EAC drags feet in adopting official use of Kiswahili

Monday July 10 2023

Swahili enthusiasts during the flag off of a march in Nairobi, Kenya, aimed at creating awareness of Kiswahili being the first officially recognised African language by Unesco on July 7, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG


The East African Community lacks a policy on Kiswahili that would make its use mandatory in all the seven EAC partner states.

Swahili is yet to be fully adopted for official use, even in the East African Legislative Assembly, despite the EAC having declared it – together with English and French – as the three official languages of the bloc.

As the World marked the World Kiswahili Day on July 7, Dr Caroline Asiimwe, executive secretary of the East African Kiswahili Commission, blamed the lack of a language policy across EAC for partial use of the language.

Read: Eala blocks use of Kiswahili in assembly

“The major issue we are facing in the EAC is the issue of multilinguism. Our partner states have many languages. Even when we talk about Kiswahili as an official language, we have different status in these countries. In some, Kiswahili is an official language, in others it is either official or national, or both, while in some partner states, it is not clear whether it is official or national,” she told The EastAfrican.

Kiswahili, a Bantu language with Arabic influences, is the first African language to be recognised in such a manner by the UN.
The theme of this year’s celebrations is “Kiswahili and Multilingualism: Achieving More Together.”


Kiswahili is among the 10 most widely spoken languages in the world, with more than 200 million speakers, mostly in Africa and the Middle East.

Global language

Kiswahili speakers are spread out in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Somalia, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and Comoros and as far as Oman and Yemen in the Middle East.

Read: How standard Kiswahili was created, spread

Within the EAC, Kenya and Tanzania are a step ahead of partner states in the use of Kiswahili as both an official language and national language.

“When you go to other EAC countries you will find that they still have other languages as official languages, but they are taking steps,” said Asiimwe. “Countries are at different levels, so they have to look at their legal status, see whether it is in their constitution, and they also have to look at capacity, human resources, so these are some of the factors that are derailing partner states from implementing Kiswahili as an official language.”

Rwanda recently adopted Kiswahili as an official language, even though only 0.7 percent of Rwandans speak it (54 percent speak Kinyarwanda).

Burundi and the DRC have also taken steps to ensure the language becomes official. In South Sudan, though spoken, Kiswahili is still not well used.

Dr Asiimwe is urging Ugandans to embrace Kiswahili, adding that mastery of the language would open up immense opportunities in trade, media, criminal justice system and healthcare.

Read: Uganda’s big gamble in adopting Kiswahili

Rebecca Alitwala Kadaga, Uganda’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for East African Community Affairs, also added her voice to the call.

“I want to urge Ugandans to embrace Kiswahili as it is now an official language of the EAC,” she said.

Read: Ugandan ministers resolve to learn Kiswahili

Kadaga said Kiswahili had earned a bad reputation partly because it was used in pre-colonial times by slave traders from the East African coast.