The matter of whether Uganda should have a national language, and if so, whether that language should be Kiswahili, is one that comes up for some level of public scrutiny every few years.
The usual outcome when this happens is the same predictable commentary, and then the matter disappears from public view for a few more years.
There is a difference this time, whose significance is yet to be revealed.
Since the last such lurch in that direction, the East African Community trading bloc has more than doubled its population and trebled its size and, at its 21st summit in February 2021, the bloc issued a directive making Kiswahili an official language of the Community. The African Union has also announced the adoption of Kiswahili as a working language.
At its 41st Session in Paris in November 2021, the UNESCO General Conference declared July 7th “World Kiswahili Language Day” (Resolution 41 C/61), citing “the critical role played by Kiswahili in promoting cultural diversity, creating awareness, and fostering dialogue among civilizations.”
On the 5th of July last year, Uganda’s government followed suit with a cabinet announcement that Kiswahili was to now finally be the country’s national language.
Even Julius Malema, leader of South Africa’s loudest left-wing party, has spoken volubly on the urgent need for Africa to adopt one language and that the language should be Kiswahili. This could have been in response to the African Union as a whole adopting Kiswahili as its Official Working Language in February 2022.
I doubt if a thing that is not a nation can create a national thing. And if languages create nations, then clearly we already have quite a few nations in existence inside the three, or seven, East African community member states.
In Uganda, the usual and easily invoked objections are around the history of the language as a tool of state repression. And this is the area of objection that critics of Ugandans expressing opposition to Kiswahili usually focus on. They do so because it allows for three politically correct points to be made.
The first is that English, Uganda’s official language, is also colonial, and so those opposed to Kiswahili should be opposed to English as well, which they don’t seem to be.
This enables a follow-on argument that language is a tool and therefore its use for good or bad depends on the motive of the user. And when the objection has specifically come from a native of Buganda, it is pointed out that their language Luganda was also a language of regional domination both before and during colonialism.
And finally it is argued that such objectors are simply locking ordinary Ugandans out of a wider free trade regional market.
Occasionally the point is made about the mythical benefits of accessing Kiswahili’s alleged high culture.
And so it goes, back and forth, in an unedifying spiral of oppression Olympics and republican self-righteousness.
In this back and forth, two important questions are ignored: effect and context. The second is the simpler one, and has already been discussed above—Kiswahili has not meant the same thing to all Africans everywhere at all times and will therefore have varying receptions.
But “effect” is the more fundamental issue. As mentioned, this proposal, or drive, has always remained unclear as to what the ultimate desired goal is. Several explanations exist.
If Africa wishes to build a united common cultural identity, we must first settle the question whether this is an act of rebuilding something that was destroyed, repairing something that exists but is broken, or departing from scratch. Which of the three will the future of African development be based on?
At the economic level, when we talk about integrating regional markets, have we also asked ourselves who owns these markets even in their current, less integrated form? Does Kiswahili create independent, African-owned economics, or simply a smoother path for the current foreign-owned ones to reach deeper into the continent?
The issue of cultural identity brought to mind an incident many years ago during an evening stroll in downtown Nairobi in the company of a Tanzanian colleague while attending a workshop in the city. During an encounter with one of the many Nairobi street kids, we had an interesting time observing how he alternated between understanding my crude Kiswahili — which was forcing me to “step up” — and my friend’s sophisticated version — which he was having to “dumb down” — as we asked him a little about his life’s journey thus far.
Does Kiswahili create independent, African-owned economics, or simply a smoother path for the current foreign-owned ones to reach deeper into the continent?
After the boy went on his way, we reverted to the English we had been using and ended up in a discussion about homes and homelessness. The point, I think, was about traditional African family structures. At some point, as I was expounding on the concept of the paternal aunt and maternal uncle in Kiganda (and other Bantu) cultures in their once actual role as potential resources for troubled children, my colleague became animated and recalled such relations from his childhood growing up in rural Tanzania, and then a little agitated at the sudden realization that he could no longer recall the specific title used, in the language of his childhood, to name these people.
