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Renewed push for use of Kiswahili by AU and UNESCO

What does it mean for Africa and the world?
By Iribe Mwangi and Nicholus Makanji
Article A large group of African leaders on stage at the AU Assembly of the Union in February 2022
MAY 14, 2022 LISTEN
A large group of African leaders on stage at the AU Assembly of the Union in February 2022

The opening of the 35th Ordinary Session of the African Union Assembly of the Union on 5 February 2022 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. At that Session, held from 5-6 February 2022, the Assembly of the Union approved the introduction of Kiswahili as a working language of the African Union and language of wider communication in Africa.

The renewed push for Kiswahili to become a lingua franca in Africa promises to benefit the continent and the world. The effort is set to reduce Africa’s reliance on foreign languages in official communications, lead to the recognition and spread of Kiswahili, and promote Pan-Africanism. The campaign, however, faces a number of challenges.

Today, of the 54 countries on the continent, English is the official language in 27 and French is the official language in 21 countries—both are languages of former colonizers. Their continued use attracts funding and other benefits from these countries.

According to experts, supplanting them could create 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. To replace them with an African vernacular will not be easy. Success, he points out, hinges on political goodwill.

Professor Chege Githora, from Kenya, adds that English and other foreign languages, like French and Portuguese, are referred to as “languages of power.”

Professor James Michira, a Kiswahili lecturer at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, says, “Kiswahili has to convincingly define its way if true results of changing what looks like a dream into reality has to happen.”

Indigenous African languages represent another challenge. In North of Africa, Arabic is the dominant language, while in Western Africa there are languages like Igbo, Hausa, and Yoruba that enjoy lingua franca status. According to Ethnologue, the Yoruba language is estimated to have about 50 million native speakers and about two million second-language speakers.

For Kiswahili to gain acceptance and develop in such regions, adequate resources and political goodwill — including financial and economic inputs — are imperative to ensure it will serve people as well 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 around the globe. In fact, Kiswahili is ranked among the 10 most widely spoken languages worldwide.

This recognition potentially confers substantial educational, diplomatic, trade, tourism, cultural, philosophical, and political benefits to the continent. Their realization requires widespread use of and proficiency in Kiswahili. For instance, Kiswahili will not be a viable language in tourism if tourists do not understand it.

Countries will not sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and diplomatic documents if only a single party to an agreement understands Kiswahili. If only some countries agree to learn and teach Kiswahili to people, the endeavor will fail.

AU adopted Kiswahili as an official working language in February. For Kiswahili to grow globally, joint effort is needed. Recognition must be achieved. Lobbying has to be conducted.

It is recommended that AU constitute a special committee or body mandated to educate all countries about 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, beyond Africa, to gain goodwill and funding for Kiswahili advocacy programs. It also should conduct research and develop strategies for promoting Kiswahili and boosting its popularity.

For Kiswahili to become a language for all Africans on the African continent, resources are critical. Africa is a large continent, and few people can traverse it to spread Kiswahili. Adequate funding, however, could support training for teachers in Kiswahili and second-language learning methodologies across the continent.

Research money could enable scholars to devise recommendations for how to best promote the virtues of Kiswahili as a common language. Infrastructure support could help build classrooms for teaching Kiswahili. With sufficient funding, libraries could be furnished with Kiswahili texts and learning materials throughout Africa.

Motivation and sacrifice also will be needed. Individuals accustomed to their own language will be asked to embrace a whole new vernacular. Fortunately, history provides a precedent. With other language campaigns in the past, conferences were held throughout Africa to teach and award students who learned and achieved certain levels of proficiency in a language. This proven model could be implemented for Kiswahili.

Writing competitions with attractive rewards might be offered to people for motivating them to learn both the linguistics and literature of Kiswahili.

In addition, language policies in the whole of Africa have to be updated and formulated to accommodate Kiswahili, as either a compulsory subject in school or as a language to be learned in formal education.

Other regulations by AU and the United Nations could reinforce the overall effort. For instance, people entering Africa for a long term investment or educational purposes could be required to study and achieve proficiency in Kiswahili within a specified timeframe.

It also could be mandated that anyone addressing AU meetings have a working knowledge of Kiswahili, even if not at 100% proficiency.

Some countries should have to follow suit, such as East African countries Kenya and Tanzania. They developed policies declaring Kiswahili their national language, making it popular among its people and boosting its significance.

Proponents must remain cognizant of and sensitive to other African languages. Africa is multicultural and most Africans are born potentially multilingual. An overemphasis of the rules could be counter-productive. Leniency is advised. Terminologies and words from local languages have to be allowed to be infused, giving the locals a sense of belonging and ownership of the language.

In this way, many will use Kiswahili without reminders or suspicions of being “colonized.” This was a sentiment expressed once by Ugandans, who said they felt like they were being “colonized again” by Kenyans whenever they spoke Kiswahili.

This push for a Pan-African language is not new. Julius Nyerere, first President of Tanzania, emphasized the need to have Kiswahili as a Pan-African language. The language proved successful in unifying Tanzanians under Ujamaa philosophy.

The current effort to establish Kiswahili as the common language of the continent has significant potential to do good. Its success depends on its proponents being keenly aware of myriad challenges, staying sensitive to diverse constituencies, and executing plans effectively.

As Dr. Amatsibi Misigo the Chair of Kenya National Commission for UNESCO, observes, Kiswahili’s recognition by AU and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is a step in the right direction.

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