If we’re serious about Africa project, Kiswahili should rule us

Sunday October 01 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


I started this series of connected musings by noting how Anglophone Africa isn’t as well equipped to understand Francophonie as it should be, followed that with the idea of four or more linguistic Africas and then took a detour to South Africa to acknowledge African-on-African violence and xenophobia in memory of the now-departed Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

Where does an Africanist land with all this? Luckily, Tanzania provides a possible answer. Bear with me. Like your own country, Tanzania is a completely made-up entity. It has a geography, borders within which there are matters of population: Who is a citizen and who isn’t, and how we distinguish between these two categories.

There are the superstructures of cultures, economy, national airlines, political parties and their obsession with colours, the giraffe on the tail of the national carrier — I liked the wonky one — and the giraffes in the national parks. All of it held together by traditions and agreements, the stuff we don’t generally question and are partially unaware of. All of it human invention.

No big deal, everything is a construct. As matter is made up of atoms, which themselves start to get weird at the quantum level, so is our global society made up of individuals and units glued together into more complex structures. This can give rise to a constructive…constructivist?... take on nationalism, and beyond that on Pan-Africanism.

Read: EYAKUZE: African (dis)unity goes beyond language to art, food, politics

Tanzania is a made-up entity that has privileged a certain kind of nation-building. It happens to have been smart and inclusive, out of the necessity of weaving together disparate peoples and cultures and geographies into one coherent unit that could bear the weight of being a modern nation-state. This has been dependent on Kiswahili as the language of politics, of social cohesion, of colonial rejection, of Utu, of the African liberation struggle and more. This language of encounter of the Indian Ocean peoples in Africa, Asia and the Middle East proved just right for a complex project.


If you’re paying attention, you will have noticed that it is giving the European languages and their regional silos on the continent some credible competition. It is the language of the African Union, it is being taken up by Southern African Development Community countries as a school subject, it reaches into the Congo and Mozambique, linking Lusophone Africa and Francophone Africa through an Anglophone point of exchange. You feel me? People from Japan to the US certainly are, with uptake on the up and up.

Our future might well be paradoxical. We can use one language to dismantle linguistic silos and create a patchwork of commonalities across this vast continent. Kiswahili has a similar quality to English in that it is quite amenable to expansion.

It wears many outfits, from the kanzus of Zanzibar to the kitenges of Lubumbashi. It might even be able to grapple with the lexicon of modern technology if we allow it to. But best of all is its neutrality. This might just be the one language to rule us all, if we are serious about the continental project. If Kiswahili comes with a few Tanzanians attached, no problem. They are usually harmless and most interested in the quality of your food and hospitality.

Elsie Eyakuze is an independent consultant and blogger for The Mikocheni Report; Email [email protected]