Why is this newspaper written in the coloniser’s language?

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Perhaps Rwanda should now pick up the gauntlet and lead the EAC in promoting Swahili. But it must also look beyond its borders for institutions and individuals that will help it move Swahili to another level. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

By Ken Walibora

Posted  Tuesday, February 14   2017 at  12:49

In Summary

  • The formation of the commission under the East African Community Secretariat, in October 1915, remains largely unknown because matters Swahili, are invariably viewed as peripheral and ephemeral in the media.

In 1985, Prof Ireri Mbaabu of Kenyatta University made the following audacious statement in his book New Horizons in Kiswahili:
“Swahili is presently the world’s most rapidly developing language.”

The passage of time seems to have borne him out as Swahili continues to straddle many lands in its East African cradle and beyond.

In August 2016, the East African Legislative Assembly proposed the adoption of Swahili as one of the official languages of all East African states. However, the news did not make headlines anywhere in the region. Preoccupied with what they perceived as more serious “burning issues of the day,” such as security concerns, ubiquitous corruption, election fraud, and sexual scandals, newspapers in East Africa tucked away the historic motion in the inside pages.

Other media also ignored the news, because to them matters Swahili are inconsequential or just not salacious enough.

The proposal by the East African parliament ought to have been given the prominence it deserves. If the legislators of the regional assembly indeed represent the wishes of all the residents of the EAC, their proposal should have elicited acclaim.

What followed instead was the customary apathy and cold silence. One would have assumed that FM radio stations in Kigali, Dar es Salaam, Kampala, Bujumbura, and Nairobi would have been inundated by callers wanting to express their opinions on the elevation of Swahili to official status in the region.

We need debate because it is not pragmatic to take it for granted that once proposed and declared an official language in every state of the East African Community, Swahili would be both desirable and efficacious.

Closing a linguistic gap

How do member states harmonise the teaching and promotion of Swahili in schools and colleges to make its citizens competent and fluent? How, for instance, would EAC deal with the unequal competence of its citizens in Swahili?

Ordinarily, Tanzanians and Kenyans tend to communicate better and more in Swahili than Ugandans and Rwandans. How will making Swahili official close this linguistic gap?

What would be the role of the Zanzibar-based East African Kiswahili Commission (EASC) headed by Prof Kenneth Inyani Simala in addressing this gap as well as helping to standardise the language? What specific strategies would be put in place to ensure Swahili does not continue playing second fiddle to the languages of colonisers?

To be sure, the very existence of the Swahili commission may come as a surprise to the majority of East Africans whose taxes are used to run its activities. Indeed, the East African Kiswahili Commission has been in existence since October 1915.

In its initial stage it was temporarily headquartered in Arusha, before finally moving to the Island of Zanzibar. The formation of the commission under the East African Community Secretariat remains largely unknown because matters Swahili, are invariably viewed as peripheral and ephemeral in the media.

The media has denied the people of East Africa the information they need to make proper linguistic choices by overlooking the news of the formation of the commission as indeed they did with the proposal of the EALA to make Swahili an official language.

It behoves the member states and individual citizens to support the East African Swahili Commission and other institutions in the vanguard of the promotion of Swahili. They would do this by formulation of Swahili-friendly legislation and appropriate language policies and making sure they are fully implemented.

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