There are two recent events within our East African region that inspired me to pen down my reflections on the Kiswahili language.
First is the one-day State visit of Her Excellency Samia Suluhu Hassan, President of the United Republic of Tanzania, to Uganda and second is her recently concluded two-day State visit to Kenya.
It was interesting to me that the language used during the presidential addresses in both events was Kiswahili, which happens to be the official language for Tanzania and national language in Kenya.
One impression would be that Kiswahili is understood by Kenyans, Tanzanians and Ugandans. Whereas this is true for the other two countries, there are only pockets of Ugandans who can communicate in Kiswahili.
It is my conviction that learning and adopting Kiswahili would be of great benefit to Ugandans, especially in exploring more opportunities within the East African Community (EAC).
Possibility of a national language.
Uganda enjoys a cultural and ethnic diversity of 54 tribes across the country, each with their own language and traditions. This element of ethnic pluralism cuts across Africa, which practically explains why most countries use their colonisers’ languages officially.
Agreeably, language is a great uniting factor for multi-ethnic communities, which makes national languages important. This can be observed in Kenya and Tanzania where there are 44 and 120 tribes, respectively but the peoples of each country are brought together by Kiswahili.
Even more significant about Kiswahili is that it is a local language dominantly born of words from Arabic, English and Bantu, the largest ethnic group in Uganda. Indeed, there are a number of words that Ugandans can identify with in Kiswahili.
Towards East African regional integration. Uganda is a founding member of the EAC, which includes Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and South Sudan, with a possibility of admitting a new member - the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
Economic and political integration is the top agenda of the EAC, which constitutes of four pillars: customs union, common market, monetary union, and political confederation. There has been a great deal of progress registered in the integration process, albeit a myriad of diverse political drawbacks.
In 2010, common markets came into full force, which has indubitably boosted trade across the region. It is my conviction that a common language for the EAC bloc is a huge upward thrust to the integration process, especially in promoting participation of the peoples.
It is not only a uniting factor for the competitive market force of an estimated 180 million East Africans, but also gives the EAC a unique identity from other regional blocs across the continent. Indeed, the EAC adopted Kiswahili as the official language of the bloc in 2017.
If the most widely spoken language in the region was one of the criteria considered, then Kiswahili was highly probable. It is widely spoken in Tanzania, Kenya, and DRC; and considerably spoken in Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi; and South Sudan is open to learning it.
Exploring horizons for more business opportunities.
The driving force for regional integration in East Africa is to promote economic growth and development. Since its inauguration, the common markets protocol has greatly eased the movement of goods and services, peoples and labour cross borders within the EA region.
However, language is a critical factor in business for various reasons, which poses a great challenge to a myriad of Ugandan traders who travel to Kenya for business and cannot express themselves in Kiswahili.
Speaking Kiswahili would be a big ‘plus’ for Ugandans; and a step forward in preparing us for the opportunities and potential challenges borne from the EA regional integration.
Mr Augustine Bahemuka
Peace practitioner based in Nairobi.