In the novel “Things Fall Apart” by the celebrated Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, there is that memorable line where the narrator in the book observes that, among the Igbo, “proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.” I have often thought the same might be said of the Swahili, as indeed many Africans might agree with the narrator on the prized role of proverbs in the art of conversation in their own cultures. Speaking of Kiswahili, however, it is the richness of its idiom and sheer beauty of its poetry, including as recited or sang in taarab music, that many lovers of the language find it so intoxicating to savour. But its beauty is one thing. The language is also versatile and adaptable, as the more than 200 million of its speakers across the continent and outside it demonstrates. It is one of the worlds 10 most widely spoken languages. Two weeks ago, on 7th July, World Kiswahili Language Day was celebrated for the first time, making it the only African language to be thus honoured by the United Nations. Among its feted attributes is “the role the Kiswahili language plays in promoting cultural diversity, creating awareness and fostering dialogue among civilisations.” One gets a practical sense of these attributes when one considers, for example, that it is being taught in more than 100 universities, colleges and schools in the United States. Consider also that it is spoken in Oman and Yemen in the Middle East. And, in the continent, Swahili has been introduced in schools in South Africa and Botswana and is reportedly being considered by other Southern African countries. All told, the UN says, the language is spoken in more than 14 countries, including countries in the East African Community. This year also marks the date when, in February, Kiswahili was adopted by the African Union as an official working language, in addition to Arabic, English, French, Portuguese and Spanish. The adoption is part of the long-held ambition to make Swahili the continent’s lingua franca, a push that began in the 1960s when Tanzania’s first president Mwalimu Julius Nyerere began lobbying to make it pan-African. The AU owning the language therefore makes for a significant step. But there is still some way to go before it can be spoken in every corner of the continent. Standing in its way, as experts point out, is the dominance of European languages in daily discourse and official conduct of doing business in most of the African countries. Currently, according to the UN, English is the official or second language in 27 out of the 54 countries in the continent, and French is the official language in 21 of them. The rest of the countries either use Arabic or Portuguese and Spanish. Observers also note how West African languages such as Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba merit the status of lingua franca, being too widely spoken in the region to easily dislodge. Yoruba, for instance, is estimated to have about 50 million native speakers and about two million second-language speakers. Yet as these numbers show, they can only be a hurdle in the spread of Swahili, bolstered especially by African Union’s recognition as an official language. And, if history has any lesson, free trade might be among the major routes the language could arrive in countries across the continent. From its origin on the East African coast, Kiswahili was first spread by Arab traders into the hinterland to the vastness of the Congo before becoming entrenched as the language of cross-border small businesses. Thus just like the old trade routes spread the language, so could traders be its vanguard as the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) takes root following its operationalisation last year. It is obvious to say that people across the continent will require a common way to communicate and conduct business. And, with more than 200 million cross-regional speakers, Kiswahili is already a natural fit. Remember that it is a Bantu language, and therefore easy to pick by the Bantu-speaking people in West Africa through East and Central regions where they are the main language group all the way to Southern Africa. The language is also estimated to be 40 per cent Arabic, making it easier to adopt in countries in North Africa and other Arabic-speaking countries. The rest, as experts acknowledge, is political will and funding in terms of raising awareness and teaching in schools and colleges, and the language could realise its continental ambition. These the African Union could mobilise with the local support of its member states.