Kiswahili has been fronted as the language of identity within the East African Community (EAC), with key symbols of intergration like the bloc’s anthem in the language.
A fusion of Bantu languages and Arabic which emerged as a communication tool between Arab traders and the locals, Kiswahili is widely spoken in eastern and central Africa.
It is the official language in Tanzania and is officially recognised in Kenya.
It is also used as a medium of communication in major urban centres in Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda.
Kiswahili plays an increasingly vital role in the daily commercial, political, cultural and social life of the region at every level.
For Rwanda , having joined the EAC in 2007, interest in Kiswahili was touted but never implemented.
This has posed a challenged especially while communicating with other members of the EAC.
Emmanuel Bararutanwa is a truck driver who plies regularly the port cities of Dar es Salaam and Mombasa.
Ever since he started the business, communication has been a great challenge.
“It is very difficult to communicate when I am there. The people I need to talk to speak either Kiswahili or English and I know neither language. When I am there, I at times resort to using gestures which are unreliable, especially when conducting business,” says Bararutanwa.
Bararutanwa, 28, says the problem has been common among his colleagues and expresses the need for the government to promote Kiswahili e to help Rwandans enjoy more the benefits that come with being members of the bloc.
“There is need to promote Kiswahili, be it in schools or any other informal way where Rwandans can have at least basic knowledge on it,” he says.
Bonaventure Nkurunziza, a lecturer of languages at National University of Rwanda, concurs with Bararutanwa, saying Kiswahili needs to be promoted.
“It should be taught in schools from primary up to secondary. It is not clear how we are part of the EAC and still fail to promote the language.”
Nkurunziza, also a former Kiswahili teacher in secondary school, said it is still a challenge for Rwandans to understand the significance of the language.
“There is need to make Kiswahili compulsory.”
Prof. Pacifique Malonga, an expert in African languages says Rwandans have been held back by the thought that Kinyarwanda was enough and therefore never had an interest in learning other languages.
“We need to come out of this cultural bondage and understand that we are in the EAC, where millions speak Kiswahili. Not many people in Tanzania will understand you when you speak English,” said Malonga.
He advised Rwandans to learn Kiswahili and called upon those who know the language to teach others. “This should be a national concern,” Malonga added
Ministry of Education officials say they added the language to the curricula.
According to Augustin Gatera, the Director of Curriculum Production Materials Department in Mineduc, they have bought and distributed Kiswahili textbooks, enriched the curriculum and teachers are being trained on teaching Kiswahili in more than 200 schools.
Officials are also encouraging teachers as well as students not to ignore the significance of Kiswahili.
“Nobody can underestimate the role of Kiswahili in Rwanda as well as in the EAC. Our children and the population need to explore the opportunities that come with integration and this language is a major tool,” Gatera said.
There are no statistics on how many people speak or use Kiswahili in the country.
According to Flavia Salafina, the Director of Information, Education, and Communication Unit in the Ministry of East African Community Affairs, a new EAC commission, dubbed Kiswahili Commission, will soonbe created and will be in charge of studying how Kiswahili can be well taught and used in EAC.
“The fact that Rwanda is part of the EAC means that Rwandans should speak Kiswahili. The new commission will be in charge of how Kiswahili should be taught and used in the entire EAC,” said Salafina.
The commission will be based in Zanzibar.
“What we are doing is to encourage people to know the significance of the language and learn not only Kiswahili but also other languages,” she said, urging Mineduc to strengthen Kiswahili teaching in schools as they do with other subjects,” she added.