ULIMWENGU: SADC boosts Kiswahili; let the elite hang their head and ‘English’ in shame

Monday August 26 2019

The Tanzanian elite treat Kiswahili as a second-rate lingo to be employed in the marketplace while haggling over the price of goods, or on political platforms while telling the masses lies about “bringing development” to them. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Tanzanians should be proud that the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) adopted Kiswahili as a region-wide lingua franca at the last summit recently ended in Dar es Salaam.

The 16 members of the economic bloc made that decision in recognition of the role the language could play in bringing the peoples of the region closer together thereby enhancing their cooperation in the political, economic, cultural and social spheres.

But that decision, which on the surface seems to honour Tanzania, may prove to be an embarrassment to us before too long because of the way we have treated Kiswahili. Some 25 or so years ago, I warned in my Kiswahili column that we were so negligent with Kiswahili that soon, if Unesco came to our region recruiting teachers to teach Kiswahili to the world, they would find them in Kenya, not Tanzania. I am sorry my prediction has come true.


For all that, I am not a soothsayer, just a keen observer. The Tanzanian elite treat Kiswahili as a second-rate lingo to be employed in the marketplace while haggling over the price of beans, or on political platforms while telling the masses lies about “bringing development” to them. Otherwise, Kiswahili is the tongue of gossip, banter and light-hearted exchanges.

Prof Chacha Nyaigoti-Chacha, the pre-eminent Kenyan educationalist, has often bemoaned the shabby treatment of Kiswahili in Tanzania, whether it be in our public speeches, on radio or television, and I cannot agree with him more. The biggest culprits in this are our politicians and rulers, who, while unable to learn any other language, should at least master the national language. Having given up on English — some people want to know without having to learn — and unable to master proper Kiswahili, they spend their lives hovering between broken pieces of the two languages, respecting neither one of them. In this way they have become bilingual illiterates.


When we observed 10 years of Tanganyika’s independence, and it was another occasion for the bloated egos of our politicians to divide up honours amongst themselves. Not one award went to a Kiswahili luminary, not Shaaban Robert, nor Kaluta Amri Abedi, nor Mathias Mnyampala, nor Akilimali Snowhite….

One of the attributes of any nation is a national language, which is given precedence over all other linguistic expressions. It has been hard for many African countries to designate one language as the national language, and in many of them national rulers communicate with their people via interpreters. In this sense, the entities they rule over are not nations but mere countries, the only factor binding them together being the fact that they were colonised by the same colonial power.


Through an accident of history, Tanzania has had the fortune of having an easily imposable national language, which has served us well, although we treat it with disdain: Our elite speak with their children in English, and insist on taking their children to so-called “English-medium” schools. A lot of the Englishes spoken by these children is slang gibberish, but it doesn’t matter, because it sounds English. Totally missing in this hazy equation is Kiswahili.

Now, the politicians in Dar are congratulating themselves on the promotion of Kiswahili to SADC level, but they will be hard-put to produce the teachers to send to Southern Africa. Teachers will still come from Kenya, and, later, even from Mozambique, DR Congo and Namibia.

This is not necessarily far-fetched. DRC has a large Kiswahili-speaking population and so does Mozambique. Some ethnic Bantu dialects in Namibia, as in Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, etc, sound so similar to Kiswahili that enterprising youth across the region will rush to study Kiswahili in earnest, and they may help import some words from their dialects, thus further enriching Kiswahili.

Many of the rulers of Southern Africa spent their childhood in Tanzania — such as Mozambican Filippe Nyussi, who speaks perfect Kiswahili — and may want to encourage their offspring to link up with the language that provided the soundtrack for their liberation struggle.

There was a time in Mozambique when a youth looking to join the military after liberation made great efforts to learn Kiswahili, because that would ensure fast-tracking for the applicant. Parade ground commands were in Kiswahili. At that time, the head of state, the commander of the armed forces, the minister of defence and three-quarters of the Cabinet spoke Kiswahili, as did the second president, the third, and now the fourth.

Yet we despise the language.

Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]