Sustaining the Global Visibility of African Languages and Cultures The Case of Kiswahili

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Sustaining the Global Visibility of African Languages and Cultures

The Case of Kiswahili

Lioba Moshi, University of Georgia


The struggle to sustain the visibility of African languages in the world market started in the twentieth century and has continued into the twenty first century. African and Africanist scholars have devoted time and energy to advocate for a higher regard of African languages both at home and abroad. However, the visibility of African languages remains relatively low. This paper offers some insights into the problem of visibility using the Kiswahili language and culture as case in point. What Kiswahili has at the moment is a “feel good” show among world languages and cannot be compared to other less commonly taught languages (LCTLs) such as Japanese, Chinese, and Arabic. The paper proposes an examination of possible causes for the low visibility of Kiswahili despite its long history and presence in institutions of higher education in the West and its prestige as a lingua franca in East Africa.


At an African Studies meeting, a graduate student complained that it was very difficult to find a challenging African language program beyond the first two semesters unless one is able to go to the target country and spend a semester or a year for both a cultural experience and an opportunity to strengthen their already acquired language skills. There seems to be limited support for such enthusiasts due to the fact that many institutions are wary of funding language programs that do not contribute to the overall institutional revenue based on tuition dollars. It is a known fact that enrollments are the driving force behind institutional decisions on the type and number of classes that are offered. It is also the driving force for the type and number of new hires in a department. Because many of the African languages are generally sought out by students who are primarily looking for ways to fulfill graduation requirements with limited intention of going beyond the required sequences, it is very difficult to guarantee continuation of a particular African language beyond the number of semesters required by the department or college for students to fulfill their graduation requirements. It is important also to note that very few schools offer African languages at the graduate level. Graduate students needing an African language for their scholarship are often forced to audit the class at an undergraduate level. Where they can take it as a graduate level course for credit, they still have to sit in an undergraduate class because their enrollment numbers do not meet departmental or college minimum numbers allowed for a class to be offered. Consequently, graduate students are faced with the challenge of meeting their language needs on their college campuses. The African languages are, therefore, more endangered on college campuses compared to Asian and European languages in the same LCTL category. As the graduate student explained, the African languages have not succeeded in establishing a business or a political need despite the global security challenges that African countries are currently facing. This is thought provoking considering that, historically, the national as well as institutional status of a particular LCTL depended on world events. For example, during the cold war, Russian and German were very popular with extensions to the study of literature and linguistics. The need precipitated the development of departments that catered for the needs of students and scholars interested in those languages. In recent years, Arabic, Turkish, Czech, Armenian, Hindi, and Hebrew have gained a lot of popularity on college campuses because of the prevailing conflicts in the Middle East and general global economic and technological changes. The status of Arabic has been further enhanced due to the “war on terror” which is associated with Islamic and Arabic speaking countries. Chinese, Japanese, and Korean have both a political and an economic force behind their offerings on college campuses. Recently, Hindi joined their ranks in the list of languages that have a high demand on college campuses. Many of the students taking these languages are pursuing degrees in business, international affairs, literature, and philosophy. The interest in these languages is often matched with an interest from the corporate world which anticipates recruitment of graduates to join their businesses as representatives in the target countries or marketing officers of products both at home and abroad. African languages do not possess these advantages. Kiswahili, which made a lot of advancements in the 60s, 70s, and part of the 80s, should be in an envious position but has not managed to reach these heights. Its status and prestige seem to be slipping rather than gaining momentum. It is tempting to consider that the decline in popularity for Kiswahili is a result of the end of the cold war there are no more supporters or proponents of the cold war that divided countries in support of or in opposition to the western or the eastern ideologies (i.e. capitalism or socialism). However, one would have thought that the new world order or the lack thereof, that has given us new political and social battle fields, would place Kiswahili in the same level of importance as Arabic. The war on terrorism makes reference time and time again on the fact that the initial acts of terrorisms were committed on the soil of Kiswahili speaking people of Kenya and Tanzania. These countries are on the close watch-list for a variety of reasons, some of which include their close cultural and economic ties to the land of the presumed perpetrators. The poverty of these countries is also perceived as a factor for attracting acts of terrorism. Poverty is believed to be an attractive motive for an individual to be lured to assist a planned terrorist act. Outside the political sphere, there are other reasons that would make Tanzania and Kenya attractive to the world markets, creating a strong link with the business world. Both have a rich tourism industry that attracts millions of people and their money. Furthermore, Tanzania has rich mineral resources, specifically diamonds and tanzanite, an added attraction to investment. Tanzania is also very favorably viewed as a stable country with no tribal conflicts, a record of peaceful political transitions marked by peaceful elections every five years. So, the question is why is Kiswahili not on the list of thriving LCTL languages that show a high demand on college campuses?

Influences on the Status of Kiswahili

There are three factors that contribute to the growth or demise of Kiswahili, namely historical, world events, and the African consciousness.

