Fifty years of Kiswahili in regional and international development.

Author:Chebet-Choge, Susan


Kiswahili is a language of the Niger-Congo family which Ethnologue has classified as ISO 6393: SWA (Lewis 2009). It is a lingual franca in Eastern Africa and Central Africa (Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It is also spoken in some parts of some Southern Africa countries i.e Mozambigue, Malawi and Zambia. Presently, it has spread to Southern Sudan through the returning refugees from Kenya. (Choge, 2007-2008, Moshi, 2006 & Kishe 2003). Presently, there are many international speakers of Kiswahili in countries outside the main Kiswahili geolinguistic zone in Africa. It is estimated that it has about 150 million speakers (Choge 2007-2008). It is currently an official language in DRC, Tanzania and in Kenya (Mulukozi, n.d & Kenya Law Report 2010). Kiswahili origin is the East Coast of Africa. Its presence in East Africa coast dates back to many years into the dispersion of Bantu ethnic groups that had settled at Shungwaya. After this dispersion, later day Kiswahili speakers migrated east and settled along the East African Coast along the Indian Ocean from Mogadishu in Somalia to the North and to the Mouth of River Lurio in Mozambigue to the South and in the various island that dot this coastline (Choge 2007-2008, Chiraghdin & Mnyampala 1977).

The outside world (China, India Arabia, Persia, Rome) had a long history of barter trade with this East coast of Africa for centuries trading in:- porcelain, cowry shells, beads, cloths, wheat, rice, sesame oil, wine, cotton cloths reed honey called sacchari, spices kitchen ware and weaponry i.e hatchet, daggers and awls in exchange for animal products-rhinoceros horns, elephant tusks and tortoise shells, wood products, minerals- gold, copper, ivory and diamond and later in human beings during the era of slave trade (Kiango 2005 & Schoff, 1912) Kiswahili was spread into the hinterland of East Africa during this time by Kiswahili speakers who were either porters or leaders of caravans. The caravans established centres in the hinterland for replenishments, collection and holding points for goods. These points also became centres of islamization. Kiswahili therefore served both religion and business. These contacts with the outside world left a lot of material and linguistic relics in Kiswahili culture which are still evident today. (1) This paper therefore discusses the roles Kiswahili has played regionally and internationally since the last fifty years when most African states secured their independence.

Kiswahili in Regional and International Development

Kiswahili's role in regional and international development and cannot be underestimated. Its developmental role started with East Africa where Kiswahili was a language of trade, religion and later colonial administration during the German rule in Tanzania 1884-1918 and later the British rule in the whole of East Africa from 1884-1964. Presently, Kiswahili's role in development has expanded immensely beyond the earlier domains. This section therefore, discusses in depth roles in various domains regionally and internationally that Kiswahili has executed for the last fifty years since the start of independence period in Africa.

Kiswahili was instrumental in the creation of Tanzania nation and its culture. Right from 1954 when he was TANU's president, Nyerere envisioned Kiswahili as a medium through which Tanganyikans would free themselves from colonialism and build a nation whose foundation would be African socialism. Being a multi-ethnic and multi-racial country with about 135 languages spoken by different ethnic groups, Kiswahili cuts across linguistic barriers and enabled Nyerere to create unity out of diversity, a nation out of tribal groups with competing interests. In 1961, TANU led by Mwalimu Nyerere declared Kiswahili Tanganyika's national language and in 1962, he declared it an official language (Chacha 2003, Mazrui & Mazrui 1993, Mulokozi 2002 & Lodhi 1993). This language policy was also extended to Zanzibar when it merged with Tanganyika in 1964. At independence, Nyerere delivered republic day speech in Kiswahili thus setting the pace for Kiswahili's future roles in nation building.

