My language , my pride: Mother tongues

25Feb 2016
Our Reporter
The Guardian
My language , my pride: Mother tongues

IF you don’t know that last Sunday (FEB 21) was the World’s Mother Tongue day, do not threat you are not the only one, in fact, while the rest of the World held major events to honour their national languages and mother tongues, there was little to no such recognition in Tanzania.

-Languages are the most powerful instruments

The day would have served as a platform to propel the growth of Kiswahili but it seems to have been forgotten even by the language’s legal custodians.

These are the likes of the Ministry of Information, Culture, Artists and Sports, the National Swahili Council (Baraza la Kiswahili la Taifa, BAKITA), the Institute of Kiswahili Studies (IKS) at the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM) and not even the East African Kiswahili Council of the East African Community (EAC).

Actually it is not only Tanzania that paid no tribute to the Mother tongue Day, the same was the case across the border in Kenya despite it being a top Swahili speaking country second only to Tanzania.

Like Tanzania’s Bakita, Kenya’s National Kiswahili Association (Chama cha Kiswahili cha Taifa, (CHAKITA) did not take advantage of the day.

Now four days (and counting) after the World’s Mother Tongue day and the afore mentioned bodies are yet to even post a recognition of the day on their websites.

So this year, as many others before and without intervention, many more to come, Kiswahili speakers led by the legal custodians of the language continue to lose the chance to honour and advocate use of the language.

While the five countries strong East African Community prides itself as the origin and custodians, it is the South Africa based is a nonprofit organisation, the Council of Swahili language in Africa (Baraza la Kiswahili Africa) that seems to be at the frontline of propagating the language.

The NGO claims to be “the only company that provides Swahili services in Africa” offering a wide range of services ranging from teaching the language to making voice-overs for films and even translating for dignitaries and celebrities.

True to this ambition the NGO says its “...primary objective (is) promoting and ensures the development of Swahili language in Africa especially in the countries where Swahili language is not spoken.”

With such ambition it only follows that the NGO declares aspires to ‘ more branches in other parts of Africa as soon as possible.”

The NGO builds on the known fact that language is a significant unifying tool and lists in its objectives its intent; “To use Swahili language as a long term tool of strengthening unity, solidarity and socio-economic development in Africa so as to fulfill the dreams of Mwalimu Nyerere, Kwame Nkurumah, Nelson Mandela and other pan- africanists.

For Tanzanians, we should all (shamefully) think what the founding Father of the Nation Julius Nyerere would say about our failure to seize and create every opportunity to propagate the language he so much endeared to us.

Consider this extract from a blog by a US Missionary currently evangelizing in Mwanza: “The repeated story in most all of independent Africa is one of civil conflict and tribalism. With its nearly 130 different tribes, Tanzania could be riddled by the same kind of tribalism, but it is not. This is in large part to the work of Julius Nyerere.

So through Kiswahili he united the country and effectively steered it from internal civil conflict that plagues most of the rest of Africa. As a result, Kiswahili is the National language in Tanzania and Kenya and the lingua franca in Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda and to a smaller extent in Somalia, the Comoro Islands, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia.

Nyerere also exhibited the dexterity of Kiswahili to serve as a literary language in his translation of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice into Kiswahili.

The passion of Kiswahili that the Father of the Nation harboured cannot be overstated and surely mustn’t be ignored in our efforts to honour him, a duty we have thus far wavered in, if the World Mother Tongue day is any measure of our commitment to the same.

There is no simpler or more necessary way of showing one’s respect than learning even the basics of the pan African language (Kiswahili) that you are exposed to frequently - Council of Swahili language in Africa

Troubled waters

While the International Mother Language Day was proclaimed by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in November 1999.

The date represents the day in 1952 when students demonstrating for recognition of their language, Bangla, as one of the two national languages of the then Pakistan, were shot and killed by police in Dhaka, the capital of what is now Bangladesh.

While use of Kiswahili, especially in schools and the legal system continues to be threatened by international languages, yet almost two decades later, Tanzania has done little to embrace the day dedicated to mother tongues.

The Institute of Kiswahili Studies (IKS): Established in 1930, IKS is the oldest Kiswahili institute in the world. In that colonial era, the institute was known as the Inter-Territorial Language Committee.

Baraza La Kiswahili La Taifa (bakita): Unlike its Kenyan counterpart, Bakita in Tanzania doesn’t even seem to have an Active website. The site remains as of the date of this publication, inactive.

Information on this National Council of Kiswahili is only hosted in the National government portal where a mere two paragraphs seem to suffice its creation and objectives, the first paragraph is as quoted below.

