Kiswahili, a dying language

The saying that Kiswahili was born in Tanzania, got sick in Kenya—died and was buried in Uganda is slowly beginning to hold water. 

The saying that Kiswahili was born in Tanzania, got sick in Kenya—died and was buried in Uganda is slowly beginning to hold water.

When you move across the East African region, you will be shocked by the way the language is slowly dying.

In Tanzania where Swahili is still comparatively strong—there are signs that the youth are more inclined to speak English. Why?

“Tanzanian parents have changed, they send their sons and daughters to secondary school in Kenya and Uganda. They have realised the importance of mastering English, as compared to Kiswahili”, remarks Emmanuel Katale, a Kenyan educationist.

The adaptation of English cannot be wholesomely condemned; for, as the young have realised, they cannot compete effectively when they have a language barrier.

Indeed, they could be humiliated. How many international universities use Kiswahili as a language of instruction? A good guess is that there are none.

When you go to Kenya, ‘second biggest user of Kiswahili in the region’ you will be perturbed by what you hear. It is mixture of Kiswahili and English that leaves one failing to understand what language the people in that country use, exactly.

The locals have decided to call it Sheng. This is what may be referred to as pidgin language in other countries.

Kenya has thus adopted another language that should not be called Kiswahili anymore. The learned too, will never speak pure Kiswahili; they mix it with English, even when they are sure that the people being addressed are illiterate.

The illiterate Kenyans however, understand the Sheng and communication is normally successful.

Therefore, in Kenya, one can only trace the ‘remains’ of Kiswahili to Mombasa.

“Only people in Mombasa speak good Kiswahili—the one we call Kiswahili Sanifu,” observes Karen Anyika, a primary teacher in Nairobi.

Ugandan Kiswahili has been historically very poor and no one has bothered to improve it. This probably saves the country from any critics.

Many Ugandans see Kiswahili as a language used by thugs. Some armed thieves and bandits normally have military background, which is why they use Kiswahili when ordering their ‘preys’ to surrender property, themselves or both.

In Rwanda, you will hardly hear people use Kiswahili.
Nevertheless, when you meet some people in Rwanda, they will be speaking either Tanzanian Kiswahili or the funniest of all—the one from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

My worry is that the failure of the East African Community to have a common language will be its greatest undoing in future. Much as we expect to use English, we shall have a big portion of our people left behind.

As a matter of fact, the illiterate and semi-illiterate, form the biggest proportion of our businesspersons. They are not likely to study English—a thing that will greatly hold back business transactions in the region.

There is, therefore, a great need to start teaching our people Kiswahili so that we have one common language in the region. Even the illiterates would find themselves using Kiswahili with relatively less struggle as compared to English.

It would be very disappointing if a businessperson in Kigali went to Mombasa and failed to communicate with a potential business partner in the next century. This has always happened before.

“I am lucky that I am with you today, for you will help me negotiate prices in this busy town of Mombasa,” Jackson Musonera, a Rwandan businessperson told me recently when I was in Mombasa.

You cannot imagine what businesspersons go through in their own region. Commercial transactions like any other communications are two way.

Let us stop Kiswahili from dying!

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