Kiswahili popularity steadily on rise

Cape Town, SOUTH AFRICA: THE University of Cape Town (UCT) in South Africa has officially launched the Kiswahili studies academic programme thus becoming the latest member in the growing list of universities and higher learning institutions to include the language in their curriculum.

The programme is conducted in collaboration with the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM) and was officially launched on October 5, 2023.

Kiswahili is now officially among the ten widely spoken languages in the world, with more than 250 million speakers in and outside the African continent.

Out of more than 2,000 active languages in Africa, Kiswahili is the only one which is widely spoken and studied and the only language from the continent recognised by the UN which approved 7th July every year to be Kiswahili Day.

Kiswahili is also a working language in the AU, SADC, EAC meetings and taught in many universities worldwide with UCT now becoming the latest entrant in the long list.

Kiswahili’s fast-growing popularity is hardly surprising. The language has been all along since pre-independence period considered a language of liberation and unity.

In Tanzania for example, Kiswahili is credited for bringing peace and unity in a country where there are more than 130 ethnic languages.

The language has been used during the struggle for independence in Tanzania and many see it as an alternative common language for the African continent currently linguistically divided along the Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone countries.

At the UCT, Kiswahili studies are conducted at the African language section of the school of language and Literatures in the Faculty of Humanities. The programme is in line with the University’s view that language as a resource recognises the personal, social and educational value of multilingualism.

The UCT language policy aims at preparing students to participate fully in a multilingual society, emphasising on multilingual proficiency and awareness. Other languages taught at the UCT are Afrikaans, Arabic, French, Portuguese, Spanish, German, Italian, Sesotho, Xhosa and Chinese. Kiswahili is taught as an elective subject for now with the aim of launching it as a major subject in the near future.

The agreement between UDSM and UCT focuses on supply of teachers, preparation of curriculum and preparation and supply of books among others. Following this agreement, Dr Elizabeth Mahenge, a Senior Lecturer from UDSM is already at the UCT to spearhead the implementation process.

The message that came out very clear from the UCT was “…the introduction of Swahili studies aligns with the University’s mission to transform and decolonize its practice, curricula and culture. It is also important step toward striving to ensure opportunities for students and staff to participate fully and have a tangible impact on our world…”

The launching ceremony on the 05th October was well attended with high profile speakers including Prof Elelwani Ramugondo, the Acting Vice-Chancellor UCT, Prof Bonaventura Rutinwa, Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) UDSM, Prof Shose Kessi, Dean Faculty of Humanities UCT, Prof Markus Arnold, Director School of Languages and Literatures -UCT, Prof Shani Omari Mchepange, Director, the Institute for Kiswahili studies UDSM, Dr Rethabile Magorea, Head Department of African Languages and Literatures-UCT, Mr Edward Komba, Acting Tanzania High Commissioner to South Africa and many others.

The keynote address was delivered by Ms Sho Madjozi a renowned South African rapper, singer, song writer and a poet. Her genres include Amapiano, Afropop and Hip-hop. She speaks eight languages including Kiswahili. Someone said she is a musical Pan Africanist and a “…true blooded citizen of Africa…”

Almost all speakers emphasised on the importance of the Kiswahili language as one way of reclaiming our identity as Africans. They appealed for more students to register in Swahili classes in the next semester.

On his part, Prof Bonaventura Rutinwa the Deputy Vice Chancellor- UDSM himself an alumnus of UCT, recounted the special relations between UCT and UDSM also noting that two prominent leaders from Tanzania, Dr Tulia Ackson currently Speaker of the Tanzania National Assembly and Judge Juliana Masabo, a high court judge are also alumni of the august UCT.

He expressed gratitude to the Tanzania and South Africa governments for the effort which made it possible this programme to see the light of day. He further reaffirmed the UDSM’s readiness to continue collaborating with UCT in promoting Kiswahili. He extended invitation to students who are keen to further their Swahili studies to come to UDSM. Currently UDSM sponsors students for Master programmes in Kiswahili from Egypt, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.

The multi award winning artiste Sho Madjozi (real name Maya Christinah) the keynote speaker, spoke at length on the importance of Kiswahili language and shared her experiences on how she learnt Kiswahili when she was a high school student at the International School of Tanganyika in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania where she had lived with her parents for several years in the past.

She said Kiswahili is a simple language to learn and during her stay in Tanzania she learnt the language much by interacting with the friendly local communities. She has composed several songs in Kiswahili which are already popular big hits.

Recently in 2021, Madjozi visited Ngorongoro at the invitation of the Tanzania Tourist Board (TTB) where she superbly prepared a promotional video clip in a multilingual style showcasing the iconic Ngorongoro Crater. It was a successful clip which went viral and followed by many. Indeed, she is a very good social media influencer.

The launching of Kiswahili programme at the UCT is yet another example of the growing popularity of this homegrown language. The UCT experiences also reminds us of some important lessons. And the first one for sure is the importance of knowledge and speaking multiple languages. The UCT language policy which puts emphasis on multilingual proficiency is worth noting.

This is a noteworthy lesson for Kiswahili speakers that while being proud of our language, and continue making all the efforts to promote it, it is equally important to try to also be proficient in other languages. There is need to understand that as Kiswahili becomes increasingly popular and universal, then in a positive way it is important to view this universality to also mean that the available opportunities become wider too.

The second lesson is the importance of using different approaches in teaching the language formal and informal including use of music and other methods.  As Dr Elizabeth Mahenge rightly testified during the launching ceremony, Swahili songs have been one of her teaching ‘tools’ that was successfully used. It is therefore important that Swahili method of teaching and usage is made simple and more user friendly.

In the same way, we can take note of the University of Kwa Zulu Natal (UKZN) methodology where the style used is teaching Kiswahili using Isizulu instead of using English, making it possible for the languages to enrich each other and dispelling the unfounded fear that one language is bent on ‘killing’ other languages.

The teaching of Kiswahili at the University level is one way of promoting the language. But there are other initiatives including that of teaching the language at the basic education level. This initiative has resulted in the inking of the MoU and implementation plans between Tanzania and South Africa.

The High Commission in Pretoria also mulls the idea of establishing a Cultural Centre taking cognisance of the fact that language is not only a means of communication but something broader, encompassing many other issues including cuisine, music, culture, clothes etc. Languages have a socio-cultural dimension.

Lastly, there is a strong need for these institutions and other stake holders which are in the forefront in commitment to promote and teaching Kiswahili language, be given appropriate support to enable them to continue with their laudable efforts of spreading the language wider and faster.

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