Despising Kiswahili is East Africa's Undoing

Published on 1st February 2010

News that the Kenya’s ministry of education declassed Swahili is not welcome at a time East African countries are attempting to unite. Swahili was mandatory in Kenya’s Secondary schools. Now it has been made optional. Will this help or ruin the spirit of East African unity?   

Kenya seems to suffer from a colonial hangover. English is vital. So is Kiswahili. When I was in Nairobi, many people were irked when I referred to them as Swahilis (meaning Africans, as we’re used to back home). For them, a Swahili is an uncouth and an uneducated fellow. Again, they saw no difference between a Swahili and a Muslim. English was, and still is (erroneously though) highly regarded as a language of educated and civilized people. 

I noted this after a hot debate ensued claiming that Tanzanians do not know English and therefore are not well educated. This did not hold water though after citing two Tanzanian-educated-Kenyan lawyers that steal the thunder. Interestingly, prominent Kenyan lawyers such as Willy Mutunga, Makau Mutua and others did their law degrees at Tanzania's University of Dar es salaam! 

To them, Swahili speakers do not know, and cannot speak nice English. They found this illogical after noticing that I had no much more vernacular effects like them. 

Even if you watch the Bull’s Eye programme on Kenyas Nation TV  (NTV), you’ll find that many Kenyans, including the president, like to speak Swanglish in that they mix English and Swahili on many occasions.  I remember a famous clip that showed President Kibaki saying: “I am sure we shall succeed. We shall succeed. We shall faulu.”  

Even Yoweri Museveni of Uganda mixes Swahili and English on many occasion. Addressing Kenyan journalists during the Migingo Island crisis, he said: “...How can we fail to solve this problem ourselves and say  to UN, wazungu njoo mtusaidie, tumeshindwa!” 

While Sheng or Swanglish is gaining more momentum in Kenya at the detriment of English, Swahili- the vital language of  the East and Central African region is the one Kenya is unnecessarily busting. Even the south region is slowly embracing it. It is widely used in Malawi, Mozambique, and South Africa (thanks to the fact that many South African freedom fighters were based in Tanzania). 

Swahili is regarded as a Language of liberation in Tanzania, thanks to the vital role it played during the struggle for independence. It would have been difficult for Tanzania to acquire her freedom had she used over a hundred vernaculars spoken in Tanzania. Swahili made it much easier and faster to attain freedom and liberate Tanzanians from all ethnic anathema. Mwalimu Julius Nyerere and his colleagues used Swahili to advertise their policies and the reasons why Tanzania had to be independent. Using one language built understanding and trust among Tanzanians. Ever since, they are proud of their nationhood as opposed to ethnicity (as in Kenya and Uganda) despite aping English. English has nary unified them. 

On top of that, it is a language of unification. This is the vital tool Kenya can use to do away with its ethnic hostility-cum-barrier. Tanzania built a higher sense of oneness thanks to Swahili. If anything, Swahili is the only miracle that made 120 odd tribes in Tanzania to live in harmony compared to 40 odd tribes in Kenya that always set off a confusing dance to the nation.  

At the 2009 Conference of Commonwealth Heads of State  in Trinidad and Tobago, Ugandan strongman, Yoweri Museveni, informed the queen of the aim of ‘popularizing Swahili’ in order do  away with ‘putting up’ with interpreters and microphones especially at AU conferences.  

Culturally, Swahili people interact easily. That is  why life in Mombasa is comparably more peaceful than any part of Kenya. Mark my words. I don’t mean Swahili people are angels while the non-Swahili are devils. You can go about your business in Mombasa even at night without any fear of being robbed or assaulted by police. What is the situation like in Nyeri and Nairobi? 

Methinks, Kiswahili  has something to do with the peace Tanzania enjoys as opposed to  Burundi, Rwanda and Somalia that gave their language second place. Swahili is easier to learn thanks to interwoven culture. It also is rich thanks to its open-door nature of taking in some words from other languages. This, for its detractors, makes it a language dominated by other languages especially Arabic. But they forget one thing. English for example, is hugely dominated by Arabic, German, French and Greek to mention but a few. 

Swahili is growing rapidly all over the world. It is taught in many universities and broadcasted in many global radios such as VOA, BBC, DW and others. It ought to be the official language of East African countries. This would help harmonize East African English speaking countries with French speaking Burundi and Rwanda. 

By demoting Swahili, Kenya is building a hostile environment. Suppose Burundi does the same. Will East African unity be attainable and tenable? It is erroneous to put Swahili at par with Sign Language. The need for sign language is not at par with that of Swahili. By razing Swahili, Kenya is also putting out its coastal citizenry and minimizes the trust and pride they have taken in Kenya.

Even the outside world that values Swahili is laughing at these braggadocios by an African country to degrade Africa’s more popular and highly growing language. Please Kenya, don’t goof up Swahili.


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