Abdilatif and Abdulaziz, and Kiswahili’s battle against ‘ukiwa’

Prof Mohamed Abdulaziz in this photo taken on May 19, 2011 in Mombasa.

Prof Mohamed Abdulaziz (right) in this photo taken on May 19, 2021 in Mombasa.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

We start with a little correction. The late Prof Mohamed Abdulaziz was a native of Mombasa City, not of Kilifi County, as I had always assumed, and as I wrote in our conversation last week.

He got his “Mkilifi” nickname from the “Kilifi” neighbourhood of Mombasa, where he originated. I got this educative information from Prof Abdulaziz’s close friend and fellow Mombasan, Prof Abdilatif Abdalla, yes, he the heroic poet of Sauti ya Dhiki. We will be returning to him later.

I was deeply and warmly moved by your perceptive and concerned responses to the two Kiswahili-related events covered in our column last Saturday.

These, as you remember, were the celebration of the International Kiswahili Day and the death of the eminent Linguistics and Kiswahili scholar, my teacher, friend and mentor, Prof Mohamed Hassan Abdulaziz.

I revisit them briefly here in response to a few of the observations, queries and even corrections that arose from your feedback.

Regarding the International Kiswahili Day celebrations, although I focused on Kampala, where the East African Kiswahili Commission led us in the regional maadhimisho (festive observance), I was particularly impressed by the responses from Kenya, including some from our lawmakers and other prominent citizens.

This confirmed to me what I have always felt, that, despite our acceptance of Kiswahili as our national and official language, we are not fully comfortable with the way we practise and implement our acceptance.

The lingering question is: what can we do to ensure that Kiswahili occupies its rightful place as our main language in all our affairs?

I cannot pretend to know everything that should be done to ensure a fully “swahilised” Kenya, or even if all our people wish that that should come to be. The process we are talking about belongs to an area of language called sociolinguistics.

Sociolinguistics, as the name implies, deals with the dynamics of language in relationship to the society or societies in which it is used. The more complex a society is, the more challenging will be its language dynamics.

Because of its history and geography, for example, Kenyan society is bewilderingly multilingual. The last count I heard suggested that some 68 languages are spoken within our borders.

These range from Maa, Somali, Luluhya and Dholuo through Kikamba, Gujarati, Turkana and Gikuyu to English and Kiswahili. Incidentally, avoid referring to Kiswahili or any of our indigenous languages as “dialects” or “vernaculars”.

Although such terms have specific, precise meanings when used by professional linguists, ill-informed supremacists use them disparagingly, as they use terms like “tribe”, to degrade us and our institutions.

Anyway, what is needed most in a multilingual society like Kenya is a realistic language policy, especially through education, that respectfully takes into account all our languages and suggests the contexts in which they are expected to be used.

This is particularly important in view of the United Nations’ stipulation that our first or home languages are a fundamental human right. Against this we should determine the roles of the unifying and globalizing languages, like Kiswahili and English.

Beyond this, three practical steps are required in the promotion of Kiswahili, which is both a unifying and globalising language for us, apart from also being an indigenous language for many of us.

First, we must rid ourselves of the false mentality that Kiswahili is only fit for simple and informal contexts and should be excluded from “important” matters, like academics, business, technology, the law or parliamentary debates.

Secondly, we need to establish strong, well-organised and active advocacy and lobbying organisations for Kiswahili. I must confess that I felt a little surprised to hear that Uganda might set up its National Kiswahili Council before Kenya establishes one.

Finally, as many of us proposed in Kampala for all the East African countries, we need to mainstream Kiswahili in all our public institutions and activities. This approach, which I first learnt from the female empowerment struggles, demands that what you are promoting is given prominence and priority (kipaumbele) in all our undertakings.

Whether in churches, mosques, banking halls, courtrooms, lecture theatres or houses of parliament, Kiswahili, as a national language, has the right and the obligation to be used. This would be a sure way of saving it from the ukiwa (desolation) to which our current lip service (or is it disservice) continues to subject it.

This brings me back to Abdilatif Abdalla. The devastating sense of loss, loneliness, abandonment and desolation occasioned by bereavement was brought home to me by a short personal message from our celebrated poet and scholar. Reading my loud lamentations for my teacher, Prof Mohamed Abdulaziz, which also elicited many condolences from you, Abdilatif Abdalla sought me out, to share his own sorrow with me and give me “mkono wa tanzia” (a hand of condolence), as they say in Zanzibar.

Prof Abdilatif Abdalla, who was also a very close friend of our departed teacher, also shared with me a rare picture taken in Byreuth, Germany, with Mwalimu Abdulaziz and two other Kiswahili maestros, the late Sheikh Ahmed Nabhany and Ustadh Ahmad Nassir Bhalo. Commenting on the photo, Abdilatif says tersely, “Wote watatu wamenitangulia. Wameniacha mkiwa (All three have gone before me. They left me alone and desolate).” The word “mkiwa” there struck me with a particular force. “Ukiwa” is a much stronger and devastating state than “upweke” (loneliness).

It reminded me of Ukiwa, the title of the first novel by my Dar es Salaam contemporary and friend, the late Katama Mkangi. “Makiwa”, the exclamation with which we console the bereaved, is obviously derived from this concept of desolation. I also translated Raphael Armattoe’s poem, “The Lonely Soul”, as “Mja Mkiwa”. So, to Sheikh Abdilatif Abdalla, we say, “Makiwa!”

But, as I hinted earlier, we should not subject Kiswahili to “ukiwa” (desolation). Rather, we should ensure that “every day is an international Kiswahili Day”, as Dr Carol Asiimwe, the Executive Secretary of the East African Kiswahili Commission, proposed at the closure of the Kampala celebrations.

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