Home Op-eds The only language you need is your own: the case of Uganda.

The only language you need is your own: the case of Uganda.


The set off

On March 7, 2015, I used the office Wi-Fi to download the East African newspaper application, and the publications it came with. On the bus back home, I skimmed through all of them and got caught by a particular one.

Titling it “While we wallow in self-hate, Tanzania has decreed that Swahili is the language of the gods”, a one Ken Walibora, the Nation Media Group’s quality manager for Kiswahili, noted, in a couple of sentences, sentences which I found wanting – in perspective, the Ugandan perspective, at the very least. I believed it was incumbent upon me, as a Ugandan living away from home, and one who had been blessed to interact with people from all walks of life, to write a response, however shitty.

Ken Walibora – his concerns (italicized), and my immediate responses (emboldened)

Ken pondered why “attempts to domesticate Western education and to use indigenous languages as the media of instruction such as the recent mere in Tanzania to “ditch English for Swahili” as it was repeated in the media, are often met with ferocious resistance.”

I find that it is not resistance per se, but that it is upgradable software, one developed from consistent usage, which is simply stuck in our minds.

He wrote that “the self-hating and self-abnegating native places a premium on alien tongues such as French, Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish or English. He mistakenly thinks these alien tongues can become his mother tongue or are superior to his barbaric mother tongue.”

It is not until you know about some complexly multi-lingual countries, like Uganda, that you appreciate that it is indeed a construction of colonialism, and not necessarily our choice.

In another sentence, Ken added that “Britain and its allies decided to conquer the world and morphed into the masters whose language the rest of the world have no choice but to use.”

Truly, it was much easier for them, and, as a matter of course, us to use English as a common, bridge language.

“Some of the forerunners of African modernity”, Ken wrote, “such as poet-resident Léopold Sedar Senghor, of Senegal, known for celebrating blackness would paradoxically declare that French is the language of the gods…. what we know is that French was not Senghor’s mother tongue.”

In Francophone Africa, we have to admit, Senghor was selling or appealing to the French speaking world, whose language is French. That was the only way he could communicate to and with them. The only African things about him are his name and origin, pre- French assimilation.

Ken went on to add that “in the past 130 years the continental and Diaspora African has been constantly made to believe his culture is backward, his language is the language of the savage.”

Global”, he wrote on, “is the shorthand for English, the language of this article, the universal language and the language of aviation, and engineering and metaphysics and the language of Science with a capital “S”.

Kiswahili, Ken added, “is the language of East and central Africa in general but the linguistic heartbeat of Tanzania in particular.”

Sadly, that is not necessarily true. It is what we choose to tell ourselves, a choice founded on day-to-day usage. Kiswahili, the real language, has been extremely adulterated by Kenyans, and systematically ignored by Ugandan – all who, like Tanzanians, are East Africans.

One of Ken’s other notable sentences was that “not only is using another person’s language as the sole vehicle for carrying your epistemological and experiential realities foolhardy, it is a inimical to your chances of making innovations and discovery”.

Using your language is not foolhardy, but it is, admittedly, limiting – to your own community. To explore more and interact other people, all you will need to figure out is a bridge language, or to fully appreciate the other community’s language.

What is Swahili?

Swahili if you say it in English or Kiswahili, if you say it in Swahili, belongs to a family of Bantu (African) languages spoken mostly in Eastern, Central, and Southern Africa. Due to historical reasons it has borrowed heavily from Arabic, Persian, Kutchi (Indian), and English languages. It has, also, borrowed to a lesser extent from other languages such as German and Portuguese. While the vocabulary is of mixed origins, the language syntax and grammar is purely Bantu.

For centuries, Swahili remained as the language of the people of the East African coast. In fact, the word “Swahili” itself was originally 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. Longtime interactions with other people bordering the Indian Ocean spread the Swahili language to distant places such as on the Islands of Comoro and Madagascar and even far beyond South Africa, Oman, and United Arab Emirates. Trade and migration from Swahili coast during the 19th Century, helped spread the language to the interior of particularly Tanzania. It also reached Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Central African Republic, and Mozambique.

