Why creation of Kiswahili council will take forever

Kimani Njogu

Prof Kimani Njogu, a renowned Kenyan scholar, crusader for African languages and culture.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Kenya has been relying on Tanzania in standardisation of Kiswahili words.
  • Despite approval from the Cabinet, ministry reluctant to create crucial council.

Article 7 of the Constitution of Kenya is clear that Kiswahili and English are co-official languages. Kiswahili is also recognized as the national language. Under the same article, the state is required to promote and protect the linguistic diversity of the people of Kenya.

The state is also required to promote the development and use of indigenous languages, Kenya Sign Language (KSL), braille and other communication formats and technologies accessible to persons with disabilities.

Since the Constitution’s promulgation in 2010, the implementation of these provisions has not been smooth. The process has either been erratic, uncoordinated and or stalled altogether. All these are clear indicators that language matters in Kenya are not being given the attention they deserve.

In 2014, for example, the Cabinet approved the establishment of the National Kiswahili Council to inform government policy on developing, protecting and supporting the language. The proposal was approved when President Uhuru Kenyatta chaired the third Cabinet meeting at State house.

The establishment of the Baraza la Kiswahili la Taifa (National Kiswahili Council) is in line with Article 137 of the East African Community Treaty – which provides that Kiswahili shall be promoted, developed and used as a Lingua franca of the community.

‘New’ Kiswahili lexicon

Although other members of the East African Community such as Tanzania and Uganda have made tremendous progress in establishing this body – with Tanzania leading the pack; having established Baraza la Kiswahili la Tanzania (BAKITA) as early as 1967, Kenya seems to be either struggling or arguably unwilling to establish such a body.

For over five decades, Kenya has been relying on Tanzania’s BAKITA in the standardisation of ‘new’ Kiswahili lexicon. Recently, for example, BAKITA, which is domiciled in the Ministry of Information, Culture, Arts and Sports of Tanzania, released a list of standardised lexicon or terminologies that have been adopted in communicating about Covid-19 pandemic, which is ravaging the world in scales never witnessed before in the recent human history.

It is puzzling that Kenya cannot enthusiastically enact issues about language and culture which are clearly captured in the Constitution. Prof Kimani Njogu, a renowned Kenyan scholar, crusader for African languages and culture observes: “Sadly, despite much work done towards developing the Languages of Kenya and Policy Bill, little progress has been made in giving life to the constitutional provisions.”

One would ask why it is taking almost eternity for Kenya to come up with such an important body as the National Kiswahili Council. Prof Njogu says that The languages of Kenya Policy and Bill were initially drafted at the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Arts. They were then transferred to the Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology.

Prof Njogu adds: “In the initial stages, language advocates believed that the shift would help speed up the legislative process. This, however was not to be. The East African Kiswahili Commission is already operational but Kenya is still unable to set up a National Kiswahili Council.”

East African Kiswahili Commission

Former Executive Secretary, East African Kiswahili Commission based in Arusha, Tanzania, Prof Inyani Simala, is of the opinion that the delay or rather inability by Kenya to form a National Kiswahili Council is due to legislation gaps. While the Constitution of Kenya may pass as being innovative in language rights in general and Kiswahili rights in particular, Section 7 of Chapter 2 is a classic example of what a vague law can do as it is not sufficiently concrete to derive any guidance as to desirable means of implementation.

“The provision does not include enforceable rights. The existing lacuna and implementation gap make it a soft law instrument than a binding source of law. This may account for lack of initiatives on individuals, groups of people, institutions and even the Government, for they do not have to fear legal consequences,” Prof Simala argues.

“This leads us to wonder whether the constitutional promise is a mirage or mere symbolic claims to language rights,” he says.

Despite the gaps in the law pointed out by, Prof Simala, he says that all is not lost.

“However, read with other provisions, Section 7 has the potential for far-reaching implications, especially on policy, planning and practice of the language. These three aspects are critically important for scholars to delve into in their researches, conferences, symposia, colloquia and publications and offer deep critical analysis and important insights into the implementation challenges,” Prof Simala advices.

Both Profs Kimani Njogu and Inyani Simala, however, agree that matters of language policy in any country that be, entail both political and legislative processes. Therefore, a multipronged approach should be employed to jumpstart the process to ensure that the National Kiswahili Council is eventually established, or to fast-track it – incase it is taking longer than envisaged constitutionally to make it come to fruition and operational. 

Enock Matundura, the translator of Moses series (Oxford University Press), teaches Kiswahili literature at Chuka University. [email protected]


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