Is a second language for East Africa linguistic tyranny or regional solidarity?
That’s the question Ugandans are asking about Swahili, or Kiswahili. Kiswahili means “language” in Swahili, and has been the lingua franca of East Africa for centuries. Now, as regional integration heats up, the East African Community (EAC), which includes Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, is looking to use a common language to uphold “East Africanness as an entity.”
Just about everybody speaks Kiswahili in Tanzania and Kenya where it is a language of instruction. The language is widely spoken in Rwanda and Burundi as well. But in Uganda, on the western side of Lake Victoria, Kiswahili is far less commonly spoken.
Many Ugandans just don’t like Kiswahili. They associate it with the harsh rule of British imperialists, who favored the language as an administrative convenience in controlling a vast and linguistically diverse colony. The security forces of the brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin also spoke Swahili, leaving a bad taste in the mouths of those now required by economic necessity to learn the language.
Government spokesperson Barbra Nekesa promised greater efforts to make Swahili a national language in Uganda to make EAC integration easier.
“Swahili will help Ugandan traders to easily communicate with traders from other parts of east Africa,” Nekesa said. “Currently there is a challenge of language barrier between our traders with their counterparts and consumers from other east African countries.”
Despite decades of ups and downs, the East African Community is moving towards a single federation, reflecting a long history of regional cooperation. Swahili was the language that emerged from that integration.
It’s a trade language derived from Bantu languages and Arabic. Swahili was the language of Zanzibar, the fabled entrepôt of the African coast. Arab traders were cruising offshore from at least the 6th century A.D. There was also plenty of Persian trade and settlement in the region. Many current residents of Zanzibar claim Shirazi descent.
The earliest known Swahili documents were written in 1711 using Arabic script. Perhaps surprisingly for a trade language, it is a poetical tongue, where wordsmiths are much given to verse and wordplay, but cursed with a taste for puns. And thanks to the Disney movie, “The Lion King”, we are familiar with the Swahili words simba (lion), rafiki (friend) and hakuna matata (no troubles).
Despite this rich history, and the encouragement of regional elites, Swahili seems to be losing linguistic prestige against other lingua franca, such as English. In a global market, a regional language just doesn’t offer the same returns to language learners as global languages like English or Spanish.