The Case For Kiswahili As Africa’s Lingua Franca

‘When they want to bring down a people, an old trick they all employ When they want to destroy a people, it’s the people’s culture they first destroy… This was planned and well-orchestrated by men with other interests in mind From behind, they manipulated a total cultural decline… We never interfere with their culture, their religion still intact But they pounce on we like a vulture, with an underhanded attack!..’. – The Mighty Duke88, Don’t Destroy Calypso Music (song)

I have never made a secret of being a Pan-Africanist; in fact I’m sure I was a Pan-Africanist even before I knew what that meant. And there are few things that excite pan-Africanists like myself than the possibility of a lingua franca for our continent. It doesn’t matter if not every single country participates (political realism makes that almost an impossibility) but if the majority of countries were to adopt a single language as the representative language of the ‘Black’ continent, that would be a day of glory; a social-political landmark in modern Africa. Understand first that the current national boundaries are largely the legacy of European colonialism and make little sense to the African. Since there was a ‘scramble for Africa’, European powers divided the continent amongst themselves almost like a cake being shared amongst party guests. Their crooked, criss-crossing, demarcation lines paid little concern to the homegenity of the land, with the effect that the national boundaries cut through communities, tribal land, grazing sites, animal migration routes, forests and even lakes and rivers89. The people divided by those rugged borders now look at each other as foreigners and even rivals (Ghana and Nigeria are a great example of that) whereas they are historically and genetically very close. Can you honestly tell a football crowd of Ghananians from a football crowd of Nigerians just by watching them? What about Rwandese and Burundians, or Kenyans and Tanzanians? One of the most recognisable East African tribes is the Maasai. They are mainly found in southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. The same people, the same culture, the same language. They are scattered over a wide geographical area because their ancestors were pastrolists and used to travel over vast distances in search of pasture. Today, they would need passports and forex bureaus to traverse their ancestral stomping grounds the way their forbears did. The idea, or complaint, that Africa’s national boundaries are outdated colonial legacies is one that is hotly debated worldwide. For instance, the Associated Press reports that Kenyan novelist and scholar Ngugi wa Thiong’o was one of the keynote speakers at a recent ‘Towards an Africa Without Borders’ conference hosted by the University of Wisconsin. The conference tackled such themes as Pan-Africanism and possible solutions to facilitate a united Africa. Other keynote speakers were US author and scholar Angela Davis and Kenyan historian and author Maina wa Kinyatti. This kind of discourse has been going on for quite a while now. The information website (an ‘Online Reference Guide to African American History’) gives an illustration of how dangerous the colonial boundaries turned out to be:

‘Carved out of the west of Africa by Britain without regard for preexisting ethnic, cultural and linguistic divisions, Nigeria has often experienced an uncertain peace. Following decades of ethnic tension in colonial Nigeria, political instability reached a critical mass among independent Nigeria’s three dominant ethnic groups: the HausaFulani in the north, Yoruba in the southwest, and Igbo in the southeast. On January 15, 1966, the Igbo launched a coup d’état under the command of Major-General Johnson Thomas Umunnakwe Aguiyi-Ironsi in an attempt to save the country from what Igbo leaders feared would be political disintegration. ’


Still, it is very unlikely that all African nations would be willing to relinquish their boundaries in favour of a single Superstate (as Libya’s Col. Gaddafi found out) but, left to their own devices, Africans would do away with most borders and increase trade and communication amongst themselves. As observed in Kiss, Commander, Promise, the likelihood of sociopolitico-economic blocs is probably more realistic than a melting away of borders. According to an article entitled Swahili Literature Through the Centuries90, Swahili is the official language of Tanzania, one of two official languages in Kenya, and is widely spoken in Uganda. It is also spoken in nearby countries, including parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, and Zambia, as well as adjoining areas of southern Somalia and northern Mozambique. It is the first language of several million speakers, often referred to as ethnic Swahili, who live along the coast of Kenya and Tanzania. It is also the native language among peoples living on islands near the East African coast, stretching for a thousand miles from southern Somalia to northern Mozambique. The number of Swahili speakers (estimated at 50 million) is constantly growing, thus enhancing its status as the lingua franca of the entire eastern Africa region. Education, trade and commerce, ecclesiastical use, and language policy have all contributed to its popularity both historically and in modern times. In October 2013, Nancy K. Ayodi of Kenya’s Maasai Mara University presented a paper entitled ‘THE ROLE OF THE LINGUA FRANCA KISWAHILI IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA’ at the 10th International Language and Development Conference in South Africa. Her wellresearched paper makes very good points supporting Swahili’s eligibility as a lingua franca, including:

  •  In 2005, the then president of Mozambique, Joachin Chissano, addressed delegates in an African Union Summit in Kiswahili. This was interpreted as a call to Africa to embrace Kiswahili for African nationalism.
  • Governments led by President Julius Nyerere, Ali Hassan Mwinyi of Tanzania and President Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi of Kenya found Kiswahili important for goals which were secular in nature.
  • Swahili is widely used by the media. It is also widely used in trade as evidenced by its adoption by economic blocs like COMESA and EAC as a language of trade.
  • Kiswahili is probably the most eligible single African language anywhere in Black (Sub-Saharan) Africa for transformation into the first indigenous African language for modern Science and Technology.

Also in October 2013, Literature professor Tom Odhiambo (University of Nairobi) published an article in the Sunday Nation (27/09/2013) in which he pondered why Kiswahili is yet to unite East Africa. Excerpts of his analysis: ‘Why hasn’t Kiswahili, the language of trade, colonial adventurism and colonial administration integrated the region and made us into a community? Kiswahili is the language that brought education, religion, the government, business to many communities in the interior of East Africa from the Coast…Why are our critics interested in literature in English at the expense of Kiswahili literature? This is an old question that gets dismissed by the tens of East African critics weaned on literature in English and ignorant of the incredible strides in writing in Kiswahili…’ Scholar Alamin Mazrui91 has published a study entitled Swahili Beyond the Boundaries: Literature, Language, Identity92. In the book, Mazrui uses comparative literature to seek the identity of Swahili lit ‘through the central concept of hybridity’ (mixing of cultures). He notes that ‘hybridity’ is an inherent quality in all cultures. The book also examines ancient texts, poetic forms (‘Aesthetics of Swahili verse’) and translations (‘Translation and the reconfiguration of the Swahili literary space’), including a history of the translation of the Holy Quran into Swahili. Kiswahili is by no means the only language that has been postulated as a lingua franca. Another eligible tongue is ‘Hausa’ (mainly spoken in Nigeria). Personally, I don’t care which language becomes lingua franca as long as it is one that originated in the geographical space called Africa (ie. Has no ‘colonial’ tag).



Written by PH


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