Uganda’s big gamble in adopting Kiswahili

Kiswahili enthusiasts during a march to promote Kiswahili language.

Swahili enthusiasts at the National Museum of Kenya on July 7, 2022 during a march aimed at creating awareness on Kiswahili ; being the first officially recognised African language by Unesco.

Photo credit: Dana Ngila I Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • With about 200 million speakers, Kiswahili is the most commonly spoken African language.
  • In the July 5 cabinet decision, Uganda adopted Kiswahili as one of its official languages, made it a compulsory subject in primary schools.

Kiswahili, for the first time, will be a compulsory subject in Ugandan primary schools, following a recent cabinet decision, but it is far from becoming a widely spoken and loved language in the country, experts say.

With about 200 million speakers, Kiswahili is the most commonly spoken African language, used in nearly every country in the East African Community and is one of the bloc’s official languages, but few people in Uganda use it.

Experts in academia and the media and officials from the government who gathered virtually on Thursday said Uganda’s revamped efforts to make Kiswahili among its lingua francas will not be an easy ride, as a series of challenges may impede the process.

In a Twitter Space discussion organised by Nation.Africa, the pundits said the challenges range from a long history of hatred for the language in Uganda to insufficient resources that make the learning of the language difficult. 

Julius Baluku, a lecturer of Kiswahili at Kyambogo University in Kampala, said Ugandans’ negative attitude towards the language is rooted in the history of its use by oppressive military and security forces in the early 1980s, causing them to associate it with cruelty and crime.

Rogue soldiers who manned roadblocks on major highways broke into people’s homes and farms and robbed civilians, indiscriminately opening fire on those who dared to resist, while taking instructions from their Swahili-speaking commanders.

Many Ugandans, especially the elderly, still nurse this trauma, like 65-year-old Geofrey Sebwato, who says his grandchildren will not be learning the language.

“The military men that made me roll in mud and stole my watch at a roadblock in the 70s spoke Kiswahili. Those that raided my mother’s farm in Luweero and stole her animals spoke Kiswahili, so to me, that is the language of thieves,” he said.

But with the government's concerted efforts, this perception is bound to change, Mr Baluku told the Nation Twitter Space.

“Swahili will no longer be viewed as a language for hooligans and thugs when our children start to speak it freely, and the cabinet’s decision to make it compulsory in primary schools sets a precedent for its growth in Uganda,” he said.

In the July 5 Cabinet decision, Uganda adopted Kiswahili as one of its official languages, made it a compulsory subject in primary schools, and ordered the entire cabinet and legislators to learn the language.

The subject will be examinable at three national levels: primary leaving, Uganda certificate of education and Uganda advanced certificate of education.

Dennis Mugimba, spokesperson for the Ministry of Education, said attempts to make Kiswahili a compulsory subject in schools dates back to 1992, but it had not been adopted on a large scale.

“Making Swahili a compulsory and examinable subject in primary and secondary schools will change the dynamics, because even though it’s been on the syllabus, many schools have not even been including it on the timetable because it was optional,” Mr Mugimba said.

Still not easy

However, educators, especially of the subject, say teaching Kiswahili in Uganda is still not easy. Ednah Asiima, a teacher of Kiswahili, said there is a shortage of instruction materials and teachers for the subject.

Mr Mugimba cited low uptake of Kiswahili as a subject in secondary schools, which translated into a low demand for Kiswahili teachers, but he added this is changing as the ministry had hired at least 1,000 more teachers at the end of last year.

But Kiswahili’s woes in Uganda are not just in classrooms and schools. The experts said some people might be reluctant to embrace it on worries that it may change their cultural heritage and substitute local languages.

“Why are we promoting this? Anyone can go to China and do business transactions without learning Chinese,” said Kyewalabye Male, minister of Culture in the Buganda Kingdom.

He said introducing Kiswahili too early in children’s education may interfere with their learning of their indigenous languages.

“Because of the stigma against Swahili speakers and its impact on other local languages that are also on the curriculum, I don’t think the government should have made it compulsory in schools,” said Mr Kyewalabye, who is also the minister for the Luganda language, the most spoken local language in Uganda.

The push to have Kiswahili intensified in 2005 when it was proposed as Uganda’s second national language but was never ratified by Parliament.

Since the country attained independence in 1962, English has been its only official language, supplemented by more than 52 other indigenous ones— including ganda, Runyankore and Lusoga. 

Some observers also say that Uganda might follow in the footsteps of its neighbour, Kenya, where, even though Kiswahili has been the national language since 1964 and official language since 2010, most government business is conducted in English and very few can speak it fluently.

Political goodwill

“Kenya lacks the political goodwill to advance the use of Kiswahili in government business, but Uganda appears to have the will,” said Nuhu Bakari, a modern Kiswahili expert and journalist.

Kiswahili originated in the coastal areas of Kenya and Tanzania, having erupted from the mingling of Arabian traders and the Bantu inhabiting these regions around the 18th century.

In 2021, the United Nations cultural organisation Unesco designated July 7 as World Kiswahili Language Day, making it the first African language to receive such recognition from the agency.

Nonetheless, Kiswahili speaking seems to be concentrated just within East Africa, although it is taught in some of the world’s leading universities such as Harvard and some South African schools.

“For Swahili to spread to northern and western Africa as well, we must have it taught in their universities first,” Mr Baluku said.

Said Enock Matundura, a lecturer of the Kiswahili language at Chuka University in Central Kenya: “In the search for an African lingua franca, Kiswahili tops the list, because it is by far the most spoken African language. To develop, we must embrace our own languages.”

In East Africa, Kiswahili is widely spoken in Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi, and a dialect of it is spoken in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In Tanzania, it is the language of administration and primary education. Burundi made Kiswahili a compulsory subject from primary school in 2007, while Rwanda adopted it as an official language in 2017.

It is also spoken by some people in southern Somalia, Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, the Comoros Islands and South Sudan.

Additional report by Nelson Naturinda.




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