Third Eye

Why Swahili hasn’t become Africa’s unifying language

Thursday, August 4th, 2022 01:00 | By
Participants attend the 36th ordinary session of the executive council of the African union Commission which in Addis Ababa, capital of Ethiopia, Feb. 6, 2020. (Xinhua/Michael Tewelde)

July 7 was a big day for Africa as it celebrated the first World Kiswahili Language Day. Citizens across Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, South Africa, and the world marked the day with street celebrations  and online hashtags. This was the first official holiday since UNESCO designated July 7 as international Kiswahili language day last November.

The Kiswahili East African Commission (Kakama), an inter-governmental organisation that promotes and coordinates the development of the language, was given the first opportunity to organise events to mark the day throughout East Africa.

Kenyans marched the streets of Nairobi in a procession led by Tourism CS and head of the National Steering Committee of the World Kiswahili Language Day 2022, Najib Balala. In Uganda, the Cabinet approved a motion to adopt Kiswahili as an official language following a resolution in February during the 21st summit of EAC, in which they agreed to adopt English, French and Kiswahili as official languages. Uganda also recommended teaching of Kiswahili in class. Kiswahili is an official language in all EAC states. In Tanzania, the government announced plans to construct a Kiswahili University.

Online, a video featuring South African opposition leader Julius Malema addressing the importance of teaching and learning Swahili as an international language and rallying Africans to embrace it as Africa’s lingua franca, prompted mixed reactions from netizens across Africa and revived an ongoing discourse among linguists and cultural advocates: can Swahili be Africa’s primary language?

Considered among the top world’s 10 most widely spoken languages, with over 200 million speakers, Kiswahili is the first African language to receive such accolades. Since becoming the primary language in East Africa, its speakers are now spread out in over 14 countries, including Zambia, DRC, Malawi, South Sudan, Mozambique, Yemen, Oman, Somalia and Comoros. Swahili is taught in over 100 institutions in the US as well as in Great Britain, Germany, Canada, Poland, Mexico, Russia, Japan, China, India and Australia.

In 2020, South Africa became the first country in south of Africa to offer Kiswahili as an optional subject in schools. In February, Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia announced it will start teaching the language.

However, the ghosts of the language’s checkered past still linger.

The decision by the Uganda to adopt it as an official language, for instance, did not sit well with citizens, who have a complicated history with the language. During Idi Amin’s reign, it became the official language of the military—it came to be seen as the language of violence. The discussion around the place of Kiswahili in Uganda has intensified since it was declared the official language of EAC. However, Uganda’s economic need for Swahili, combined with an increase in East African cultural contacts suggests it should no longer be resisted. It’s still too early to tell if the push to embrace Kiswahili will change Ugandans’ perception.

The widespread adoption of Kiswahili across Africa has been viewed by some linguists and African language advocates as a threat to other African languages. Such a risk exists because efforts to promote Kiswahili are not matched by attempts to promote other languages.

Of all the sub-Saharan African languages, Swahili has the highest online presence by far. While the efforts to develop language technology in Kiswahili have been relatively slow, this has been changing. This month, Meta published a research paper that details how they plan to look into 55 of Africa’s marginalised languages to improve the accuracy with which AI algorithms translate them on their social platforms. Abantu AI, a Kenyan firm, has created a deep learning technology for natural language processing that translates from major world languages to indigenous African languages.

Despite all of the commitments to Kiswahili, there are some obstacles that jeopardise its success. For example, Africa’s geopolitical differences, such as North African countries aligning themselves with the Middle East rather than the rest of Africa, may work against Swahili becoming the unifying language.

Foreign influence may also hinder the “acceptance” of Swahili. Africa relies heavily on China for financial assistance. In exchange, China is capitalising by introducing Mandarin in Africa, including Kenya. In some areas, this may mean Africans could speak Mandarin more fluently than their native languages.

In 2018, Malema pushed Africans to accept Swahili as Africa’s lingua franca, claiming African governments who have adopted Mandarin at the expense of African languages have “misplaced priorities.”

— Njeri is the Global Voices Regional co-Editor for Sub-Saharan Africa while Cecilia is Broadcast journalist and a Specialist in Gender Digital Security Training and Consultant

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