Historical factors

For a long time, scholars debated the origins of Kiswahili, taking a stand in defense (e.g. Stigand 1913, Kirkman 1964 and others) or in opposition (e.g. Kusimba1999, Fitzgerald 1898, Horton 1996, Wilding 1989, Mutoro 1987, Nurse and Spear 1985, Nurse 1983, Hinnebusch 1976), Middleton 1992, Mazrui and Mazrui 1998, 1999) to the ‘external origin theory’, which essentially stated that the Coastal people of Eastern Africa did not exist prior to the arrival of outsiders, bringing with them the culture, civilization, and language. There was a tendency to believe that African cities were built by foreigners, and that the civilization which developed on the Kiswahili Coast was a by-product of the migration of people and ideas from the Near and Far East. Furthermore, the role of indigenous people in understanding the origins of social complexities was not considered important or relevant. (Kirkman1964:22).

The debate highlights the assumed threat of diminishing the role of the immigrants to the Swahili Coastal States. Mazrui and Mazrui (1998) reveal some of the conflicts that ensued as different colonial powers sought to control the Swahili States. Interactions and influences were a threat to those who wanted to establish colonies. Mazrui and Mazrui note that the use of missionaries to conceal the impact of colonialism on the people. The African Colonial experience showed a close link between colonialism and religious establishments. For example, the work of Christian missionary was used as foundations for the establishment of colonies and the ventures that preceded colonial military invasions and rule. Their soft landing included an effort to learn the local languages and t o develop the early grammars, and bibles that were eventually written in the local languages. The need to learn the languages and to develop grammars arose from the hardship experienced in trying to communicate with the indigenous people. The unfamiliarity, by the local people, of with the European language was problematic to the missionaries making their goal of spreading Christianity unachievable.

The need to develop close ties with the local people also resulted from other adversaries encountered by the missionaries, Islam. Some missionaries were suspicious of the relationship between the Kiswahili language and Islam which they claimed was in opposition to Christianity. This fueled the claim that Kiswahili had its origins in Arabic. This was done by consistently pointing out the Arabic elements in the language. By doing so, it became easy to discredit Kiswahili as a possible language of Christianity. In 1905, unrelenting opposition was declared in Germany against the Swahili mix with Islam and it was resolved that continuing penetration of Islam into Swahili territories must be obstructed. Julius Richter, a member of the Berlin Committee adopted and expanded the opposition to the influence of Islam everywhere in Africa. He isolated East Africa as the scene of the worst danger. The campaign damaged the status of Kiswahili which was known and understood by its speakers, the Swahili coastal people, as their language regardless of who they traded with or associated with.

Despite the debate, it is clear from the history that the existence of a Bantu people in the Coastal States naturally establishes that Kiswahili is an old language. The earliest known documentation of this fact dates back to the 2nd century AD. As Kusimba (1999) notes, merchants visiting the East African coast at that time from Southern Arabia, found natives speaking the language, spreading from southwards of Somalia and Kenya all the way to Zanzibar and Kilwa. It is also believed that the Kiswahili civilization carved out a small territory even further south around Sofala in Zimbabwe. There is no doubt that visitors to this area, the Arabs, Persians, and the Portuguese played a significant role in the growth of Kiswahili civilization, but at the same time destroyed successful polities that were highly respected by the people and nobilities that were African in origin and enslaved the indigenous people, destroying their language and cultural security. They also disrupted a vibrant trade that had established these costal people as sophisticated merchants who traded with other coastal people and those who lived near and far. The Swahili people played a prominent role in the triangular mercantile trade, establishing cultural and commercial relations with the East African interior, the Persian and Arabian Gulf, the Indian subcontinent, and Indonesia. As such, they were very important in the world trade as early as 1 B.C. Perhaps, if it had been left untouched, the savvy trading skills of the Swahili coastal people would have served this region well and could have enhanced the language development that we now yearn for. Such developments would, undoubtedly, have placed Kiswahili in the ranks of global languages much earlier than some other LCTLs of the world. Without doubt, the ‘external origin theory’ affected the way the Swahili Coastal States were perceived and continues to be viewed in history. It has allowed the distinctive cultural and ethnic character of the Swahili people who are urban, literate, and Islamic, and seemingly unlike the others who are rural, farmers, non-literate, and traditionally African in their beliefs, to be used as evidence of their separate identities and cultural origins, reinforcing the theory and the class system that we will discuss shortly. By not according the origins of Kiswahili and the civilization of the Coastal States to the indigenous people, the debate generated negative views that, undoubtedly, contributed to the view that placed Kiswahili on the margins of world history and interests of western science.

But it is important to point out the fact that before it was infiltrated, Kiswahili language and culture was vibrant and multi-textured because of a number of factors including extensive and dynamic interaction between the indigenous people of the Coastal States and towns with the majority culture, the cultures of the rural people who traded and interacted with them, and non-Africans who ventured into the Coastal States from across the oceans.

