Rwanda: Why Africans Need to Learn Kiswahili, Cherish It

Africans are increasingly being called upon to develop Kiswahili and other African languages to make them globally competitive.

This was reiterated on Thursday, July 6, during the official opening session of the second East African Community (EAC) World Kiswahili Language Day celebrations in Kampala, Uganda.

“Africans have an obligation of developing their own languages by using them properly, giving them an important place in teaching and learning activities, using them in official speeches and even in writing official announcements, books and articles. All these could make our languages competitive all over the world,” Helene Mukamana, a Kiswahili lecturer at the University of Rwanda told The New Times.

During the celebrations in Kampala, Kiswahili language scholar and University of Dar es Salaam academic Prof. Fikeni Senkoro noted that languages have become commodities on the global stage. He said that there is an urgent need to develop Kiswahili and other languages to make them marketable in people’s daily lives and business transactions.

Senkoro said that most Africans worship foreign languages due to their colonial heritage thus the division of the continent into Anglophone (English), Francophone (French) and Lusophone (Portuguese) linguistic zones.

“The place of this language in the midst of multilingualism is multi-faceted. It includes the foreign languages that were forced on us through colonialism, which gave us the derogatory labels of Anglophone, Francophone, and Lusophone Africa. It also has to do with attitudes, strategies, policies and lobbying by Africans themselves regarding their languages,” said Senkoro.

According to Mukamana, leaders on the continent also have a major task.

She said: “African leaders must contribute a lot to make their languages competitive by setting clear language policies in their countries. Here I mean providing the relevant places and status to their own languages and even use them in international conferences.”

Senkoro said the other challenge for the language had come from negative perceptions and singled out Uganda where Kiswahili was viewed as a language of the army and police.

Prof. Malonga Pacifique, an African Union Academy of Languages (ACALAN) Kiswahili Commissioner for Rwanda, writer and independent journalist, welcomed the idea of urging Africans to develop Kiswahili and other African languages so as to make them globally competitive.

He told The New Times that: “This is a very commendable affirmative action Uganda and Kiswahili stakeholders have taken towards the promotion of Kiswahili as an African Union Official language.

“Kiswahili should indeed be our African pride, identity for integration and wider communication in Africa for real sustainable development.”

Senkoro observed that all is not lost as the Kiswahili language sphere is spreading across East and Central Africa, adding that some EAC partner states already established National Kiswahili Councils to promote the language.

“The positive attitude towards Kiswahili amidst multilingualism aims at achieving unity and cohesion among the people of East Africa or Africa in general through identifying and working towards having a lingua franca for Africa. This will entail going through different policies and declarations from the AU, EAC and SADC,” said Senkoro.

“As we examine the challenges that we face regarding Kiswahili and multilingualism, we must look on the positive side so that we identify the opportunities that evolve from the situation.”

According to Janvier Popote, a Rwandan radio presenter and Kiswahili enthusiast, if “we are to decolonize our minds as Africans, we should embrace Kiswahili” since it is the most widely spoken African language that does not belong to any particular tribe, and every African can learn and be proud of it.

Popote has, since 2012, been contributing to regional and continental efforts towards the promotion of Kiswahili as a Kiswahili presenter at Radio Isango Star, one of the radio stations in Kigali.

He said: “I urge fellow Rwandans and other Africans to learn Kiswahili and cherish it as a language of wider communication across Africa for the betterment of our continent.”

Senkoro emphasised the importance of using other local languages to teach Kiswahili and gave examples of South Africa and Zimbabwe where Zulu and Shona languages, respectively, were already being used to teach Kiswahili. He said the teaching of Kiswahili through other languages was possible because all languages have meeting points.

Noting that there are approximately 200 million Kiswahili speaking people spread across East and Central Africa and other parts of the world, Senkoro advocated for the teaching of Kiswahili through African philosophies or ideologies including Ubuntu, Humanism, Ujamaa and Pan-Africanism.

“It is very possible that the Pan-Africanist spirit originated from African philosophies contained in African languages. We can refer to the philosophies and outlooks by the leaders of different African countries immediately after independence, such as Ubuntu, Humanism (Kenneth Kaunda), Ujamaa(Mwalimu Julius Kambarage Nyerere), and others,” said Senkoro.

Senkoro recommended that there is a need to ensure that Kiswahili is gradually adopted as a medium of instruction in those areas where it is well spoken, and a taught language where it is not.

The don further recommended that competition between individual language groups with regards to the selection of the appropriate lingua franca for Africa should be discouraged.

It should be stressed that, he noted, the choice of Kiswahili is backed by research and “data that shows how this language will make Africa speak in one, unified voice regarding the matters that affect their lives.”

“There is a need to revive the East African Publishing House to be owned by the East African Community through which printing, publishing and distribution of Kiswahili teaching materials will be carried out,” added Senkoro.

Little research on Kiswahili language

Making a presentation titled ‘Kiswahili, Multilingualism and Pan-Africanism,’ Prof. Kenneth Simala, who teaches Kiswahili at Masinde Muliro University in Kakamega, Kenya, said that one of the weakest fields of scholarship on Pan-Africanism is the relatively little research that has been undertaken on the Kiswahili language.