In the expanded East Africa, that spans from the shores of Lake Tanganyika in the west, to the beaches of the Indian Ocean in the east, to Lake Malawi in the south up to Lake Turkana in the North, it is difficult to find one thing that threads its people beyond their cherished desire of common economic gain.
Yet it slaps you right in the face, everywhere you go, in a language that is said to have been born in Zanzibar, grew up in Tanzania, fell sick in Kenya, died in Uganda and was buried in Congo.
That opinion may be well shared by the connoisseurs of the Kiswahili Sanifu, the standard version of Swahili, but the basic truth is that the evolution of arguably the most popular African language, not its preservation, is worth taking notice.
The Swahili language originates from of Bantu languages but has borrowed words from Arabic, German, Portuguese, Indian, English and French.
It emerged around the 9th century as a result of interaction between Arab and Persian traders and coastal communities on the East African coast and later spread with the movement of trade into the hinterland.
Scholars attribute the Swahili culture and language to the intercourse of African and Asiatic people on the coast of East Africa.
The word “Swahili” was used by early Arab visitors to the coast and it means “the coast”. Ultimately it came to be applied to the people and the language.
Swahili is spoken in Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi, Rwanda and Burundi, Somalia, and the Comoro Islands.
According to the University of Virginia’s Swahili website, Eastern Africa is the cradle of Swahili but from the rate at which Swahili language web is spreading, soon Swahili may be recognized as one of the leading languages in the world.
If Zanzibaris are the proud owners of Swahili, Tanzanians (or mainland Tanganyikans) have done a good job at trying to keep up with their tiny islander neighbors.
Kenyans have bred a rabid animal out of it called Sheng, Ugandans for the most except the dominantly Luo communities have miserably failed in denying the language’s influence while the Rwandese and Burundians, with the inventive assistance of the Congolese have made the best commercial sense out of it.
In Tanzania, where Swahili has effectively produced a generation ignorant of their mother tongues, the words roll of the tongue with the ferocity of a man stung by a bee.
Tanzanians seem eager to talk and while at it, manage to leave the impression that they are always in a hurry to finish their sentences.
They cloth their sentences in rhymes better left to poetry and end up sounding pleasantly delirious about all their conversation.
Kenyans on the other hand, cut up full words replacing them with corrupted versions of words from English and any local language, from popular adverts, to result into a beautiful amorphous mess of human communication called Sheng. It changes every day.
For parents, learning is the best way to keep tabs on your teenage children lest you got insulted right in your face with a devious smile. Sheng is not only a language.
It is also a viral youth movement tapped by corporate advertisers, politicians and collectors of the art of the spoken and written word.
Meanwhile, Ugandans love-hate affair with Swahili, from the language of robbers, is legendary just as the dialect spoken by armed forces is a potential provocation of hysterical laughing.
Ugandans have never forgiven the language, widely popularized by Wakombozi, Tanzanian forces that aided the removal of Idi Amin from power and momentarily exploited the anarchy to commit crimes especially in Bantu dominated central region. Because of the influence of former soldiers, the language has established stronghold in the Nilotic communities and can only be challenged in popularity by Luganda.
Now sandwiched between Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda especially in the sense that Kampala could slowly become the central most point of confluence of East Africans, it is simply a mater of time before Swahili becomes the language of commerce in Uganda.
In Rwanda, Swahili remains an important commercial language, after Kinya-rwanda in the markets and among the ordinary people.
The Swahili is light on the tongue, the heaviness of the language replaced by the lightless of Bantu pronunciation, such that Njaa (hunger) becomes Njala and Vitu (things) becomes Bitu, closer to the Uganda version of Bintu.
The Burundians instead accept Swahili much more readily perhaps due to the heavy Congolese and French influence.
Close to half of the Swahili words are actually French words. Like the Rwandans, the w’s as in watu (people) have all been replaced by lightly pronounce b’s, (batu). The j’s as in kuja (come) have basically disappeared and left y’s to take their place.
Swahili is widely spoken in Eastern Congo and according to online Encyclopedia Wikipedia, is soon to rival Lingala as the most important national language in DR Congo.
Today Swahili is not only the official language in Tanzania, the national language in Kenya but is the language of choice for most East African musicians and informal business people.
It is also used by the BBC, Voice of America, Radio Deutschewelle, Radio Moscow International, Radio Japan International, and Radio China International among others.
So to say, Swahili is the bonafide lingua franca of East Africa.