There are those times when you are with someone and they remember a burning question that they had always wanted to ask you. Noting that the levels of comfort are sufficient the question is popped. Often times, the question comes with a disclaimer to cushion any likely inconveniences to the person who is expected to have an answer.
If you are a soldier, the question maybe something like, “But sir don’t you feel any fear when you are going to shoot someone?” In other cases it could be something that you are linked to that happened in the recent past. As far as East Africa is concerned, such questions love to linger around regional stereotypes or perceptions.
We have all heard the joke “For EAC to work, Tanzanians should learn English, Ugandans should learn Swahili and Kenyans should learn manners.” Much as it something we laugh at, when the laughter goes down it can return as a genuine question like I faced recently.
Last week I entertained a friend from Nairobi who was in Kigali to follow up on some business connections. While sharing a drink with this interesting character who kept saying he missed the days he worked in Ishaka, Uganda he popped the tricky question. Tilting towards me and with a concerned face, he went, “but Allan, explain this to me, how come Ugandans do not speak Swahili?”
It is a question that many Ugandans who interact with other East Africans often have to respond to. I do not think I have a comprehensive answer to that question but it touches on the dominance of Luganda language, the perception that Swahili is a language for the army also one used for violence plus a general laxity to teach the language and allow it to prosper.
In my family, the only fluent Swahili speaker I remember was my late uncle who spent about seven years working for the then East African Ports and Harbours based in Dar es Salaam. And even then I was only told that he did without hearing him speaking since the rest of us did not know the language so he had no reason to speak to us using it.
However, as one fascinated by socio-linguistics I am have spent time trying to observe how the language is fairing in Uganda. In this day and age, the only Swahili speakers you will come across in Uganda are the business people and even they only use what I would call functional Kiswahili that is just good enough to seal a deal and get around.
The other day when President Museveni was giving his State of The Nation Address he also hinted on this when he said, Ugandans refused to learn Swahili. Museveni was lucky to study and spend more years in Tanzania and learn Swahili and so he is not your average Ugandan Swahili speaker.
To further understand this special Ugandan language deficiency, I recently bought a book titled, “Swahili State and Society” The Political Economy of an African Language by Prof. Ali Mazrui and Prof. Alamin Mazrui (Interesting names there). It is a very captivating book and once I am done with it I will write something about the things I would have picked from therein.
Going back to lifelong questions, many Rwandans or those who have lived in Rwanda often find themselves in situations where they have to break down what the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi was all about. The questions are often in a very blunt and disturbing format with folks asking you who is Tutsi or who is Hutu, who was killing and who was being killed and some even dare you to look around and tell them if the person you see is Hutu or Tutsi.
If you are Kenyan you can expect to be asked by an outsider whether you are a Kikuyu or a Luo. And you may also be expected to have an opinion on the activities of Raila Odinga or Uhuru Kenyatta even if politics is not one of your pastimes.
If you are from South Sudan your colleague may expect you to have a good answer to questions like why are your leaders fighting against each other. All this is just prove that the process of learning about each other is a lifelong one and we should not hesitate to give the lessons if we have the knowledge.