The decline of the Coastal city-states began in the 16th century; the advent of Portuguese invasion that caused the most disruption of the old trade routes making the Swahili commercial centers obsolete. The Portuguese were not interested in including native Africans in what we could term ‘early free trade practices’. Because the Arabs had enslaved and converted the locals into Islam, the Portuguese set out with a mission to conquer the Islamic city-states along the eastern coast. Although the Omans (from south of Arabia) returned in the 17th Century and conquered the Portuguese cities along the coast, the natives did not sigh with relief because slavery and subjugation continued and the new controlling power played as much of a major role in the destruction of individual and collective creativity that had existed prior to their arrival. Destroyed in the process also was the cultural diversity of the people. Trade, friendship, and alliances between many different communities that led to the exchange of ideas, information, and genes through shared language and cultural beliefs were also destroyed.

What was gained? It is important to note that despite the undesired destructions, Kiswahili benefited by borrowing from the language of the rulers of different periods. This is evident in the rich lexicon. For example the numbers sita, saba and tisa are considered borrowed words from Arabic. Furthermore, Kiswahili words like serikali ‘government’, diwani ‘councilor’, and chai ‘tea’, are among some of the words that were borrowed from Persian. Borrowings from Portuguese include meza ‘table’ gereza ‘prison’, and pesa ('peso'), ‘money’. The German rule introduced into the language words like shule ‘school’ and ‘hela’ a German coin. Likewise, English (British) introduced words like baiskeli ‘bicycle’, basi ‘bus’, penseli ‘pencil’, mashine ‘machine’, and koti ‘coat’, and continues to influence the language to date. Needles to say, there is no evidence that this rich resource would not have evolved through other means considering the pre-existing trade relations that involved different polities, both from near and far.

Another influencing factor is the interpretation of cultural behavior, cultural values, cultural attitudes, and perspectives that were introduced to the indigenous people. The Arab control brought Islam and its culture that was that emphasized the Koran and strict observances of the Islamic culture. It also instituted a social class system that valued those who were direct descendants of the rulers and demeaned those who were not. There were four main social classes (Kusimba 1999: 140-141):

  1. waungwana ‘elite’ (the ethic of possessing high culture) which included the free, or nobly born--- descendants of the Sultan (Arab ruler)

  2. wazaliwa ‘free-born’/descendants of freed slaves or at least one of their parents (often the mother);

  3. watumwa ‘slaves’ those who were enslaved;

  4. wageni ‘visitors’ - included recent immigrants and other inhabitants from the non-Coastal States.

Rights and privileges depended on one’s social status. The waungwana were predominantly in the urban areas and led an urban life. They also controlled the socio-political, and economic structures of the community. Because they were considered to posses the high culture, intellectual, and artistic sensitivity, they also acquired the ideological support to their control of wealth-creating activities, including land and labor; had exclusive ownership of the fertile land, stretches of beach, and mangrove swamps. They had a right to slaves who worked these lands and had a right to make policy decisions in the affairs of the town. Not everyone could claim membership to the uungwana social group, only those who were able to demonstrate blood ties to a well-respected ancestor, who could supplement their kin-based claims to status with wealth. Ownership of a stone house in an elite section of the town enhanced that affiliation and stamp of approval.

Kusimba (1999) notes that ungwana privileges included the right: to religious scholarship, to own property such as fertile farmland, stretches of beach land, mangrove forests, and fishing areas, to own cattle, to build and live in stone houses in one’s own neighborhood, to receive, entertain, and trade with foreign merchants, to elect town, and mosque officials, and to hold hereditary offices such as a prison warden or the town treasury. Even the sea was owned by the waungwana and was designated a hereditary office with a warden.

The British colonial era introduced the English language, the governing system, educational system, and cultural values. English was given a priority, in the urban cities and schools and later infiltrated the rural areas through the school system. At that time, schools offered at least three classes of English a day and only one class of Kiswahili a week. The medium of instruction was also English in the Middle Schools, High Schools, and Colleges. Emphasis was placed on excelling in English as a prerequisite to excelling in other subjects and advancement into the elite group of the society. Consequently, an attitude was developed in the minds of the learners that their local languages and Kiswahili, that linked them as a nation, were inferior to English. Undoubtedly, mastery of the English language created social class system, with subtle rights and privileges. As it will be shown later, to change this attitude has been a major challenge, even in a country like Tanzania where tremendous effort was undertaken after independence to eliminate the inferior/superior perception espoused by fluency in English. Fluency in English, to date, is considered a sign that one is educated, a sure road to success, and a chance to secure a good job or promotion in a high paying job.

World Events

As noted in the introduction, world events can affect the status or prestige of a language. Examples were drawn from the cold war era, current conflicts in the Middle East, and the “war on terror”.

