili, Arabic for “coastal area”. The word Swahili, therefore, describes the language, culture and people of the region. But the language is not just a mixture of Arabic and Bantu languages but, like any other growing language, has over the years adopted words from Persian, Portuguese, German and English.
While Arab slave traders are the ones who took Kiswahili deeper into the interior of Africa as far away as the Congo, it is European missionaries who published the first Kiswahili-English dictionary while colonial authorities adopted Kiswahili for their duties.
With numerous political pronouncements that Kiswahili be adopted as the lingua franca for Africa, one wonders if such calls are well founded or if one is merely engaging in cheap populism as only politicians are capable of.
That even users of Kiswahili tend to associate the language with the cunning and crafty does not seem help this language much. When someone is thought to be economical with the truth, one may be dismissed as engaging in ‘Kiswahili': “Peleka huko hicho Kiswahili chako” (Take your Kiswahili away from here!). This shows that even though many may speak the language, Kiswahili is not dignified.
Much effort would be required to ensure the language is accepted all over Africa. If not, Kiswahili will never attain this status no matter how long it is spoken in the world!