The point here is whether this was just a loss of a word once spoken, or if it also meant the eventual loss of the role and meaning of the persons and relationships carried by that name. And if it was indeed an erasure, has that been the intended effect of the one-language policy?
What is gained and what is lost in such a process?
Native language includes native consciousness for as long as it remains the property of its owners. A change of language can therefore be shorthand for the suppression of native identity in an approach to African “nation-building” that the historian of Africa, Basil Davidson, described as being based on “the complete flattening of the ethnic landscape”.
For example, the Luganda version of the word that was lost to my erstwhile Tanzanian colleague is Senga (sometimes spelled Ssenga). Its meaning is very specific: the female sibling of one’s father by the same father, or set of fathers. In other words, being first and foremost of the same totem as your father. It is a clan institution operating at the family level and responsible for various things, such as overseeing her brother’s daughters’ personal lives, (including marriage, as extemporized in the book Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi), as well as installations of family heirs.
Native language includes native consciousness for as long as it remains the property of its owners.
A more revealing variation of the same institution exists in the culture, and therefore language, of Banyankole of Uganda. In one case it is call Shwenkazi, which is a verbal conflation of the term sho-enkazi (“sho” being “your father”, and “kazi”, being “female”). Quite literally, “your father the woman”, or more directly, “your woman-father”.
It is not reducible to the word “aunt”; it means paternally-descended paternal aunt, but not merely as a label but as a title that carries a specific cultural function.
In the ordinary Kiswahili being promoted, the word Shangazi means aunt.
One can clearly see a similarity with Senga and Shwenkazi. However, Shangazi functions only as a family label in the same way that aunt, uncle or brother do in English, such that the paternal aunt is “Shangazi wa baba”, and the maternal one “Shangazi wa mama”. I am unclear if any cultural function existed or still exists attached to the name (although I suspect it might, at least in some perfunctory form).
A series of critical questions emerge from this. Clearly, the three words Senga, Shwenkazi and Shangazi bear a common root. But did they at some point also carry the same function? How come the function-name seems to be clearer (and also similar) in Luganda and Runyankore, and not in Kiswahili, where it is a flat label indiscriminately applicable to any female sibling of any parent?
Was there a time when Shangazi also meant Senga in both name and function? If so, by what process was this lost?
Therefore, the main point is this: if one is to substitute Luganda, or Runyankore with Kiswahili, or even just make it primary to them, then the meaning of this institution — quite central to how the extended family system operates here — will be lost. And so will the practice, and therefore eventually, the culture.
This feeds into the question of what kind of future the advocates of Kiswahili-for-all envisage. A lot of cultural activism in Africa is hemmed in by either a preservation mentality, or a profusion one.
Kiswahili advocacy suffers from both. On the one hand, Swahili culture is seen as a culture worth preserving in the memory of its “highest” forms (which are really just a celebration of the Arab-informed city-states of the coast, built as assimilationist fixtures of a spreading Arabist culture headquartered somewhere in Arabia to the north-north-east). This means leaving it with the erasures and distortions fully embedded. This is because the dominant version of modern Pan-Africanism conceptualizes its task as one of building from scratch. The past does not matter at all, and the present matters only as the place where the future is being planned.
On the other hand, the language has been allowed to grow variously, based on needs and circumstances. In the case of Tanzania, for example, it was part of the inheritance of the German colonial erasure that became useful in the Basil Davidson description.
This is a problem of legitimacy. Cultures, and the languages they produce, have owners. It is these owners that should hold the ultimate right to curate the direction in which their language goes, because they have the original, and greatest stake in it. Between the governments of Tanzania, Zanzibar and Kenya, on top of the respective language institutes in those countries, it is unclear who has the ultimate say over matters of vocabulary, syntax and general linguistic development. What is clear is that any or all of those centres carry a bigger voice than the indigenous Bantu people of the East African coast who birthed the language.