Colonialism and independence fostered the emergence of Kiswahili as a lingua Franca in eastern Africa. With the role of a lingua Franca, Kiswahili rapidly spread to other parts of sub-Sahara Africa. The rapid nature of its spread and the ease at which it was accepted by other communities stem from its adopted role in the early 50s when it assumed a political function of fostering nationalism. It was used to impel for African nationalism and the African right to self-determination and independence by the African political leaders who assumed leaderships of their countries both in pre and post independence. Major beneficiaries were also the armed forces of both colonial and post-colonial East Africa. The Uganda experience is interesting because of the relationship between who ruled the country and who dominated the armed force. Both Milton Obote and Idi Amin come from the northern part of Uganda and were linked to the Nilotes. Consequently, the armed forces recruited mostly from the Nilotes who were very conscious of their separateness from the Bantu groups that were predominantly settled in the southern parts of Uganda. The Nilotes were especially alienated from the Baganda (Mazrui & Mazrui 1999). This relationship created ethnic rivalry among the groups (Acholi, Langi, Kakwa, Lugbara, Baganda, and Nilotes). It is also interesting to note that the rivalry necessitated the use of a common language for communication between them. Kiswahili became the language of choice across ethnic boundaries and even when Idi Amin came to power and eliminated many of the Acholi and Langi members of the armed force.

Outside the Ugandan army, Kiswahili gained political importance, especially during Idi Amin’s reign despite the hostility and political decline associated with his brutal regime. This is because the Baganda saw wisdom in changing their resistance to Kiswahili and became the propagators of Kiswahili and its integrative functions in the army. The society responded well to this change and warmed up to the use of Kiswahili, because they were aware of the increasing functional role of Kiswahili in Kenya and Tanzania.

Kiswahili has also penetrated areas like the Francophone countries of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Rwanda, and Burundi, where French was introduced through the Belgians. To understand the mitigating factors, one has to look at the linguistic implications of the Belgians and not the French introducing the French language to the people of these countries. Belgians have two languages, French and Flemish. At the on-set, it was not clear in Belgian Congo whether French or Flemish would be the language to be adopted. The Belgians revered and feared the French language because of its association with autocracy. The Flemish cultural affiliations with German afforded the Belgians the linguistic distance from the master. This attitude allowed the French language to thrive even though it was sandwiched, in some parts, between indigenous African languages and Flemish. It was important, therefore, to advocate for it in the schools that were largely controlled by the Flemish Belgians. The attitude that prevailed among the Flemish Belgians at the time, allowed Kiswahili to penetrate the Eastern and Southern parts of the Congo. Kiswahili provided the bond that the people needed. By the time the DRC achieved its independence, a substantial number of Congolese spoke Kiswahili with reputable proficiency. Kiswahili has since remained one of the important languages in the DRC in addition to Lingala, and Kikongo.

A more recent evidence of the expansion of Kiswahili can be found in its integrative role in migrant labor communities in sub-Saharan Africa, states that achieved independence after a period of liberation struggle, and misplaced communities in refugee camps in Eastern Africa, and those who have been settled overseas after spending a number of years in refugee camps in Eastern Africa (these include Somalis, Rwandans, Burundians, and Congolese). These groups learned Kiswahili and now use it as a lingua franca in their new communities. Often, these groups select Kiswahili as the language of their identity when requesting an interpreter in England and America and also as a medium of communication with other displaced peoples from these four ethnic groups when they find themselves in the same communities abroad. Mazrui and Mazrui (1999) note that while Kiswahili has been used to influence ethnic loyalties it has also been an instrument for changing ethnic behavior, creating social classes and religious affiliations, and for providing racial identity and national consciousness.

In Tanzania, Swahili gained prominence in the 60s, shortly after its independence from the British. It was the language of politics and governance. In 1967, it was declared the language of instruction at elementary and middle school levels. Julius Nyerere, the first President of Tanzania championed the change and in identifying an indigenous language as the national language. His efforts were supported by those of the other leaders in East Africa in developing Kiswahili. Their enthusiasm stemmed from a national patriotic understanding and belief in specific ideals. In Tanzania, for example, the citizenry believe that Nationalism and Cultural Revolution relies heavily on the development of Kiswahili, the single unifying language. It is no secret that Kiswahili is the preferred language of the home, especially among the younger generation despite heavy competition from local and other indigenous languages. It was also during the early years of Nyerere’s rule that Kiswahili gained popularity in the Diaspora. He was seen as a revolutionary leader who wanted to rid his country of dependency and colonial mentality. He joined forces with Kwame Nkrumah, President of Ghana, to champion Pan Africanism which appealed to a lot of Africans in the Diaspora. With his writing on Freedom, Unity, and Familyhood and his efforts to translate major writings by Shakespeare into Kiswahili won him respect in the Diaspora and generated an enthusiasm to learn Kiswahili. It was during this era that Kiswahili was institutionalized in many institutions in the west and some parts of Africa.

African consciousness

It is not the intension of this paper to cast blame but rather to awaken an academic discourse that would lead to less compliance and more action. The African consciousness has to be re-directed to the problem of shielding cultural insecurity and timidity in scholarship.

I am cognizant of the fact that years of colonialism followed by another set of years of neo-colonialism leaves a lasting impact on a people, stripping them of their sense of worthiness and a trust that they can do for themselves, speak for themselves, and act on behalf of themselves. As noted in the preceding discussion, the people of the Swahili States were striped of their culture, rights, privileges, and wealth; they also lost their dignity and a sense self worth through slavery. Undoubtedly, this accounts for the development of self doubt with respect to their abilities to achieve and sustain achievements. They have, for the most part, believed that they do not posses any expertise and that true expertise comes from foreign lands and their role is that of a ‘recipient’ and not ‘inventor’. We can best understand this attitude by a brief discussion of Henri Tajfel’s (1974, 1978, 1981) theory of social grouping.

