Where does Kiswahili leave our mother-tongues?

Robert N. Kizito 

Recently, the Cabinet announced that the teaching of Kiswahili language in primary and secondary schools shall be made compulsory. Kiswahili, thus, becomes the second official language in the country after English.

This development is not surprising.  Cabinet was only approving the implementation of the 21st East African Community summit directive making Kiswahili an official language of the Community.

What is astonishing is why it has taken this long for Uganda to adopt Kiswahili. To the locals, however, a number of issues have tainted the language hindering its introduction into classrooms.

Wary of these issues, the government has lacked commitment resulting in a critical shortage of teachers and teaching materials. There also has been generalised public opposition to Kiswahili in the past.

Thanks to the country’s long history of armed confrontations in the 1960s-1980s, Kiswahili has been considered a language for molestation, vandalism, thieving, massive human rights abuses and the enforcement of unjust laws and edicts by security agencies.

Security personnel seemed to prize Kiswahili as a source of status and power to crudely and brutally subdue civilians with impunity. They gave stern orders to people who didn’t comprehend the language.

Colonizers and their successive colonial administrators also often imported Sudanese and other Kiswahili speaking soldiers to pacify the country.  Additionally important sections of the population have always feared that Kiswahili would suffocate and eventually annihilate the country’s mother-tongues also known as native languages.

This is understandable for Kiswahili, a blend of Arab and different mainly eastern Africa coastal Bantu languages and dialects, is a very powerful world class language. Swahili is itself an Arabic word meaning “of the coast”. 

Kiswahili is one of the world’s top 10 most spoken languages and Africa’s most widely used “native” lingua franca. It is taught in universities around the world, including in China and the USA.

 Recently, the language received new impetus when on November 23, 2021 the UN designated July 7 as World Kiswahili Language Day.

Europeans, especially German colonial administration (1885-1917), deliberately disparaged and suffocated native languages adopting Kiswahili as the language of administration and instruction in primary schools in the then Tanganyika territory. Independent Tanzania was later to adopt Kiswahili as its national language.

Late Dr.  M. B. Nsimbi one of the earliest advocates for the preservation, popularisation and revival of native languages and cultures in Uganda, first encountered the impact of this European language policy in Tanganyika in the mid-1930s when he volunteered to teach at Tabora School. Nsimbi was not hostile to Kiswahili, English or any other foreign language. He believed in multinguism which, however, he thought ought to be developed side by side with mother-tongues. 

Alienating one’s mother-tongue often leads to loss of identity, cultural disconnection and disorientation and embarrassment, he argued. 

Nsimbi practiced what he preached!! He studied and mastered Kiswahili which he later admitted assisted him to develop expert proficiency in English and Luganda, his mother-tongue in which he wrote 16 books.

Studies have since shown that the native language a child gets to hear both before and after birth gives shape to its feelings and thoughts.  It also improves critical thinking, learning and literacy skills.

Appropriately, the United Nations in 1999 designated February 21 as World Mother-Tongue  Day ahead of the World Kiswahili Language Day.

The debunking of native languages is tantamount to the demise of a most valuable repository of peoples’ culture, history, artifacts, ways of life and pride, Nsimbi argued. It is also the beginning of the extermination of the age-old, yet timeless African wisdom permeated in native proverbs, he further said

In 1950, he found the Luganda Language Society which has been duplicated in other languages and communities.

Doubling as the first African Inspector of schools, the Ministry of Education was in 1959 to charge him with the newly created role of coordinating native language curricula, policies and their teaching in schools.

Robert Kizito is a member of the Luganda Language Society