The problem is larger than one might think. State-owned Kiswahili (which is the Kiswahili formally taught in schools) tends to be quite relaxed on the question of organic growth. It is common for English and other language words to be simply dropped, as if through a trapdoor, into the language. For example, doctor is rendered “daktari”, clinic “kliniki”, and picture “picha”. This happens in many languages to some extent. But with Kiswahili, it seems to be almost a matter of policy, because this is done even in cases were a native word already exists, or could be organically created from the existing vocabulary. And this is only complicated by the reality of the differences in dialect among the various coastal peoples anyway. In short, it is not one authentic Kiswahili that is being ignored and distorted, but several of them.
State-owned Kiswahili tends to be quite relaxed on the question of organic growth.
The immediate effect is to place a larger than usual memory burden on the learner or speaker, as there is no organic source within the language for those nouns. In Luganda, for example, the word for clinic or hospital is taken from the verb to be ill. This is the rule for a large number of words and it makes it much easier to recognize or recall the word, or even to develop other words, especially adjectives, around it.
What word, then, will be used in Uganda? And will the state setting the Kiswahili exams be willing to make an accommodation, or insist on language orthodoxy, such as it is?
The purpose of any valid Africanist exercise would be to build up the African identity, but this can only work if understood as a task of recovery, as opposed to reinvention.
To restore an original building, one needs the original bricks. And then to repair them individually before rebuilding.
As one remnant of a wider family of remnant languages coming out of one wider language, Kiswahili is just one such brick. The problem is that the modern pan-Africanist Kiswahili advocates believe it, or just intend to make it, to be a whole wall.
Which also leads to the economic question: Beyond the 50 or so Kenyan cents my Tanzanian friend and I gave to street kid, how did our common ability to speak in Kiswahili help him? And to what extent had the idea of new protections from the state helped erode the viability of the family-level cultural institution that failed him? How much Kiswahili spoken by the Maasai Tanzanians of Loliondo will become enough for their right to reclaim the land they have just been evicted from by the Tanzanian state in order to make way for Middle Eastern Big Game-hunting corporations?
What are the risks that may come with making African cultures less internally culturally cohesive and more dependent on citizen protections backed ultimately by a former colonial state? And are they indeed seen as risks?
Kiswahili is not unique in carrying the erasure and distortion that have come to it through the events of time and circumstance. Many languages, especially those at the receiving end of colonial, or genocide-extermination, or genocide-assimilation experiences, have gone through the same.
But the problem is this: Kiswahili is being promoted as a meta-language, rising above other Bantu (and even wider African) languages. In reality, it is just another Bantu language, with its own particular history of external impacts and distortions. It is part of a whole, coming with its own particular missing parts. A convenient means, first for the establishment of the coastal slave plantations and trade, and later for the European explorer missions — the human resource required to mobilize a trade or exploration caravan inland would have recruited from a lot of the people found along the coast.
Kiswahili is not unique in carrying the erasure and distortion that have come to it through the events of time and circumstance.
I think we have seen enough to be able to recognize that Bantu languages are all parts of a missing whole.
This is the central point made by Cheikh Anta Diop, when he speaks of the cultural unity of Black Africa. This is the difference between a word being borrowed, as has happened with Kiswahili Arab and state use, and a word being inherited. And also therefore, the difference between a whole language being borrowed, as the post-colonial states have done and seek to further do, and inherited, as post-Egyptian languages seem to have done.
In summary, instead of seeking to repair and develop all the bricks of their gaps and erasure so as to rebuild the wall of the original African meta-language, the advocates of Kiswahili seek to pick out one of the incomplete bricks and impose it, with its specific defects, on the speakers of all the other languages. It is an act of double-erasure.
Swahili needs to address its own historical identity crisis as part of the process of African cultures everywhere also addressing their own setbacks.