Within the preview of the theory of inter-group relations and social change, Tajfel shows how perceived inferior/minority groups operate in comparison to a superior/majority group. He notes that, a minority/inferior group is often viewed in negative terms when comparing them with other groups. Because they are aware of this negative perception, members within the inferior group always look for ways to stay visible and to coexist within the social structure. Tajfel suggests two strategies available to the inferior group: (1) to accept the minority/inferior status or (2) to reject the minority/inferior status. Each strategy yield different outcomes.

When a group or an individual accepts the perceived inferior status they attempt to assume an individualistic stance. This means that they get out of the group circle in order to achieve a personal positive image. They also attempt to measure themselves against members of their own group, in a sense create a superior status of their own in relation to the group they wish to isolate themselves..

When the second strategy, namely rejecting the inferior/minority status, is selected, an attempt is made to change the status by seeking equality with the superior (majority) group and by adopting the values of the superior group, a process known as assimilation. An individual or group that adopts the rejection strategy would try to redefine the negative characteristics that characterize them by creating positive characteristics. There is also an attempt to create new dimensions that could be used for comparison with the superior group as a way to create an identity for themselves.

How does this apply to the African consciousness? Based on the prevailing status quo among African scholars and leaders, it is not unreasonable to assert that Africa is in a bind and that its scholars and leaders, for the most part, would select Tajfel’s first strategy when confronted with the multiple choices cited above. It is not surprising that both Ali Mazrui (1986) and Henry Louis Gates (1999) in their documentaries about Africa (The Africans and Wonders of the African World, respectively) alluded to this tendency. Often times one would hear comments from the public that the Ivorians, Congolese, and Algerians are more French than the French. Not very long ago that some Africans showed a lack of confidence on their fellow Africans with expertise that compared well with that of foreigners. In the 70s, one Kenyan politician refused to fly in an aircraft whose pilot was Kenyan indicating that he was incapable of taking command of the plane and that he would only fly when the pilot seat was occupied by a mzungu ‘white/foreign person’. In his documentary, Henry Louis Gates was shocked when he found out that in Lamu and Zanzibar, a good percentage of the people did not consider themselves Waswahili but rather Persians or Shiraz. Cognizant of the “consciousness” factor, Gates, laughingly, commented in the documentary that African Americans in America have issues with identity too, and that some claim ancestry from many places except Africa and presumably for the same reasons, basically the need not to be associated with slavery. Like some of their brothers and sisters in Lamu and Zanzibar, some African Americans do not want to be considered descendants of slaves. A good example is Tiger Woods who claimed ancestry that does not include Africa when some African Americans wanted to claim him as one of their own who has made them proud.

The earlier discussions on the establishment of social groupings of the inhabitants of the Swahili Coastal States offer us a window of explanation as to why some people in Lamu and Zanzibar would not want to be identified as the Swahili people. If the Swahili people were the indigenous people, then they have closer affinity to the slaves of different ruling eras on the east coast of Africa. Gates’ interlocutors in Lamu and Zanzibar would have denounced their prestigious status as waugwana members of the ‘elite’ group while accepting membership in the class of the inferiors. By isolating themselves from the perceived inferior group they are able to create a superior social group of their own in the eyes of the superior group that they perceived Gates to hold membership. As Waungwana they can compare themselves with the watumwa ‘slaves’ or the wazaliwa ‘free born/offspring of the slaves’. As Persians and Shirazi descendants, Gates’ interlocutors assumed Arabic as their language of identity and not Kiswahili. Thus, Kiswahili is inadvertently identified here as the language of the more inferior members of the Coastal States.

The Lamu and Zanzibar people who shocked Gates by identifying with the Persians/ Shiraz and the Arabic language also wanted to emphasize their affiliations with the scholarship associated with the language. Knowledge of Arabic is emphasized and required by Islam in order to read and interpret the Koran. A claim to Islam requires proof of proficiency in Arabic. It is important to note that, scholarship requirement is not unique to just the Islamic religion. Catholicism was closely associated with Latin until Vatican II in 1965 when the Council of Catholic Bishops resolved that churches around the world could use their local languages for religious services. Until then, knowledge of Latin was used to claim a superior status in the church as well as a requirement for all clergy who were entrusted with the power to interpret the Bible ‘Word of God’ to the heathen. The heathens could use their local languages any other time except during a church service where the use of Latin was exclusive.