Africa – Multilingualism               

Few African states are known for their language homogeneity. There are some countries in Africa south of the Sahara with more than 90 per cent homogeneity of population, where one African language is spoken by the majority of the population as a mother tongues namely; Somalia (Somali), Swaziland (Seswati), Botswana (Setswana), Burundi (Kirundi), Lesotho (Sesotho) and Rwanda (Kinyarwanda). In some other countries like Uganda (Luganda) one African language is spoken by the vast majority of the population as a (commercial) lingua franca.

African languages co-exist and compete with European languages as well as with various lingua francas. Multilingualism and hence multilingualism is a feature of most African countries and (it seems that) it will remain the norm for a long time to come.

The nation of a “repertoire” has been introduced to analyze the number of languages an individual need in everyday life. A repertoire in Africa usually include; the vernacular or primary language, the African lingua franca, and/or the language of colonial contact. Africans seeking middle class urban opportunities and occupational mobility need to have facility in three plus or minus one language.

Any African state needs to cultivate a common language for mass inter-ethnic communication – a bridge language. A wish to impose a single indigenous language in the interest of national unity and development has been repeatedly expressed, but rarely implemented. One successful exception has been Tanzania, and to a lesser extent Kenya.

Swahili – United States of Africa

Swahili is “the only African language in the continent of Africa that owes no allegiance to any particular ethnic group among its speakers”, is claimed by some scholars to be “the only African language” that can bring together the people of Africa to become a United States of Africa.

Swahili is spoken in varying degrees in Uganda, Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo), Rwanda, Burundi, parts of Ethiopia, Somalia, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Madagascar. The number of Swahili speakers is estimated to run as high as fifty million and is today increasing than the number of any other languages.

Tanzania – lugha ya taifa

The pre-colonial roots of the use of Swahili in the East African countries are or were not identical. They were influenced by the different language situations in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania.

In Tanzania, Swahili had obtained and maintained some set of official recognition since the times of the German administration and the German policy of using Swahili in the lower levels of administration and in the field of education was continued during British colonial rule, its position in the neighboring countries has been different, and in the case of Uganda very ambiguous.

About 120 vernacular languages are spoken in Tanzania, but diversity is compensated by the very wide spread of Bantu languages and the nearly universal comprehension of Swahili, even in the 19th  Century.

A land mark in the history of the development of Swahili as the official language of Tanzania was President Nyerere’s Republic Day speech of December 10, 1962 which he delivered in Swahili. By declaring Kiswahili, the official language (lugha ya taifa) which has to be used in all spheres of economic and political activities, in education – including the functional literacy campaigns, the mass media, army, as well as in culture, which gave birth to a new type of Kiswahili literature, and even in religion, a new quality in the spread of the language has been achieved.

Uganda – the ambiguous language problem

While both in Tanzania and Kenya, Swahili has been systematically promoted in all spheres of everyday life, Uganda has lacked a coherent government policy on language development and the position of Swahili in Uganda has always been very ambiguous.

Uganda has chosen “to remain a chaotic island of English and “tribal” languages surrounded by neighbors who opted for Swahili”.

The language problem in Uganda is an old one. Uganda has (more than) thirty different African languages in addition to Swahili. Its linguistic diversity is, however, extreme, even for Africa.

