Going global would assure Kiswahili’s eminent status

PHOTO | GIDEON MAUNDU Students from Kaya Tiwi High School peruse a copy of the Kiswahili sports newspaper Mwanaspoti.

What you need to know:

  • Interest shown in the language by Internet giants like Amazon and Google should secure its future

In 2004, Kiswahili made history by becoming the first African language to be recognised as an official African Union (AU) language.

The then AU chairman and Mozambique President, Mr Joaquim Chissano delivered more than a third of his speech in Kiswahili. Spoken by slightly over 120 million people across the world, and with over 150 universities teaching it in USA alone, Kiswahili has proven to be one of the golden languages of Africa whose reach extends both to the West and the East.

Since the publishing of the first Kiswahili play, Nakupenda Lakini by Henry Kuria, a lot of Kiswahili literature targeting adults and children, research works and articles on various disciplines have made it to the market.

The need to tap into this growth and the desire to have Kiswahili spread its wings farther afield has led to the rise of professional bodies such as The Kiswahili Cross Border Language Commission, set up by Academy of African Languages under the auspices of the African Union; Chama cha Kiswahili cha Taifa and Chama cha Wanafunzi wa Kiswahili Vyuo Vikuu Afrika Mashariki.

Translation has proved to be one of the most reliable and apt medium of developing and spreading literature across the world. In fact, the Bible represents the best example of how translations not only spread language but also culture.

Since the 1980s, many popular titles have been translated in an attempt to capture the Kiswahili market. However, the marketing carried out by publishing houses is not enough. Instead, the solution to popularising these many translated versions will rely heavily on the adoption of an eMarket.

The eMarket provides an unlimited audience forum that if utilised for Kiswahili literary and academic materials would open them up to many eager readers across the globe.

Amazon, Google Books and eKitabu have shown interest in uploading Kiswahili books onto their hubs. Even closer home, Swahili Hub an initiative by the Nation Media Group, offers a forum to access, read, interact and discuss matters Kiswahili.

The greatest challenge to Kiswahili’s full growth has been our behavioural and scholarly environment that appreciates literature only delivered in English and other foreign languages. It is not clear why some Kenyans claim to understand more French than Kiswahili yet majority have gone through our education system under which Kiswahili is a compulsory subject both in primary and secondary school.

Electronic media has also hampered the growth of the language as it continues to promote programmes replete with sheng. This not only cannibalises language development but also influences students and graduate, some who may have scored good grades but lack the requisite language skills to impress a job interview panel.

Recently, Aljazeera, BBC and CCTV have channelled their financial and human resource muscles to grab a chunk of Kiswahili audiences in East Africa, which gives us a great opportunity to popularise the language through international media.

With plans to have Kiswahili join six prominent languages as a working language of the United Nations already underway, the language has a promising future.

Writer is director, Sanaa Yetu Creatives, and a publishing consultant