The need to break out of the circle in order to represent the self is also evident among Swahili people whose language of identity if Kiswahili. Because they consider Kiswahili to be inferior to European languages, they have found a way to stay visible by adopting the same strategies as described above. As noted earlier, during the colonial period, the education system in Swahili speaking areas (including Tanzania, Kenya, Congo, Rwanda and Burundi) emphasized European languages at the expense of the local language (English in Tanzania and Kenya and French in the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi). In the case of Tanzania, for example, the school curriculum mandated at least three classes of English a day and only one class of Kiswahili a week. The medium of instruction for the other classes was also English in Middle Schools, High Schools, and Colleges. Emphasis was placed on excelling in English as a pre-requisite for advancement from one class to another, and certainly a guarantee for further education such as going to college or a vocational training school. Consequently, an attitude was developed in the minds of the learners that their local languages and Kiswahili that linked them as a nation were inferior to English. This attitude has not changed in the minds of the affluent, even in a country like Tanzania where its first leader, President Julius Nyerere, worked hard to change that attitude. The recent mushrooming of English medium schools in Kenya and Tanzania for the children of the affluent and elite sends a negative message about Kiswahili to the rest of the community members. It signals that proficiency in Kiswahili is not important and therefore not a priority. Rather, proficiency in English is more important and will identify them as a superior group within the perceived inferior group of Kiswahili speakers. Fluency in English is a ticket to success and may place them closer to the superior/majority social group in the English speaking communities.

Having achieved membership in the elite group, scholars from Swahili speaking communities need to evaluate their African consciousness with respect to the issues discussed here. In the early stages of his presidency, the late President Nyerere, the first President of the Republic of Tanzania, sought to move Africa in a different direction after many years of colonialism by advocating a government that empowered its people and embraced self reliance as a means to ensure human dignity. His policy was called Ujamaa, a Swahili word that meant Familyhood. Unfortunately, the some translated it to ‘socialism’ and later equated it to ‘communism’. Those who liked his African philosophy appreciated what Ujamaa meant to a nation emerging from colonialism. Nyerere needed to create a sense of familyhood in order to institute a nation with a sense of the importance of a community identity, a community with a strong sense of nationalism to avert tribal conflicts. He sought the power of a national language policy to centralize that consciousness and to downplay the ethnicity card. By empowering Kiswahili, Nyerere created a following of admirers who also developed a very strong interest in the language, allowing it to be elevated to an international recognition. In the United States, this period marked the initiation of Kiswahili in College campuses and the appreciation of the concept of Pan-Africanism.

The first step he undertook to make Kiswahili a powerful language in the world was to minimize the power of English in the former British colony. He sought to remove the stigma that was placed on those who could not speak or read English. A command in the English language was henceforth a personal property and not something one could use to brag or to portray oneself as superior to another. A Swahili word, kasumba ‘colonial mentality’ was used to describe anyone who showed those tendencies. Nyerere also wanted to lead by example by demonstrating what he could do with his academic scholarship. He authored several books in Kiswahili (with an English translation also made available): Ujamaa ‘Familyhood/Socialism’, Uhuru na Umoja ‘Freedom and Unity’, Uhuru na Maendeleo ‘Freedom and Development’. In addition, he translated two Shakespeare plays that he considered influential in the way he articulated his policies to a young nation emerging from colonialism: The Merchants of Venice ‘Mabepari wa Venice’ and Julius Caesar ‘Julius Kaisari’. Very few scholars have/can follow his foot steps by publishing in both Swahili and other languages that made their career (French or English). In addition to emphasizing Kiswahili to meet the post-independence mission statement of the Ministry of Education in his country, Nyerere challenged other scholars to do likewise. Many scholars in Tanzania and Kenya have done so, enhancing literary publications in Kiswahili. Language textbooks as well as textbooks for other disciplines are in abundance in Kenya and Tanzania to be used by elementary and secondary schools. A few books can be found in the areas of linguistics study and literature at the college level (Moshi 1988, 1994, 1996, 1998) Moshi and Omar (2003), Mwita and Mwasoko 1998), Ohly (1987).

Scholars who wish to follow Nyerere’s lead face real obstacles. However, if they do not do, how can they claim that they are not contributing to the demise of their languages? How can Swahili speakers justify not writing in the Kiswahili if they want to promote Kiswahili and make it one of the global languages?

Crystal (2005:508-514) enumerates the risks of accepting one language and rejecting others as viable to serve the world. These include:

  1. Elite monolingual linguistic: where one group assumes the monopoly of the language encouraging the development of complacent and dismissive attitudes towards other languages and cultures.

  2. Manipulative tendencies: where the privileged group use their competitive edge to manipulate the system at the expense of those who have less power and lack the ability to use it. Consequently the gap between the poor and the rich would increase.

  3. Marginalization: where some languages become marginalized and rendered not worth learning.

  4. Language death: when a language is considered not worth learning, it becomes irrelevant and its ultimate death is hastened. This is a real danger for small languages and languages spoken in less powerful nations. This also perpetuates the mentality of “survival of the fittest”.

There is no doubt that presently, Africa is confronted with these risks because of its dependency on foreign languages for communication, education, and trade.