Uganda lies on the crossroads of several main language groups of Africa. The linguistic diversity had been coupled during the colonial period by the diversity of economic, social, and political modes among the inhabitants of Uganda, creating a conflict-prone situation.  The south and west comprising Buganda, Ankole, Kigezi, Tooro, and Bunyoro are Bantu speaking areas and nearly two – thirds of the population of Uganda speak one of the closely related Bantu languages, the Eastern Bantu languages (Luganda, Lusoga, Lumasaba/Lugishu, Lugwere, Lunyole, Lusamia/Lugwe) are spoken by a third of the country’s population while the Western Bantu languages (Runyankole, Rukiga, Runyarwanda, Rutoro, Runyoro, Rurundi, Rukonjo, Rwamba) are spoken by almost an equal proportion. The largest language – Luganda is, however, spoken as a first language by more than half this number

There is a large number of langauges spoken by small but approximately equal number of people and there are four language sub-groups. The North-East can be associated with eastern Nilotic languages (Akaramojong, Ateso, Kakwa and Sebei), the North with the Western Nilotic languages (Lango, Acholi, Alur, Dhapodhola, and Kuman) and the extreme North-West with the central Sudanic languages (Lugbara and Madi). The continued vacillation on language policy is characteristic of the Ugandan language situation ever since the imposition of colonial rules.

Swahili is not new to Uganda. It was introduced into the country long before the coming of Europeans and used as a trade language and a means of inter- ethnic communication in the Kingdoms of Buganda and Bunyoro as well as other parts of the present day Uganda. The inconsistent language policy of the British administration in Uganda was one of the important factors that influenced the language situation in Uganda and the position of Swahili during the colonial period.

The idea of Buganda – the mother of Uganda

Luganda was the first local vernacular reduced to writing and was preferred because of the alleged inherent qualities of the Baganda. Initially, virtually all contact of the Europeans was with the kingdom of Buganda and from the very beginning and especially after the signing of the 1900 Uganda Agreement, Buganda occupied a central place in the affairs of the Uganda Protectorate.

The language policy of the Protectorate Administration was, however, soon reversed when Jackson returned to Uganda as Governor, in 1911, and recommended Luganda as the new obligatory language – for all officials from 1912 onwards. Swahili and a number of the other local languages continued to be bonus languages.

The merits of Swahili from an administrative point of view were frequently voiced between 1912 and 1920. The intervention of the European planter and business community, who argued in favour of Swahili for commercial and communications reasons, sparked off a round of talks in 1919-20.

The discussions remained inconclusive. Faced with the opposing and conflicting views, the question of the official language was not solved by the Uganda Development Commission. Backed by the Church Missionary Society (C.M.S) mission, Luganda held its ground against Swahili even though the Provincial Commissioner’s conference that took place in November 1920 supported Swahili as the official language and recommended that the missions be asked to teach it in their schools. It was decided that Luganda was to remain the official language of the protectorate and the obligatory language for government officials though the long term aim was to make English the language of the country. Eventually, in 1922 the Provincial Commissioners gave up trying to make Swahili the official language.

The drive for East African Unity in later 1920s strengthened reason for the reintroduction of Swahili. Swahili was proposed as the official language of all three East African territories. Despite vehement protests by the Baganda, including the Kabaka, and some missionaries, Swahili was reintroduced in the mixed language areas, in the Northern and Eastern provinces, and also in the non- Baganda Bantu areas. The vernacular remained the medium of instruction, but Swahili was to be taught as an optional subject. It was also to be taught in the Teacher Training Colleges. As for Buganda, it was underlined that the medium of instruction there would always be Luganda.

Uganda – Idi Amin, Swahili and Luganda       

A turning point came in 1952 where an important language policy decision that “Swahili was no longer a recognized vernacular in Uganda schools” was taken. From that date, there was no further question of Swahili participating in Uganda’s linguistic planning, though Swahili has continued to be the official language in the police force and in the army.

In multilingual countries, like Uganda, the language factor represents quite a problem which underlies and affects all developmental programs. In the whole post-independence era, no consistent attempt has been made to deal with language problems and none of the governments has taken practical steps to give the country a common medium of communication.

During Idi Amin’s rule, Swahili was given a perspective. In 1973, Idi Amin initiated a countrywide national language debate involving the choice between Swahili and Luganda. After weeks of deliberations, on August 7, 1973, Swahili was declared the national language of Uganda by decree. The decree was, however never implemented in practice, although it has never been repealed by successive governments.

