Kiswahili kitukuzwe: Swahili Day is a welcome fillip for all of us

Monday July 11 2022

World Kiswahili Day celebrations in Nairobi on July 7, 2022. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG


For the first year ever Kiswahili has been celebrated by the international community after the designation of an international day for it.

It now looks like Kiswahili, the East African lingua franca, is on the way to true world superstardom, or, at least, failing that, some relevance among people whose need for this language has been rather misunderstood.

Who are these people, you may ask, who misunderstand their need for Kiswahili? Put simply, it is those who stand to gain if the language gained bigger clout than it does now, but who still roam the wilderness looking for linguistic mirages they will never harness to their ploughs.

It is true that Kiswahili is used for various socioculturo-economic purposes by roughly 120 million people, mainly in Eastern and Central Africa, covering — in some cases only partially — the states of Kenya and Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, DR Congo, Somalia, Mozambique, Zambia, Comoros and South Sudan.

The intensity with which it is used in popular exchanges varies among these countries, but there can be no doubt that it is a great enabler in the communication that goes on between population groups in these areas. Hence the recognition accorded to Kiswahili by world fora, especially now the United Nations.

This has been long coming and, as we know only too well, not too many of our affairs march in a linear fashion.


Too often, we make decisions, embark on their implementation, encounter snags, take detours and new tangents, and sometimes lose the original ideas and ourselves in the savannahs of cluelessness.

We have to be reminded by those in our midst who have given some serious thought to this that the quest to which we have been committed, at least theoretically, is as relevant as it remains unattained, and that more resolute efforts need to be invested in its realisation.

The savannahs speak to the distractions we render ourselves to, borne mainly by an insipid sense of inferiority that has consumed our intellectual energies and rendered us so submissive to external cultural forces that we can hardly recognise the rich cultural heritage we could use to our advantage.

Those of us who were colonised by the French, British or Portuguese cannot envisage ourselves as being capable of intellectual intercourse and production outside the languages of those foreign lands.

Indeed, any suggestion that we possess the capacity to teach science in our languages is often greeted with derision, even by people in our learning institutions who cannot themselves master these languages.

It is ironic that the greatest defenders of these Anglophilic, Francophilic and Lusophilic philosophies have themselves not mastered the, so much so that it comes across as a tragic case of unrequited love.

So our elites have squandered their thoughts and fortunes on the elusive pursuit of identities that will never be theirs at a time they are undermining the education of their children by trying to instruct them in tongues that neither learner nor teacher truly comprehends. The result of this convulsive ( I use the adjective advisedly) atmosphere is an intellectual quagmire of people beating about the bush.

I venture to say that the ideal situation for our scientific grooming would be for the Bambara child to be instructed in Bambara, the Xhosa child in Xhosa; the Umbundu, the Munyamwezi, the Munyarwanda, Wollof likewise. Maybe one day we will get to the point where this is doable, so that from cradle to campus there is a seamless continuum of scientific nutrition steeped in our realities and answering to our needs and concerns.

That may be as yet a far-off dream, even if it can be envisaged. Until that day comes, we have to do with the low-hanging fruits in our neighbourhood, and for our region in Eastern , Central and Southern Africa, the branches look heavily laden indeed.

Though Kiswahili has had immense infusion of vocabulary from Arabic, Hindi, Farsi, Portuguese and Chinese, among others, the grammar of official and unofficial Kiswahili is entirely Bantu, and its structure obeys the same logic. There should therefore be no impediment in importing new words into Kiswahili from across the continent, especially words that already sound familiar in our natural linguistic niches.

Now that the United Nations has set Saba saba (July 7) as the International Day for the Promotion of Kiswahili, let us work to promote and spread it across the region and beyond.

Already, I notice the enthusiasm. I went through Kigali this past week and attended a reception organised by the Tanzania High Commission for an organisation dedicated to the promotion of Kiswahili, a function attended by the Kenyan High Commissioner to Rwanda.

The vibe was there, and the optimism too. Amid the congratulations and merrymaking, I could not help but think of the tough task ahead of making our officials in governments across the region drop their longstanding conviction that only a European language can deliver proper education.

Because this is a subject close to my heart and crucial for our development, I make no apology when I say that I will revisit it as often as I can. Let’s debate it, as I know there is much around that needs debating.

Jenerali Ulimwengu is now on YouTube via jeneralionline tv. E-mail: [email protected]