Africans can’t keep using translators

Vivian Agaba

What you need to know:

It is possible for all Africans to embrace and adopt Kiswahili as the continent’s main language

I recently read an opinion published by Al Jazeera titled: “Can Kiswahili unite Africans and fast-track decolonization?” by Tafi Mhaka, a Johannesburg-based social and political commentator

In his piece, Mhaka was alluding to, and praising a decision made by the Uganda’s Cabinet on July 5, to adopt Kiswahili (Swahili), as an official language and ensure its compulsory teaching in schools.

The decision came on-the-heels of a directive of the 21st East African Community (EAC) Summit held in early 2021 that directed the expedition of the implementation of Kiswahili, English and French as official languages in the bloc.

Mhaka supports this new development and recommends adoption of Kiswahili by the entire sub-Saharan continent.

His reasons are; there is no indigenous language in Africa that is spoken widely enough to serve as a common tongue on the continent. This makes it undeniably problematic for us to communicate easily and help forge a spirit of unity as an African people.

I can absolutely relate with two personal experiences where communicating with other Africans was a nightmare.  Recently, I attended a three-day convening on Agroecology, an event that attracted participants from across different African countries. During the main sessions, we had hired professional interpreters for either English or French.

However, the problem arose during small group discussions. While the majority of the participants spoke English, a few spoke only French. To make the discussions all inclusive, whenever an English speaking participant spoke, his or her words had to be translated into French, and vice versa. As one can imagine, this was clearly time consuming.

As if this was not bad enough. One morning, three participants from Burkina Faso and Benin were having breakfast and I joined them in the spirit of networking. To my shock, they could hardly speak or understand any single English word, neither did I know any French word except the common greeting, ‘bonjour’.

The trio were curious to know more about Uganda, but language barrier was a big problem. We just kept nodding and laughing until we resorted to google translator.

One may reason that we are in an era of technology where everything has been made easy with digitalisation. We cannot deny the fact that use of technology has made many things better today, but we also cannot deny that there is something special about human-to-human conversations. Such tête-à-têtes bind us together and strengthen our bonds .

Second occurrence. In 2019, I travelled to Ivory Coast for a four-day training. In this West African country, the official language is French. During the main discussions, we had French and English interpreters. But out of these discussions, communication was at a dead-end again. The hotel workers couldn’t speak English, and so to get anything like drinking water, or food, one had to first point at what he or she wanted to eat.

Such experiences have made me appreciate the need for  a single indigenous African language to unite and enable us to socialise easily, and that is Kiswahili which is now spoken in over 14 African countries. Having a common language would feed into African Union’s Vision 2063 that seeks to see an integrated Africa. African integration would enhance promotion of robust and equitable markets, create better employment opportunities for millions of unemployed Africans, and boost intra-continental trade, consumption and investment.

It is possible for all Africans to embrace and adopt Kiswahili as the continent’s main language. However, it will take political will from all African governments. Strides such as Africa Union’s adoption of Swahili as one of its official working languages, and UNESCO’s 2021 decision to declare July 7 as world Kiswahili Day are decisions in the right direction.

The writer is a journalist, and consultant writer/editor

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