International Day of Kiswahili: How a language


 John Kanya wants Kenya to change its name to a Swahili word during Kiswahili day.[Collins Kweyu,Standard]

On July 7, 1954, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere urged his Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) party to adopt Kiswahili as a “unifying language for independence struggles”.

Kenya’s founding president Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, too, rallied the country to adopt the use of the language through his famous refrain of ‘Harambee’. He liberally used the language in his official speeches.

The East African Community was re-established on July 7 2000 to promote the integration of the East African countries that now include Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan.

It is no wonder that through a United Nations resolution, a decision was adopted that proclaimed July 7 as the World Kiswahili Language Day, the first language to be recognized in that manner by the United Nations.

And through its Kiswahili language unit of United Nations Radio established in the 1950s, Kiswahili is also the only African language within the Directorate of Global Communications at the United Nations. 

“Kiswahili is one of the most widely used languages of the African family, and the most widely spoken in sub-Saharan Africa. It is among the 10 most widely spoken languages in the world, with more than 200 million speakers,” stated the November 2021 UN resolution.

But Kiswahili is more than a language. It is a lifestyle, a way of life that began along the coast of the Indian Ocean (Sawahil in Arabic) but has now spread to every corner of the world.

In its wake, the language perpetuated a culture defined by food, music, construction, and a dress code that has stood the test of time.

“Few cultures have been influenced by a language around the world as has Swahili,” says Ali Skanda whose family has lived around the Lamu archipelago for several centuries. “We are proud that the Swahili culture has been embraced by so many other cultures and has influenced even the explorers who passed by our coast.”

Skanda is the son of Mzee Abdalla Ali Skanda, the legendary craftsman known for dhow building and the carved Lamu doors and chairs. One of the family’s most prominent projects in the country is the main door at Kenya’s Parliament Building.

Today, the family has continued with their father’s rich Swahili legacy with their doors, chairs and classic wooden chests adorning the homes, hospitality outlets and corporate premises all over Kenya and around the world.

Skanda says when the British arrived as colonizers, they perhaps expected to find a regressive people who needed Western civilizations only to find a highly advanced culture that has since set the pace for much of the modern world.

“The British found a Swahili house with a toilet, and a small garden of vegetables, and herbs including incense. The house also had a well and proper water storage system. It was a self-sustaining home. Today, everyone wants a house with ensuite rooms. We were already living it before the arrival of the so-called civilized people,” says Skanda.

Geoffrey Mwamburi, a local journalist and an expert in the language says the vast and varied repertoire of Swahili culture has become more of a unifying factor not only in East Africa but in Western countries as well.

“Swahili culture is global,” says Mwamburi. “When a foreign tourist comes here and wears the dera, eats pilaumahamri, or biriani, chewa (grouper fish), or tafi wa nazi (rabbitfish), she is perpetuating the Swahili culture. No tourist comes here and leaves without immersing himself in this culture or learning a few words in Swahili.”

And one cannot talk about Swahili culture without mentioning the role of taarab music. Characterised by reciting of poetry, taarab has a slow, repetitive beat that conveys everyday themes, peering at society through song and dance.

While the exact origin of taarab is contested, it has become an integral part of Swahili culture whose beat has influenced contemporary African music.

According to Kitula King’ei, a renowned scholar and professor of Kiswahili, modern taarab now extols such diverse virtues as gender equality, the fight against drug abuse, forced and early marriages, and domestic violence.

“Due to modern influences, in addition to the traditional didactic themes, taarab has embraced many other themes of current interest. This shift has come out because of the dictates of the audience which has become more regional and mixed as opposed to the traditional native Swahili society,” writes Prof. King’ei in one of his research papers, Swahili Taarab: From Traditional Orality to Globalised Art Form.

In the paper, King’ei shows how the ‘modernisation’ of taarab has brought with it the hitherto taboo fusion of current phrases to please a current generation that might find the original Swahili terms heavy on the tongue.

Jitoe kimasomaso”, “wape vidonge vyao”, and “Mimi ndiye kiboko yao”, are among these phrases that point to Swahili’s wider appeal. These new phrases, King’ei adds, have also found their way into the popular, and at times sarcastic messages printed in lesos.

And as the world turns attention to Kiswahili today, it will be worth reflecting on the diverse culture that has mushroomed around the world as a result of the language. 

Meanwhile, the second International Day of Kiswahili will be observed in Uganda, according to the country’s First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for East African Community Affairs, Rebecca Kadaga

During a media briefing, Kadaga says the event will be a boost to her country which has lagged behind other East African countries in the mastery of the language.

“The event will promote the use of Kiswahili as an official language in Uganda including creating awareness about the East African Community,” said Kadaga.

She added that the event provides a platform for sharing experiences and insights on contemporary issues in Kiswahili.

“The event is intended to bring together East Africans to discuss ways and means of developing and promoting Kiswahili for regional integration and sustainable development,” Kadaga added.

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