At Simba bus station in Kampala, there is this very pretty girl who runs a mobile money kiosk. She speaks correct Kiswahili with such a pleasant accent you get surprised when she confesses that she has never stepped beyond Uganda’s borders, nor lived in Eastern region where many people pick the language as they grow up.
All the other women who work at the bus station like food vendors also speak good Kiswahili and like Miss Pretty, they are ethnic Baganda. Maybe women have a knack for learning languages, which is good since they can teach the children.
Across the city in the Kikuubo wholesale trading hub, everybody who works there speaks Kiswahili. They have learnt it right there in Kampala over the past few years as the city’s role in regional trade picked up.
Apparently, a language grows as the need for it arises, and I, therefore, see no need for a debate over a national language for Uganda that some people have been trying to revive of recent. Uganda cannot have a national language because it is not a nation in the first place.
It is a collection of nations that the British colonialists forced together into a state to make ruling them easier and the process of turning Uganda into a nation is still going on, some might even say in the wrong direction. But that is another debate.
Some argue that a national language helps promote peace and cement unity. But it didn’t help countries like Somalia.
When Siad Barre left, Somalis slaughtered themselves like crazed fanatics, and it took the Uganda Peoples Defence Forces, from a country without a national language, to restore the state and order after two decades of blood letting.
In 1994, Rwandans butchered a million people of their own which was 15 per cent of their population, until the Rwanda Patriotic Front restored order.
Rwanda had a national language but it took the RPF, born and raised in Uganda without a national language, to stop the genocide as the so-called international community looked on.
I don’t know where some people get the idea that Uganda needs a national language, for I have not yet measured how much national languages have necessarily made the neighbouring countries better places to live than Uganda.
We may need immigration statistics to establish whether Uganda is not the most popular destination for other East Africans to settle and work in, but I suspect it is.
What I know for sure is that Ugandans are so far managing to communicate without a national language. We have a state language called English, and even when Museveni and Besigye want to quarrel, they do it in English though they share a mother tongue.
And for the past 17 years we have had universal primary education which is delivered in English, so any Ugandan aged twenty-five and below has no excuse not understanding the state language.
So let us not have another national language debate to divert us.
We shall use Kiswahili to trade with our neighbours, English to abuse our enemies, our cherished mother tongues in pursuit of more important things like praying to God, expressing love and fighting wars to establish peace in blood soaked countries that have national languages.
Joachim Buwembo is a Knight International fellow for development journalism. E-mail: [email protected]