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.
In this regard, Rwanda is exemplary as it seems to know where it is headed, at least linguistically. In October 2016, the country’s Cabinet approved a draft law seeking to make Swahili a national language. The unlikely embrace of Swahili as the third official language comes in the wake of the rise and rise of English and Kinyarwanda in place of French.
Uganda has been flip-flopping on language policy and should pull up its socks. How would one, for example, explain a decision to spend huge sums training Swahili primary school teachers and thereafter insisting that teaching of Swahili must start only at secondary school level?
Kenya and Tanzania may appear to be veritable leaders in the promotion of Swahili but there are too many mixed signals from officialdom.
Why isn’t Swahili even mentioned in the Constitution of Tanzania? Why does the official status of Swahili in Kenya remain only on paper?
Why is this paper, The EastAfrican, which the Canadian High Commissioner to Kenya, Sara Hradecky, recently told me is the best in the East Africa, written in English and not Swahili?
Rwanda offers an optimistic outlook
Perhaps Rwanda should now pick up the gauntlet and lead the EAC in promoting Swahili. But in doing so it must embrace Prof Pacifique Malonga’s Swahili lessons on Rwandan radio and TV and Prof Cyprien Niyomugabo’s dictionary Inkoroanya Y’ikinyarwanda N’ igiswahili (Kamusi ya Kinyarwanda na Kiswahili) and consolidate the teaching of Swahili in schools. Rwanda offers an optimistic outlook.
Sample what Education Minister Papia Malima Musafiri told The EastAfrican: “We now have a good number of Rwandans who can speak Swahili fluently, as well as courses that have Kiswahili in their combinations. What we shall now do is increase the level of proficiency — and this will include making Kiswahili compulsory in schools. This will not be the job of the formal education sector alone; even at community level, Kiswahili should be promoted especially now that we are at the forefront of many regional projects.”
Moreover, Rwanda must also look beyond its borders for institutions and individuals that will help it move Swahili to another level.
Only then will the promotion of Swahili in Rwanda as elsewhere in East African go above and beyond mere rhetoric. Then the world, including Kenya and Tanzania, would presumably turn to Rwanda to learn Swahili and how to promote it.
Ken Walibora, PhD, is a prolific literary and cultural critique and Swahili creative writer. He can be reached at [email protected]