Schmied (1991) correctly observes that there are persistent inequities in practice and application of resources available to L-2 English speakers. Specifically African scholars face sociolinguistic or grammatical problems as they try to express their ideas in English in an English only academy. Furthermore, despite the claim for global English, many written works in English around the globe remain unpublished due to sociolinguistic stereo-typing of both the authors and the texts. Often times, research by Africans that is enhanced by firsthand knowledge of linguistic phenomena that is particular to their first language is considered intuitive. This is an effort to distinguish ‘mainstream’ research from ‘other’ research practices. Such categorizations reinforce Crystal’s concern of manipulative tendencies by the custodians of the designated global language. The categorizations also explain why large amounts of works by non-L1 English speakers have limited access to English-based publications. Obviously when scholars are confronted with the mainstream academia realities, they have no choice but to succumb to the subscribed inferiority status and cultural timidity. Schmied correctly observes that when scholars limit as well as discriminate the avenues through which they share or acquire knowledge they are missing valuable opportunities afforded by the exchange of ideas, in written form, between scholars of diverse cultures and linguistic backgrounds.

Language reflects its power in the way it is exploited by its speakers. Accepting the role of a non-powerful participant, through constraining contents of usage, relations entered into, and subject position occupied will remain the major impediment to the efforts of establishing and maintaining a visible status of African languages and more so of Kiswahili whose advancements to global status surpasses those of other African languages. Institutions will not continue to consider the need to encourage the teaching of African languages if scholars and speakers downplay their significance in the world market or display cultural insecurity and timidity in the academia. Crystal (2005) has pointed out to us the dangers of accepting one language and consciously or sub consciously rejecting others. Downplaying the power of a language contributes to the limitations imposed on other sources of knowledge from and about the target nations. It is not uncommon, for example, to find in an institution only one faculty member in a department like History or Political Science who is expected to teach about the entire continent even if his/her area of expertise is restricted to one specific region of the continent as if the continent was monolithic and that what was true about one region was true about all of the other regions of Africa. By comparison, between five and eight instructors are assigned to teach about other continents with no overlaps in sub-regions that define the diversity of scholarship expertise for that region. Furthermore, you might also find scholars with expertise in economics or the sciences that are discouraged from teaching or doing research on Africa invalidating the knowledge base contributions of the continent to these disciplines. Many State institutions rarely offer comprehensive studies about Africa. Often times, the content covered on Africa is less than 25% of the course content, even where the instructor is African. Linguistics and Literature departments used to be the champions in teaching about Africa while attracting a lot of students with an interest to study one or two of the African languages to a level where they can use it for research and publication purposes. The number of linguistics publications on Africa has dwindled over the years and graduate students are afraid of developing a full fledged interest in the study of Africa for fear that they will not be marketable upon graduating. Considering the mushrooming of NGOs in Africa, especially those associated with public health, one would expect that institutions to see this as a ready market for their graduates. Of course they would but no one is marketing Africa in the same way as other regions of the world are marketed. African scholars, governments, and businesses are extremely handicapped when it comes to advocating for Africa, a consequence of long periods of accepting the inferior status even where the expertise is evident.

Implications for Africans and Africanists

Based on our discussions above, the demise of African languages and cultures and for that matter Kiswahili is not just a result of foreign forces. The Africans themselves are as much responsible especially where they have lost pride in their language and the culture associated with it. In the case of Kiswahili, there is no doubt that it has gained ground as a language of choice by millions of people in East Africa and its neighbors. It has also been transported to different parts of Africa and the West due to migration, both voluntary and as a consequence of ethnic wars, including the fight against colonialism and apartheid. Refugees from neighboring countries learn Kiswahili during their short stay in Kenya or Tanzania and keep the language when they finally immigrate to England, the United States, or other western countries. This is evident in the increase in demand for Kiswahili translators for agencies like the American based Language Line Inc., and Pacific Interpreters Inc., that offer services to law enforcement, hospitals, legal services, social services, immigration services, airline companies, and schools. Furthermore, the number of people learning Kiswahili at institutions of higher education in the United States has also attained impressive numbers but the enrolments are only high at the elementary and in special cases intermediate levels. Scholars in a position to advocate for serious language learning, in the likes of the commonly taught languages, should seize that opportunity.

It is encouraging when we look at Europe and Asia where the enthusiasm in teaching and using African languages is strong and their objectives better defined. For example, many European institutions of higher education, including private organizations, teach Kiswahili more intensely and purposefully. Their programs are usually tied to development projects that are sponsored by the European Economic market, and specific agencies such as DANIDA and NORAD, to name only a few. The United States institutions could exploit this opportunity for programs such as Peace Corps, UNCEF, UNESCO, various NGOs associated with projects on global health, the World Bank, USAID, other independent agencies and missionary organizations. Currently, most institutions focus on academic related programs for the purposes of research projects that relate to the publication of books and graduate theses. This is a very narrowly defined market for the purposes of advocating for African languages especially the popular ones like Kiswahili.

