Today is World Kiswahili Language Day. The holiday is celebrated around the world for the first time since UNESCO designated July 7 as the official day to commemorate this particular lingua franca.
And although Kiswahili represents an acknowledgment of our unifying language as a region, few people in the East African Community can actually speak it. Kiswahili is a Bantu language originating from the Swahili people who live along the Indian Ocean coast of East Africa. The number of Kiswahili speakers, both native and second language, is estimated at 200 million.
As a Swahili speaker and a citizen of the East African region, I had to deal with the language barrier while criss-crossing Uganda and Rwanda. A fact-finding mission on the extent of the Kiswahili language in East Africa first took me to Zanzibar. The majority of Zanzibaris on the semi-autonomous island of Tanzania are made up of people of the Swahili ethnicity.
Everyone speaks Kiswahili here, although it’s not the genre normally spoken in Kenya’s capital Nairobi. Nevertheless, Kenyans and Zanzibars can communicate easily.
In May, I took a break from my work and toured Uganda and Rwanda. This journey, while exciting, proved how language can hamper regional integration and trade.
My Nairobi road trip headed to Kampala via the Busia border. I have used this route before so it was much easier to navigate.
One fascinating experience I had on a trip to Uganda that I wouldn’t want to miss was eating chicken sold at the edge of the Mabira forest just before Kampala.
People here sell roast chicken, goat meat and bananas and refreshments. For 1,000 Ush (94 KSh) you can get a huge piece of well-roasted chicken. Unfortunately, the old East African joke that a Kiswahili was born in Zanzibar, grew up in mainland Tanzania, fell ill in Kenya, died in Uganda and was buried in the Democratic Republic of Congo is starting to become a reality in this region.
Ugandans have always been very poor when it comes to speaking Kiswahili. President Museveni has repeatedly called on Africans to speak the language in order to contribute to the unification of the continent.
Kiswahili in Uganda has been the preserve of the armed forces for decades, which could explain why Museveni speaks it fluently.
But there is renewed hope for citizens. On Tuesday, Uganda adopted Kiswahili as its official language.
Ugandan ICT Minister Chris Baryomunsi said on Tuesday that the Cabinet on Monday approved the implementation of a directive from the 21st East African Community (EAC) Summit that Kiswahili would be adopted as official language of the community, Xinhua reported. Uganda now has two official languages - English and Kiswahili. The people of Kampala speak approximate Swahili.
If you want the perfect exploration of the city, from Old Kampala where the Gaddafi Mosque is located to Kabaka’s Palace in Mengo, Kampala, a boda boda ride is the most efficient mode of transportation. Unfortunately, communication is a problem as many runners do not understand Kiswahili. And those who do, their jurisdiction is limited. A boda boda rider says, “People here have a negative perception of Kiswahili.”
This could be precipitated by the way Ugandan forces commandeer them using Kiswahili phrases such as “Piga magoti and “Inua mikono” (Kneel down and hands up).
On Monday, the Ugandan Cabinet ordered Kiswahili to become a compulsory subject in primary and secondary schools. This will help eliminate the type of language barrier I encountered in Kampala.
It will be recalled that in 2017 in the EALA Parliament, a motion tabled to adopt Kiswahili for the debates of the assembly was rejected. The idea of Kiswahili as a pan-African language was pushed in the 1960s by Tanzania’s first president Julius Nyerere, who used the language to unite his nation after independence.
If Kiswahili is to become truly pan-African, it will take political will, economic imperative and financial investment to engage with all regional blocs and the African Union.
In Africa, Kiswahili should not be an alternative to English, French or Portuguese as it is today. The three languages should be the alternative to Kiswahili. African nations should use Kiswahili to fully integrate and perhaps even fulfill a long held dream of having a United States of Africa.