The renewed push for Kiswahili to become a lingua franca in Africa promises to benefit the continent and the world. Efforts aim to reduce Africa’s reliance on foreign languages in official communications, lead to the recognition and spread of Kiswahili, and promote Pan-Africanism. However, the campaign faces a number of challenges.
Today, English is the official language in 27 of the 54 countries on the continent and French in 21 countries – both languages of former colonizers. Their continued use attracts funds and other benefits from those countries.
According to experts, their ousting could lead to diplomatic challenges. Professor Obuchi Moseti, a Kiswahili linguist from Moi University, notes that these foreign languages are well established and strategically placed for international and global communication, diplomacy and trade. Replacing it with an African colloquialism will not be easy. Success, he emphasizes, depends on political goodwill.
Professor Chege Githora from Kenya adds that English and other foreign languages such as French and Portuguese are referred to as “languages of power”.
Professor James Michira, Kiswahili Lecturer at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, says: “Kiswahili must convincingly define its path if true results of transforming what looks like a dream are to be translated into reality.”
Indigenous African languages pose another challenge. Arabic is the dominant language in North Africa, while languages such as Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba enjoy lingua franca status in West Africa. According to Ethnologue, the Yoruba language is estimated to have about 50 million native speakers and about two million second speakers.
For Kiswahili to be accepted and developed in such regions, adequate resources and political will – including financial and economic contributions – are essential to ensure that it serves the people as, if not better than, the languages they speak today.
Kiswahili has grown in Africa and beyond. It is estimated that there are more than 200 million Kiswahili speakers worldwide. In fact, Kiswahili is among the top 10 most spoken languages in the world.
This recognition potentially confers significant advantages on the continent in the fields of education, diplomacy, trade, tourism, culture, philosophy, and politics. Their implementation requires widespread use and mastery of the Kiswahili language. For example, Kiswahili will not be a viable language in tourism if tourists do not understand it.
Countries will not sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) or diplomatic documents if only a single party understands Kiswahili. If only a few countries agree to learn Kiswahili and teach people, the endeavor will fail.
The AU adopted Kiswahili as its official working language in February. In order for Kiswahili to grow worldwide, a concerted effort is needed. recognition must be achieved. Lobbying needs to be done.
It is recommended that the AU form a special committee or body charged with educating all countries on the importance of making Kiswahili the language of Africa for Africa. The committee could lobby African countries to support the idea and reach out to stakeholders outside of Africa to rally goodwill and funds for Kiswahili advocacy programs. It should also conduct research and develop strategies to promote Kiswahili and increase its popularity.
For Kiswahili to become a language for all Africans on the African continent, resources are vital. Africa is a large continent and few people can cross it to spread Kiswahili. However, adequate funding could support the training of Kiswahili teachers and second language learning methods across the continent.
Research funds could enable scientists to make recommendations on how best to promote the virtues of Kiswahili as a common language. Infrastructure support could help build classrooms for teaching Kiswahili. With sufficient funding, libraries across Africa could be stocked with Kiswahili texts and learning materials.
Motivation and sacrifice are also needed. People who are used to their own language are encouraged to adopt a whole new slang. Fortunately, history provides a precedent. Other language campaigns in the past have held conferences across Africa to teach and reward students who have learned and achieved certain language levels. This proven model could be implemented for Kiswahili.
Writing contests with attractive rewards could be offered to people to motivate them to learn both linguistics and literature of Kiswahili.
In addition, language policies across Africa need to be updated and formulated to include Swahili either as a compulsory subject in schools or as a language to be learned in formal education.
Other AU and UN regulations could add to the overall effort. For example, individuals entering Africa for long-term investment or educational purposes could be required to study and acquire knowledge of Kiswahili within a specific time frame.
It could also be required that anyone approaching AU meetings should have sufficient knowledge of Kiswahili, even if this is not 100%.
Some countries would have to follow suit, such as the East African countries of Kenya and Tanzania. They developed policies that declared Kiswahili their national language, popularized it among its people, and strengthened its importance.
Advocates must remain aware and sensitive to other African languages. Africa is multicultural and most Africans are potentially born multilingual. Overemphasizing the rules could be counterproductive. Forbearance is recommended. Terminologies and words from local languages need to be incorporated to give local people a sense of belonging and ownership of the language.
In this way, many will use Kiswahili without being reminded or suspected of having been “colonized”. This was a sentiment once expressed by Ugandans, who said they felt as if they were being “recolonized” by Kenyans if they spoke Kiswahili.
This urge for a pan-African language is not new. Julius Nyerere, first President of Tanzania, stressed the need to have Kiswahili as the pan-African language. The language proved successful in unifying Tanzanians under the Ujamaa philosophy.
Current efforts to establish Kiswahili as the continent’s common language have significant potential to do good. Their success depends on their advocates being aware of the myriad of challenges, remaining sensitive to diverse stakeholders, and executing plans effectively.
like dr Amatsibi Misigo, Chair of Kenya’s National Commission for UNESCO, says the recognition of Kiswahili by the AU and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is a step in the right direction.