Before Rwanda and Burundi joined the East African Community (EAC), there was this joke that was doing the rounds at the organisation’s headquarters in Arusha, Tanzania.
What would it take the three original members (Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania) to make the EAC truly successful?
The answer was: “Ugandans should learn Kiswahili, Tanzanians should learn English, while Kenyans should learn manners.”
This simplistic point of view kind of sums up the diversity of East Africa.
Pre-independence Uganda invested heavily in educating its people. King’s College Buddo was regarded with awe; it was the Ugandan equivalent of Eton or Harrow, world famous British public schools for the rich and royalty.
The feudal administrative structure of Uganda and the importance of traditional rulers could have been a major factor in copying their British “cousins” where the educated elite spoke the “Queens’ English”.
Swahili in Uganda was looked down upon. It was the language used in the army, this low-down career choice that was the reserve of the uneducated members of society.
Maj. Gen. Idi Amin Dada, Uganda’s most famous soldier, carried out his coup d’état on January 25, 1971. Since it was too late to get an Oxford degree (or one from Glasgow since he was infatuated with everything Scottish), he hatched up a plan to quell the sniggers behind his uneducated back and cure his inferiority complex.
“The last King of Scotland” decided to accumulate as many military titles and medals that could fit on his barrel-chested self: He would henceforth be addressed as Al Hajj, Field Marshal Dr Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Conqueror of the British Empire (CBE) and Commander-in-Chief of the Uganda armed forces.
That would show those pompous guys with their twangy English accents and tailcoats!
Amin’s struggle with English is legendary. The best was that he was “happy and also” (very happy) to be going to London to “undress” (address) the Queen!
He must have raised a royal flush in the House of Windsor with this one. But struggle he did in order to fit into the elite bracket, and Amin’s watchers say his English had improved somewhat by the end of his reign. Kiswahili is now slowly losing its bad boy image on the streets of Kampala.
Economists like to say that Tanzania started on the wrong footing. They are probably right. While the decades of experimenting with the socialist way of life had a heavy toll on the economy and way of life of many citizens, they should be grateful for one thing; Kiswahili.
With a population estimated at 40 million and over 130 ethnic groups, Tanzania would have been an ideal candidate for ethnic strife, but they had Mwalimu Julius Nyerere.
Individual languages and tribes were relegated to the backrooms as Nyerere moulded his people into one nation and a common denominator; Kiswahili.
English was the biggest loser, but things are now changing in tandem with the economic revival. English has now regained favour with the older nostalgic generation who grew up under the shadows of Kenyan and Ugandan “dons”.
But the young have rekindled the Nyerere spark in promoting Kiswahili. They have made it hip and fashionable to speak the language and should be vindicated that the African Union has adopted it as Africa’s language.
Both Ugandans and Tanzanians have a deep rooted nature of civility and respect. In Uganda the mode of greeting is kneeling They will then go into a litany of asking about the good health of everyone in your household. Even if they know your names, they will address you respectfully as Ssebo (Sir) or Nnyabo (Madam).
In Tanzania it is more a result of their classless socialist past where everyone was equal. When you enter a shop you will be expected to say “I beg (naomba) to buy”, otherwise you might end up leaving the shop empty handed.
Even the household staff is addressed as “Ndugu” or “Kaka” (brother) or “Dada” (sister). Don’t tell that to Kenyans… or Rwandans for that matter.
Kenya has a large educated population and some of the best private schools in Africa modelled after the British public schools. English and Kiswahili are present everywhere and there is even a popular dialect curved fro the two: Sheng. But Kenyans are the worst behaved in the region.
It is the only country I know of where two people standing alone at a bus stop will fight to be the first to enter an empty bus.
This once most stable and prosperous country in the region failed their former colonial masters, the British, famed worldwide for their “gentlemen” label. But why not? Kenya was one of the few African countries to take up arms and fight for their freedom. Their independence was won through blood and tears forcing London to capitulate.
That was the beginning of the Kenyan pride and feeling of invincibility.
“Kenya is no longer a colony!” is a favourite with politicians, a cliché 45 years out of date, but an indication of their rebellious nature. The anarchy on the streets of Nairobi today is not just about disputed election results, but also an extension of this feeling that they can take on authority head on, to hell with good behaviour!
Even Samuel Kivuitu, the chairman of the embattled Kenya Electoral Commission went down the same road when accused by the press that he was setting the country on fire.
“I am Also Kenyan” he retorted. “I will burn with it”. Need one say more?
And what of Rwanda and Burundi’s needs to fit into the EAC? That is another story.