Why I’m fed up with Luganda

Bobi Wine, one of the musicians who mainly sings in Luganda. File photo

Swahili was once the neutral language of the army and the other military services, belonging to neither tribe and yet an African language and so was the ideal lingua franca across East Africa.

Many Ugandans of the late 19th Century and first half of the 20 Century regarded Swahili as a language of progress, discipline and the transition from the village to modern trades, town life and public office.

But to the average Ugandan from the central and western parts of the country, Swahili after 1966 became the language of oppression and violence.

It became to the Ugandan what the Swastika is to most of Europe, a symbol from which healing is impossible.

Nearly 30 years have gone by since the National Resistance Army came to power in Uganda, dominated by Bantu-speaking officers and men. But memories of Swahili as the language of the army stubbornly refused to be erased.

A number of popular contemporary Ugandan musicians such as Jose Chameleone and Rema have recorded songs in Swahili in order to find a market for them in East Africa.

But not even this is enough to break down the barrier to Swahili in Uganda.

It is difficult to see what factors can develop within Uganda that can cause a shift in the population’s mindset to lead to an embrace of this important language.

It is a good study into the nature of language and how language is not simply a means of communication but an expression and reflection of a complex combination of emotion, memories and identity.

Luganda is by any measure the nearest to a lingua franca there is in Uganda. It is the tongue of the Baganda, the largest ethnic grouping in Uganda, and the second language of Basoga, Banyarwanda, Bagisu, Banyoro, Samia, Bagwere and widely understood at least to basic degree in most parts of western Uganda.

It is the lingua franca of Bantu-speaking Uganda.
Unfortunately, for this very reason, the impression most Ugandans have of Swahili is what I am starting to develop about Luganda.

Just as Swahili in the southern and more populous half of Uganda is synonymous with soldiers and therefore Uganda’s history of fear and oppression, Luganda to me has started to become the language of all that is wrong and petty over the last 30 years.

It is the language of the conman, the corrupt government official, the pickpocket, the rude customer care staff, the materialistic Ugandan woman, the petty social scene, office gossip, shady Pentecostal pastors, forged academic papers and in general the cheap, low-brow side to Uganda.

I resent it when I enter a supermarket or office and am greeted in Luganda and as much as I can these days, I speak English in offices and supermarkets and pretend, as much as I can get away with, not to understand Luganda.

Just as Swahili in and of itself is a good language, Luganda is a cultured language.

But because I am now fed up with the 30 years of Bantu Uganda at the political, administrative, military and economic controls of Uganda, their lingua franca is now an irritant to my years.

Strangely, Runyankore does not yet get on my nerves in the way Luganda does, even though it is the language of the most powerful group in the country since 1986.

Perhaps this is because at public events and in business, the Banyankore politicians, army and police officers tend to use Luganda a lot when they want to appeal to popular sentiment.

But what I am sure of is that Luganda is now to me what Swahili is to Bantu Uganda.

There is just too much Luganda entering my ears via the flourishing Ugandan music scene, via radio and TV stations, social media and even the way the phone companies pander to Luganda in their promotional messages, I have had enough of this language.

The official language of Uganda, English, is one I now want to hear more of and feel drawn to Ugandans who speak English most of the time.

I am looking forward to the day a new political and cultural era comes to Uganda so that the dominance of Luganda is ended and we have another language to dominate commerce, entertainment and local politics, a language that does not remind me of the pettiness of the Bantu-speaking Ugandans.

When I enter a bank, telecom company, airline, supermarket, or any other office and hear the company’s officials speaking Luganda, I immediately develop a low opinion of the company.
This means I now have a low opinion of nearly every company in Uganda.

In fact, I would now support the introduction of Swahili as a national language, if only to erode the place of Luganda in Ugandan society, since anyway, the language of oppression in the army, intelligence and police is no longer Swahili but Luganda.

What has brought about my resentment of a language I once respected? It is the effect of the last 30 years of NRM Uganda, in which everything that was once decent and respectable has been watered down.

Institutions have been emaciated, public officials in senior positions exposed as unashamedly corrupt, everywhere one goes even the present generation of Ugandans under 30 view the act of corruption as a normal way of life and are taken by surprise when they are told that is it not necessary to steal in order to “succeed”.

Part of my distaste for the Ugandan part of social media is the way watered down Luganda pervades the online chatter. Luganda is, in my mind, the language of the degraded chapter of Ugandan history.

Just as it will take a very long time for Ugandans to view Swahili favourably again, it will take me a similar length of time to regain my respect for Luganda.

It is sad it has had to come to this, but that is what the last 30 years of the NRM have done to me.



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