Available examples that demonstrate that Kiswahili is attaining prominence are ample as we experience the growing use of Kiswahili in world media such as the Voice of America, and Radio Deutsche Welle, BBC radio and Television, and Asia radio and TV programs that come to many homes in East Africa. Some of these programs are broadcasted to East Africa (especially Kenya, and Tanzania) on a regular basis (in some cases twice a day). In addition, Kiswahili has been identified by Microsoft for the development of scanner OCR that would identify Kiswahili text. The Nairobi Microsoft office (cf. Majira Newspaper, June 2004:2) noted that Kiswahili was selected because of its status, a strong African language that can stand a global test as a language of business and communication in East Africa. Other African languages that are being targeted include: Yoruba, Hausa, Somali, and Amharic. The growing interest to expose Kiswahili to technology is also demonstrated in the move by Vodacom and Celtel phone companies to regularly place advertisements in newspapers in both English and Kiswahili to advertise their services. Both companies have seen the wisdom of reaching all sectors of the public since the buying power or usage does not reside in the affluent only1. The challenge is to prevent these signs from remaining as signs and symbols that make us feel good for the moment. Establishing a sustainable global need and importance among other global languages is what Kiswahili needs (also other African languages). This can only be done by scholars and speakers. They should be the champions of establishing the need rather than discouraging it by inadvertently demonstrating that fluency in Kiswahili (or other key African languages) is unnecessary and therefore a low priority.

The burden is also on the leaders. The only leaders, who give their speeches abroad in languages other than their own, even where they run a risk of embarrassing themselves because of limited fluency, come from Africa. Other leaders take pride in their language and culture and are provided with translators when they need them. If African leaders are provided with translators when they need to speak to an English audience and the language of use is also foreign (French, Portuguese), why don’t they use their own languages? Often times, they are more fluent in the foreign language than their own. There is no excuse, however, for those who speak Kiswahili, especially from Kenya or Tanzania because that is the language of official business in their home countries. The example of cultural pride and appreciation was set by President Joachim Chisano of Mozambique at the African Union (AU) Assembly in Addis Ababa in 2005. He offered a model for what is expected from African leaders, namely leading by example. President Chisano showed the hidden power of African languages by, unexpectedly, deciding to address the Assembly using Kiswahili. The Assembly was not prepared for this bold move and there was a brief moment of panic as the delegates scrambled to get translators to provide simultaneous translation. Needless to say, President Chisano was not swayed and continued with his remarks without worrying about the inability of the delegates to comprehend what he was saying. President Chisano’s bold move, prompted President Obasanjo of Nigeria to follow suit by greeting the delegates in Kiswahili and thanking President Chisano for his bold move. Though symbolic, this move was both bold and commendable. President Chisano demonstrated the uniqueness of Kiswahili, reminding the delegates that they have been debating on the use of African languages at the assembly for over a decade and yet they had not moved to implement it. He wanted to show that this was the time to implement it, at the birth of a new organization, the African Union (that replaced the Organization of African Unity – OAU). President Chisano wanted to emphasize that the organization should change to reflect the world as it changes in the 21st Century. Africa and Africans should not continue to do business as usual. Rather, Africa and Africans have to assume their place in the global world and that language is one avenue through which they can assert their national pride and culture. President Chisano demonstrated the power of Kiswahili and its prospective global use. Needless to say, other delegates at the assembly who could have used Kiswahili did not follow suit. Like African scholars, African leaders should overcome cultural insecurity and timidity when it comes to rejecting perceived inferiority/minority status.

Concluding Remarks

Langer (1953, 1979)2 notes that language transforms speakers from biological creatures, who respond to the concrete world as it exists, into thinking beings that interpret, interact with, and remake the world through symbols. The symbols used shape our understanding of the world and our own places within it. The power of symbols lies in the kind of thought and action they enable. Symbols allow us to define, organize, and evaluate experiences and people. At the same time, they enable us to think hypothetically and to reflect on ourselves. Thus, the language that we use, selectively, shapes our perceptions and the names we apply emphasize particular aspects of reality and neglect others. Language names what exists and those with power name and define the world in their own terms. Furthermore, those with power to name the world use names and words rooted in their language to acknowledge what affects them. Therefore, when we talk about “the power of a language” we are talking about how it reflects its speakers and how the speakers exploit that power. It is also important to note that language conventions and acceptance replicate and validate the existing power structures. Powerful participants (attempt to) control and constrain the distribution of non-powerful participants, through constraining contents of usage as well as relations entered into and the subject positions occupied. What becomes of a language depends on its users and advocates. It is, therefore, incumbent upon speakers and scholars to look for ways to grow the languages that are the root of the African symbolic place in the world. Part of the goal of making a language visible should be to expose its existing powerful achievements and global role

Final remarks

Let me close by saying that the background to my discussion David’s dedication to research and the teaching and use of African languages. Although he has laid down his classroom tools he will, undoubtedly, remain active in other aspects, especially being an active advocate for African language, cultures, and the forgotten contributions and sacrifices made by Africans to civilization and sound and fair global ideology.

I want to say thank you David for all you have done for the field of African languages and cultures.


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1 Interestingly, these and other companies are beginning to feel the pressure to provide service information in different languages. Thus in Namibia, where English is the official language, MTC telephone company decided to advertise in other local languages spoken by Namibians.

2 Langer, S.K. (1953): Feeling and Form, a theory of Art. New York: Scriber’s; and (1979): Philosophy in a new key: a study in the symbolism of reason, rite and art. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.

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