English has been the official language and six Uganda languages (some of them paired) have been specified as media of instruction in the primary schools before. Luganda, Runyoro/Rutooro, Runyankole/Rukiga, Lugbara, Luo and Akarimojong/Ateso. Since 1973, Swahili has been the national language of Uganda by decree but there is no official policy on the language since 1952 Swahili has been taught only to the police and armed forces.

The Uganda Swahili Association (Chama Cha Kiswahili – Chaku), founded in December 1984, has been recently revived but Swahili is still in a much less favorable position than Luganda, whose development has been spearheaded by the Luganda Language Society, and the Luganda Academy. Luganda language activity has been booming in particular and research, in mass media and in the performing arts.

Recent research into the language situation in Uganda has proved that people living outside Buganda would be most unwilling to have Luganda as a national language. In Uganda, neither Swahili nor Luganda or any other local vernacular is generally accepted by the whole population and it is unlikely that one particular language could be in use throughout the country.

The only language you need is your own

What has not been adequately reported is the fact that, even in the East African countries, the language – Swahili – is not used equally. It is most ubiquitous in Tanzania, followed by Kenya.

Despite Uganda’s proximity to Kenya and Tanzania, and specifically the coast, the number of speakers is relatively/very small. It is made up of businessmen, students- who have stayed for long enough, especially in secondary school, mostly four years, and University, and travelers, tourists, and cross-border ones. We know that world over, different language varieties are used in different regions.

The number of Swahili speakers in most of the East African countries above is, thankfully, on a steady increase, with the main reasons being; the media, commerce, education systems, and it’s ever growing role as a regional lingua franca.

However, this “so-called hating on our own language” is not really true. Swahili is not our language. We have lots of those – the native ones. And, as an all or nothing person, I know that there are strict rules which a language, any language must respect. A corruption (in the form of sheng or Uglish) for the mere intent of, like most argue, communication, should not be entertained. Why should the guidelines for writing differ from those of speech? However, that will not mean much if we are doing it for an easy, entertaining and, at most times, ridiculous way (sheng, Uglish, pidgin).

Some may aptly argue that applying the same rules for written to spoken English is simply not practical. The overwhelming majority of us speak English as a second or third language after our native tongues. Indeed, most of us think in our native language and then voice the thoughts in English which can have rather hilarious results. They may even add that, how well we speak English in Uganda is often a function of our socio-economic background, the schools we attended and the neighborhood we grew up in and such things, and that, ultimately, it smirks of snobbery to expect people in Uganda to speak English according to “strict rules which a language must respect”.

However, I find it to be subjective. Those who have found the opportunities or put in the effort to explore their boundaries have appreciated their own native and several other languages. They have not had a need for any decrees to appreciate any language of any gods.

In continuously developing thoughts, I do believe, and assert that we should focus more on learning our indigenous tongues to more than the best of our basic abilities – before thinking about any other. Only then can we think about another, without having something incomprehensible in between. You will find that we, in fact, do not need any other language (Swahili, English, German, French et al) besides our own, and the corrupted one, that there was absolutely no need to beat us for speaking vernacular, that our colonizers only found it worthy to teach us English because it was the only hope they had for multi-cultural people like ourselves to have a meaningful conversation without flexing muscles.

This article has been inspired, researched, and written on several dates over the past years; March 7-13, 2015 (in Nairobi), April 9, 2015 (in Nairobi), July 3, 2016 (in Kampala), July 6, 2016 (in Kampala), and October 8, 2016 in (Kampala). It is enriched by a 2015 The East African newspaper article; While we wallow in self-hate, Tanzania has decreed that Swahili is the language of the gods, by Ken Walibora, the factual findings and writings of Viera Pawlikova-Vilhanova (Swahili And The Dilemma of Ugandan Language Policy, 1996), and my own random reflections.


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