The story of how Swahili became Africa’s most spoken language

DAR ES SALAAM: ONCE just an obscure island dialect of an African Bantu tongue, Swahili has evolved into Africa’s most internationally recognised language. It is peer to the few languages of the world that boast over 200 million users.

Over the two millennia of Swahili’s growth and adaptation, the moulders of this story  immigrants from inland Africa, traders from Asia, Arab and European occupiers, European and Indian settlers, colonial rulers, and individuals from various postcolonial nations  have used Swahili and adapted it to their own purposes.

They have taken it wherever they have gone to the west. Africa’s Swahili-speaking zone now extends across a full third of the continent from south to north and touches on the opposite coast, encompassing the heart of Africa.

The origins: The historical lands of the Swahili are on East Africa’s Indian Ocean littoral. A 2,500 kilometer chain of coastal towns from Mogadishu, Somalia to Sofala, Mozambique as well as offshore islands as far away as the Comoros and Seychelles.

This coastal region has long served as an international crossroads of trade and human movement. People from all walks of life and from regions as scattered as Indonesia, Persia, the African Great Lakes, the United States and Europe all encountered one another. Hunter-gatherers, pastoralists and farmers mingled with traders and city-dwellers.

Africans devoted to ancestors and the spirits of their lands met Muslims, Hindus, Portuguese Catholics and British Anglicans. Workers (among them slaves, porters and labourers), soldiers, rulers and diplomats were mixed together from ancient days. Anyone who went to the East African littoral could choose to become Swahili, and many did.

African unity: The roll of Swahili enthusiasts and advocates includes notable intellectuals, freedom fighters, civil rights activists, political leaders, scholarly professional societies, entertainers and health workers.

Not to mention the usual professional writers, poets, and artists. Foremost has been Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka. The Nigerian writer, poet and playwright has since the 1960s repeatedly called for use of Swahili as the transcontinental language for Africa.

The African Union (AU), the “united states of Africa” nurtured the same sentiment of continental unity in July 2004 and adopted Swahili as its official language.

As Joaquim Chissano (then the president of Mozambique) put this motion on the table, he addressed the AU in the flawless Swahili he had learned in Tanzania, where he was educated while in exile from the Portuguese colony.

The African Union did not adopt Swahili as Africa’s international language by happenstance. Swahili has a much longer history of building bridges among peoples across the continent of Africa and into the diaspora.

The feeling of unity, the insistence that all of Africa is one, just will not disappear. Languages are elemental to everyone’s sense of belonging, of expressing what’s in one’s heart.

The AU’s decision was particularly striking given that the populations of its member states speak an estimated two thousand languages (roughly one-third of all human languages), several dozen of them with more than a million speakers.

How did Swahili come to hold so prominent a position among so many groups with their own diverse linguistic histories and traditions?

A liberation language: During the decades leading up to the independence of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in the early 1960s, Swahili functioned as an international means of political collaboration.

It enabled freedom fighters throughout the region to communicate their common aspirations even though their native languages varied widely. The rise of Swahili, for some Africans, was a mark of true cultural and personal independence from the colonising Europeans and their languages of control and command.

Uniquely among Africa’s independent nations, Tanzania’s government uses Swahili for all official business and, most impressively, in basic education. Indeed, the Swahili word uhuru (freedom), which emerged from this independence struggle, became part of the global lexicon of political empowerment.

The highest political offices in East Africa began using and promoting Swahili soon after independence. Presidents Julius Nyerere of Tanzania (1962-85) and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya (1964-78) promoted Swahili as integral to the region’s political and economic interests, security and liberation.

The political power of language was demonstrated, less happily, by Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (1971-79), who used Swahili for his army and secret police operations during his reign of terror.

Under Nyerere, Tanzania became one of only two African nations ever to declare a native African language as the country’s official mode of communication (the other is Ethiopia, with Amharic).

Nyerere personally translated two of William Shakespeare’s plays into Swahili to demonstrate the capacity of Swahili to bear the expressive weight of great literary works.

Socialist overtones: Nyerere even made the term Swahili a referent to Tanzanian citizenship. Later, this label acquired socialist overtones in praising the common men and women of the nation.

It stood in stark contrast to Europeans and Western-oriented elite Africans with quickly and by implication dubiously – amassed wealth. Ultimately, the term grew even further to encompass the poor of all races, of both African and non-African descent.

In my own experience as a lecturer at Stanford University in the 1990s, for instance, several of the students from Kenya and Tanzania referred to the poor white neighbourhood of East Palo Alto, California, as Uswahilini, “Swahili land”.

As opposed to Uzunguni, “land of the mzungu (white person)”. Nyerere considered it prestigious to be called Swahili.

With his influence, the term became imbued with sociopolitical connotations of the poor but worthy and even noble. This in turn helped construct a Pan African popular identity independent of the elite-dominated national governments of Africa’s fifty-some nation-states. Source: The Conversation

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