Nyerere established the position of Kiswahili promoter whose responsibility was to promote and expand Kiswahili's usage in all institutions. He used Kiswahili as a tool to propagate his socialist ideology. He himself adopted the Kiswahili honorific Mwalimu (teacher) which reflected his earlier career as a teacher. This title was still significant in his new role as head of state because he had assumed the role of directing and guiding the new nation just the same way he did to his learners as a teacher. He also adapted Kiswahili kinship terms ujamaa (kinship) and ndugu (sibling). (2) to underscore his social, economic and political ideology of self-reliance (Ngonyani 2002). He mapped an institution that people easily understood and related to onto a nation he hoped to create out of diverse ethnic and race groups. Metaphorically all Tanzanias became relatives. He believed that if Tanzanians lived together and pulled resources collectively they will be self-sufficient in all provisions. Ndugu (sibling) became an honorific for all Tanzania to serve both political and social purposes. From the 1960's to 1980's, Tanzanians addressed themselves as; Ndugu Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Ndugu Abedi Karume and ndugu so and so... Internationally, ndugu was also used to address people and nations that shared socialist and communist ideologies and those that were friendly and supportive of Tanzania's socialism. There were; Ndugu Mao Dze Dong, the Chinese leader, Ndugu Fidel Castro, the Cuban President, Ndugu Kim II Sung the president of North Korea, Ndugu Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe. Those that were not pro Tanzania and socialist ideology were addressed by the standard gender honorific either in English or Kiswahili as Bwana (Mr.) Ronald Reagan, Bibi (Mrs.) Margaret Thatcher, Bwana (Mr.) P.W Botha and Daktari (Dr.) Kamuzu Banda. Thus Kiswahili became embedded in all spheres of Tanzanians lives i.e social, economic, political and governance (Chacha 2003). Kiswahili became rooted in Tanzania and became the main tool of public engagement and one in which Tanzanian culture is articulated and defined.

In Kenya too, Kenyatta adopted Kiswahili as a development tool for national integration and cohesion. He addressed the gatherings in Kiswahili and declared it a national language in 1969 followed by KANU's declaration in 1970 that Kiswahili be made the official language of Kenya and urged all Kenyans to communicate with Kenyans and non-Kenya in Kiswahili (Lodhi, 1993). In 1974, Kenyatta decreed Kiswahili the language of National assembly and that, parliamentary debates be carried out both in English and Kiswahili (Mazrui and Mazrui 1993).

Kenyatta come up with his ideology of Harambee (togetherness/ together we pull) to whip people to collectively build the nation together. Harambee spirit saw Kenyans fundraise for construction of Schools and health centre's and raise fees for needy students and medical bills for needy patients. Today, there are many schools categorized as Harambee schools and polytechnics which were building via this means (3). Harambee has also become a political slogan since many politicians invoke it in rallies even when there is no fund raising going on but as a way of urging the people to always work collectively. At independence, President Kenyatta gave the enemies of Kenya Kiswahili names as; Ujinga (ignorance), Umaskini (poverty) and Ugonjwa (disease(s). The Kiswahili names made conceptualization and concretization for Kenyans faster and easier since they had been contextualized in the language they understood well. It became easier for everyone to tackle since they had understood them. Kenyatta created out of all Kenyans a family by calling them ndugu zangu (My brothers and sisters/my siblings) as such cordial relationship existed among all Kenyans. He came up with a slogan uhuru, kazi na maendeleo (Freedom, work and development). This slogan in particular cautioned Kenyans against assumption that uhuru (freedom/independence) freed them from working because at independence many people had the impression that after independence, the government would provide everything. The order of the three words is also significant. Independence was the first to be achieved, this freed people to work and work brought development. Therefore, there is no development without work even if there is independence!

His successor president Daniel Arap Moi followed suit and gave his political philosophy, ideology and slogan Kiswahili names. His philosophy was Nyayoism (footprint system) which was born out of his ideology nyayo (footprints). In it, he stated that in his leadership he would follow the footsteps of the late president Kenyatta. His slogan was Amani (peace), upendo (love) and umoja (unity). He used the three words to urged Kenyans to always maintain peace. This paid off since when many neighboring nations i.e Ethiopia, Uganda, Sudan and Somalia were warring, Kenya was peaceful. As a result, he equated Kenya with an Island of peace. He extolled Kenyans to love one another regardless of their ethnic differences. He also urged Kenyans to remain united. Kenya, diversity as a result of its multi-ethnicity and multi-raciality was glued and bonded together by these three virtues into one nation.

In Uganda, Kiswahili's instrumental role within the disciplined forces (army & police) dates back to the days of British rule. The 1971 military coup de tat against Milton Obote by Idi Amin Dada ushered in an era of Kiswahili rise following a lull it had taken after independence in 1962 (4). For the short period of his presidency, Amin declared Kiswahili Uganda's National language against the strong opposition from the Baganda (Mukuthuria 2006 & Pawlikova-Vilhanova 1996).


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