‘Saba Saba’ Kiswahili World Day a Thanksgiving present for me 

Mwalimu Julius Nyerere

Tanzania's founding President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • In Kenya, “saba saba”, reminds those of us of the daring rally at Kamukunji on July 7, 1990, a landmark in the struggle for the opening up of democratic space. 
  • Ugandans, on the other hand, associate “saba saba” (seven-seven) with the calibre of the favourite field gun of the Tanzanian forces that helped them get rid of Idi Amin.

Last Thursday, November 25, was Thanksgiving Day, and I was determined to observe it decorously, as I have been doing for many years now. Most people recognise Thanksgiving as an American annual festival celebrated on the last Thursday of November. I, like many other East Africans, honour it for two main reasons.

The first is my American family, whose festivities I cannot fail to join, especially in these days of the veritable “global village”. 

Secondly, I firmly believe that every opportunity for an individual or a society to step back and be grateful or thankful for their existence should be embraced. “Kila siku tuwe na shukrani (Let us be thankful every day),” as the final line of Kenya’s National Anthem has it.

Still, one is often hard put to find cause for unreserved thankful celebration, especially in these days when even the security of our planet and the survival of our species have question marks hanging over them. 

It takes an unquenchable optimism or the advent of a dearly cherished dream to make the heart wax warm with satisfaction, as mine did on the eve of Thanksgiving earlier this week. This is when UNESCO, the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organisation, officially declared that July 7 of each year will be Kiswahili World Day.

I first got the news from our sister and eminent Kiswahili author, Mwalimu Pauline Kea Kyovi, of Kigogo and Kipendacho Roho fame. Then I saw it on the UoN website. 

The news was spreading like a wildfire that Kiswahili had become the first African language to be recognised by the United United Nations as a vehicle of international communication.

My Thanksgiving celebrations started in a truly high gear. Those who know me and my passions can already guess at the reasons for my elation, but there were also a few gems of surprise for me in the UNESCO declaration that made it even sweeter than the global honour. 

That designation of July 7, for example, as the Kiswahili World Day, struck me with a peculiar significance. The 7th of the seventh month was always “Saba Saba”, and when we were growing up in Tanzania, it was observed as a holiday, marking the founding of TANU, the Tanganyika African National Union. That was the party that led the mainland to independence, under Mwalimu Nyerere, before merging with the Afro-Shirazi Party of Zanzibar to form the Chama cha Mapinduzi(CCM), the current ruling party in the United Republic of Tanzania.

In Kenya, “saba saba”, referring to the same day of the month, has a different significance. It reminds those of us who were there of the daring rally at Kamukunji on July 7, 1990, which was a landmark in the struggle for the opening up of democratic space during the Second Republic. 

Ugandans, on the other hand, associate “saba saba” (seven-seven) with the calibre of the favourite field gun of the Tanzanian forces that helped them get rid of Idi Amin.

Back to me, do you remember my predicting to you that this year, the 77th of my life, might bring me a special surprise? I think this is it. I can hardly think of a development that would give me more satisfaction than this unique recognition of our language, Kiswahili, for which I have raucously advocated most of my working life, often in the face of indifference, ridicule, even hostility.

Even more recently, at the virtual CHAKAMA (East African Kiswahili Society) seminar that I addressed, I suggested that Kiswahili was already a continental and international language and would become increasingly so. “Chema chajiuza (a good thing sells itself)”, and Kiswahili is a good thing. 

It feels good to be proved right in one’s opinion, as the UNESCO declaration has done for me.

More importantly, however, I also told my CHAKAMA seminar participants that the growing prominence of Kiswahili places a heavy responsibility on us at the centre of Kiswahili origins and development. We have to carry out this responsibility with dedication, diligence and humility. 

Simply celebrating and rejoicing at the international recognition of our language would be meaningless.

As we prepare for the celebration of the first World Kiswahili Day next July, I suggest that we put in place a number of practical measures to demonstrate to the world that Kiswahili deserves the high status accorded to it. 

The first is a firm and genuine respect for and commitment to Kiswahili as our national and official language. We in Uganda and Kenya, especially, should avoid what Nyerere called kasumba ya ukoloni (colonial brainwashing and hangover), assuming that English, and not Kiswahili, is the only language fit for serious business.

Secondly, we should research, organise and systematically disseminate all the Kiswahili language resources available in our countries. 

We should also strive to produce more and more Kiswahili literary and linguistic works. Here we are talking of resources in and through the whole rich spectrum of communication media, ranging from basic oracy and orature through hard print to electronic and digital technology.

Finally, we should have a vanguard of personnel to spearhead the spread and promotion of Kiswahili. This is where the educational institutions and professional Kiswahili societies and associations come in. 

East Africa should have a rich pool of knowledgeable, well-trained and highly motivated Kiswahili specialists, ready and willing to carry out the glorious mission of Kiswahili in any corner of the world. We are already challenged to respond adequately to invitations from Kiswahili aspirants in places like Botswana and South Africa.

The world has given Kiswahili the green light. But it is also a challenge (changamoto, as the Waswahili call it) to us “natives” of the language. 

The choice is in our hands, to see it either languish and dwindle, Mungu forbid, or triumph and thrive as it should.

To take liberties with the unforgettable lines of Wallah bin Wallah (Malenga wa Ziwa Kuu): Kiswahili kitukuzwe (let Kiswahili be glorified), kwani lugha ya dunia (for its a language of the world).

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature. [email protected]

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