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Badilisha Lugha KISWAHILI

Should Kiswahili maximum use wait for constitutional backing?

16th December 2012

Whoever has taken trouble to monitor proceedings of meetings held by the Commissioners of the Constitutional Review Commission to collect views on what should be included in  the envisaged mother law of the land, must have noted that all sorts  of ideas are being aired - some serious, others conspicuous for their entertainment value.

In one such sessions held in Dar es Salaam recently, some contributors reignited the long standing debate on whether to introduce or not to introduce Kiswahili as a teaching medium in secondary schools and higher learning institutions. The fact the controversy has been on and off for several post-independence decades is still in the air speaks volumes.

Those who have raised the issue this time around are categorically suggesting that use of Kiswahili as a teaching language must be clearly stated in the envisaged new constitution. Their line of argument in supporting the above point of view is not new either. They are simply saying that one of the main reasons behind poor academic performance, especially in secondary schools, is that students fail to grasp what they are being taught, mainly due to the communication barrier.

The problem is a result of the following scenario: children who speak their mother tongue or Kiswahili in their early childhood are introduced to literacy and other subjects on beginning the long journey of their formal education in Kiswahili. They are taught in Kiswahili until they complete their primary school education. English is taught as a subject but, for one reason or another, the teaching is too poor to give the pupils a good grasp of the language basics –both written and spoken.

The seven years of primary education come to an end and the lucky ones who proceed with secondary school education find themselves in a situation where the language of instruction is English, with textbooks also written in this language. Most students find it difficult to cope with their studies due to the communication snag, or do so painfully to the extent that learning is considered a burden, rather than an exciting and pleasant venture into the unknown. Teachers, some incompetent in the foreign language they are condemned to use, find their work difficult and often resort to using both poor English and Kiswahili, or “Kiswanglish” to facilitate the communication process.

While this state of affairs continues to prevail, defenders of the status quo keep on arguing that Kiswahili is not developed enough to accommodate some scientific concepts, there are no text books for science and specialized subjects, adopting the new system will produce graduates who can not communicate effectively in English, and you name it. Most of these challenges are, of course, surmountable for as the saying goes, where there is a will there is a way.

The feeling among some sections of the elite that Kiswahili still has limitations which do not qualify it to be used as a medium of communication in various areas of knowledge is deep-rooted. We may as well recall that in one of the recent Parliamentary sessions a Minister dared to tell an MP who wanted to find out why legal proceedings in our courts are not conducted in Kiswahili that it is not easy to do so at this stage, as the language may not adequately accommodate some of the legal terminologies.

This is absurd. In legal knowledge one encounters many terminologies of Latin origin. Languages like English, French and German have adopted and accommodated the terminologies, and yet communication is not hindered. Why should things look so difficult when it comes to using Kiswahili in legal communication?  

Thank God there is now a worldwide campaign for inclusion of the right to information and free expression among the basic human rights. Commonwealth Ministers of Justice who met in Trinidad and Tobago a few years back to deliberate on the “public right to know” endorsed the idea of enacting the right to information law in member countries. A recent international meeting on Open Government Partnership (OGP), held in New York and attended by President Jakaya Kikwete, also recommended that countries committed to OGP should draw national plans of action to implement the peoples’ right to information goal.

But the citizens’ right to information goal can only be realized when such information is made available in the language they understand, which in our case is Kiswahili. Given this scenario, should maximum use of Kiswahili in Tanzania wait for constitutional backing?

Henry Muhanika is a Media Consultant(