‘The National Swahili Council is an organisation under Ministry of Information, Youth, Culture and Sports.

The institution was established by Act. no 27 of 1967 to promote the development and usage of the Swahili language throughout the United Republic, to co-operate with other bodies in the United Republic which are concerned to promote the Swahili language and to endeavour to co-ordinate their activities, to encourage the use of the Swahili language in the conduct of official business and public life generally.’

Notwithstanding, according to the latest 2014 financial statements reported by the Treasury Registrar, funds received from the government to Bakita clocked 300m/- Worth noting is the fact that even though its Kenyan counterpart Chakita has a website ( the latest post on the site’s ‘News’ link was last year October about a Kiswahili Summit themed Kiswahili and Globalization.

There is no recognition on the website of the World Mother Tongue Day in relation to Kiswahili, the mother tongue of millions born after independence and to whom Kiswahili is their mother tongue.

The East African Kiswahili Commission: Revival of the EAC in 1999 presented the Partner States with an opportunity and a framework to realize their interest in cultural and linguistic cooperation. In this regard, Article 137 of the EAC revival Treaty provides that Kiswahili shall be the lingua franca of the Community.

The EAC acknowledges the ‘fundamental importance of collaboration in Kiswahili for political, economic, social, educational, cultural, and technological development,’ and hence establishment of the Council.

The Commission’s site also lacks recognition of the World Mother Tongue Day in relation to Kiswahili.
Ahead of its first meeting back in 2012, the EAC allocated some 2 million US dollars for the initial operationalization of the East African Kiswahili Commission but during its first meeting in Zanzibar in the same year, the Commission complained of a shortage of Kiswahili professionals warning that the gap may hamper its operations.

Ministry of Information, Culture, Artists and Sports: To its credit, the ministry’s website is an all Kiswahili portal. In fact an internet search of the English “Ministry of Information, Culture, Artists and Sports” will prove futile. Only a direct search of the Kiswahili Wizara ya Habari,Utamaduni,Utalii na Michezo will yield the site

There is a long list of policies and agencies affected by government to propagate development of Kiswahili and by far each has successfully pushed for Kiswahili to take its part in all spheres of Tanzanian life and beyond; all spheres of life, except in education.

Back in ’62 the Father of the nation departed from the colonial practice of using English to address parliament and in a dramatic shift Nyerere addressed the parliament in Kiswahili and went on to set the ground works for formulation of supporting policies and establishment of the various agencies and institutions to promote the language.

In a paper titled “Kiswahili as a National and International Language” M.M. Mulokozi from the Institute of Kiswahili Research, University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania cites that; (From 1962) most national activities in Tanzania, including most government business, parliamentary debates, primary courts, primary education, etc. were being conducted in Kiswahili.”

Only one area of contention remained, i.e. secondary and higher education.

“The Five Year Development Plan of 1969 noted this problem, and proposed to introduce
a gradual change over of the medium from English to Kiswahili, so that by 1974, Kiswahili
should have taken over as the sole medium of secondary education.”

Over four decades later, that aspiration has not been realised.

The use of Kiswahili in schools debate

“The pro-English arguments are largely technical and international: They reject Kiswahili for now (if not for ever) because there are not enough scientific terms, not enough books, the cost would be prohibitive, we need an international language; English is the doorway to science and technology; we have to communicate with other peoples. if we change the medium to Kiswahili, English would die since there would be no incentive to learn it.”

“The pro-Kiswahili debaters emphasizes the pedagogical aspects, that children learn better in a language that they know best, the general lack of English mastery among teachers and pupils, the alienating role of English in Tanzania, the danger of sacrificing knowledge to foreign language acquisition, the need to democratize education, national and cultural pride.”

A silver lining Suffice it to say that the rise and spread of Kiswahili from a community language to a lingua franca, and finally a national language, was largely demand driven in the socio-economic sens

The UNESCO take

The World Mother Tongue Day was this year themed: Quality education, language(s) of instruction and learning outcomes. In line with Sustainable Development Goal 4 on education of the 2030 Agenda, this year's theme emphasizes the importance of appropriate languages of instruction, usually mother tongues, in the early years of schooling.

It facilitates access to education – while promoting fairness – for population groups that speak minority and indigenous languages, in particular girls and women; it raises the quality of education and learning achievement by laying emphasis on understanding and creativity, rather than on rote and memorisation.

On 16 May 2007 the United Nations General Assembly in its resolution A/RES/61/266 called upon Member States 9Tanzania included) "to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world".

By the same resolution, the General Assembly proclaimed 2008 as the International Year of Languages, to promote unity in diversity and international understanding, through multilingualism and multiculturalism.