AU adoption of Kiswahili as official language laudable

Thursday, March 3rd, 2022 02:37 | By
Africa Union, Adis Ababa. Photo/Courtesy

When on July 7, 1954, the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) was founded in Dar es Salaam under the leadership of Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, it immediately declared Kiswahili as an important weapon in the Africa’s struggle for liberation from colonialism.

It is, therefore, not by coincidence that last November, the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) designated July 7 as the World Kiswahili Language Day.

This followed intense lobbying by Africa, led by Tanzania, to have the language recognised for its rich heritage and widespread use on the continent, and globally. Kiswahili becomes the first African language to be so recognised by Unesco.

Again, this is not accidental given Kiswahili ranks as one of the 10 most widely spoken languages around the world with an estimated 200 million speakers, according to Unesco.

The language is widely spoken in 12 African countries—Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, DRC, South Sudan, Somalia, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia and the Comoros. Countries like South Africa and Botswana have introduced it in their schools while Namibia plans to do so. It is also used in the Middle East countries of Oman and Yemen.

Kiswahili’s credentials as the lingua franca of Africa were further cemented early this month when the African Union’s Assembly of Heads of State and Government approved its use as an official working language for the continental body. Already, Kiswahili has been officially in use in the East African Community and the Southern African Development Community blocs.

But it has taken 35 years for Kiswahili to be officially recognised as the working language of the continental organisation. Way back in 1986, the Organisation of African Union (OAU) —the predecessor of the AU—recommended the adoption of Kiswahili as a formal language of the organisation but this never fruited.

Unfruitful dream

Even after former Mozambique leader Joachim Chisano pulled a surprise move by addressing the 2004 AU Assembly in Addis Ababa in Kiswahili, sending the gathering into panic as interpreters were sought, no formal recognition at the continental level was forthcoming.

Attempts to make Kiswahili the linguistic currency of Africa can be traced to the visionary efforts of Pan-Africanists such as Nyerere. Hailed as the foremost champion of the growth of Kiswahili as an African language, his ‘Swahilisation’ policy saw Tanzania, a country with 120 indigenous languages, adopt Kiswahili as its national language. However, his dream of making Kiswahili the primary language of Africa failed despite support by eminent voices such as Kwame Nkrumah, Ali Mazrui and Wole Soyinka.

Incidentally, while Kiswahili had been a powerful tool for political mobilisation by the anti-colonial movement, many African States still chose English as the official medium of communication at independence.

Therefore, in making Kiswahili its official working language, the AU has brought the Pan-Africanist vision for the language as a liberating, empowering and unifying force across Africa closer to reality. Most importantly, it paves the way for faster regional integration although there is still need for sustained efforts by the Swahili-speaking AU members to push for the use of the language in key decisions by member States.

Indeed, there have been renewed calls for Kiswahili to be recognised as Africa’s lingua franca. Proponents of this school of thought cite its globalised nature as a compelling reason to make it so. They also point to the fact that major world media such as Voice of America, BBC and Deutsche Welle have regular programmes aired in Kiswahili as a clear demonstration that its global influence cannot be ignored.

On its part, Kenya adopted Kiswahili as an official language in 1970 perhaps becoming among the first countries to integrate Kiswahili in national policy decision-making. In 1974, President Jomo Kenyatta declared Kiswahili the national language. Thirty-six years later when the country adopted a new Constitution, Kiswahili was entrenched in the supreme law declaring it the national language and an official language in Parliament besides English.

As Africa countries rapidly urbanise, Kiswahili will continue to play a critical role in regional political, social, economic and cultural integration. More people will become native speakers of the language further strengthening cross-border ties.

This diffusion will only enhance the ability of countries that have a history with Kiswahili to expand the spheres of influence through trade and cross-cultural communication.

— The writer is an Advocate of the High Court of Kenya

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