Can Kiswahili unite Africans and fast-track decolonisation?

Tafi Mhaka

On July 5, Uganda’s cabinet adopted Kiswahili (Swahili) – the most widely spoken indigenous language in Africa, which long had official status in Kenya and Tanzania – as an official language and made it a compulsory subject in primary and high schools, following a directive from the East African Community (EAC) bloc.

I support this development wholeheartedly and believe the entire sub-Saharan continent should adopt Kiswahili as an official language.

Here is why.

Currently, there is no indigenous language in Africa that is spoken widely enough to serve as a common tongue on the continent. I so often find myself having to communicate with a fellow African in English, the language of our erstwhile colonisers. This makes me feel ashamed, embarrassed – but there is no alternative. Regrettably, after independence, the founding fathers of our nations failed to recognise the need to establish a common language  – a language that does not belong to the colonists – that could help us communicate easily between ourselves and help forge a spirit of closeness and unity. Instead, they pushed us to adopt English – or French or Portuguese – as our common tongue.

My life, from primary school to adulthood, socially and academically, for example, has been dominated by English in my home country, Zimbabwe.

In 1980, the year in which Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain, I started Hallingbury Primary School in Harare. There, our mostly white, English-speaking teachers told us not to speak during school hours Chishona – my mother tongue – or any other language indigenous to the country, and went on to punish anyone who inadvertently did.

I guess they had a right to, as the government had already designated English as the primary language of communication in the country. It didn’t help matters that at the time everyone marvelled at then-Prime Minister Robert Mugabe’s impeccable command of English and observers in the West regarded him as “one of the world’s great orators”. So our social indoctrination seemed normal and somewhat commendable. Right when the government of our newly independent nation should have been supporting and prioritising indigenous languages and cultures, English was being sold to young children as a marker of intelligence, sophistication and status. I quickly came to believe Chishona was inferior to English and should not be associated with academia, science or business.

After completing my primary education, I moved on to the Harare-based Prince Edward High School, which is  considered one of the best state schools in the country. The six years I spent there amounted to an academic exercise in organised Anglicisation. The school was named after Britain’s Prince Edward and took immense pride in preserving old English traditions – and encouraging pupils to write, speak and think in English – to the detriment of our African heritage. During my time there, I underwent an extensive and overt process of Westernisation that distorted my African identity. And the situation was not much different outside school. Two out of four state-owned national radio channels, Radio 1 and Radio 3, would broadcast in English and focus on English language content. A sizeable chunk of the programming on the state broadcaster ZBC TV, including the daily main news bulletin, was also in English. We were mostly exposed to British and American programmes, made with English-speaking Western audiences in mind, throughout our most formative years.

Besides English, I studied only one other language throughout my formal education: French. No one bothered to teach me isiNdebele, TjiKalanga, Tshivenda, or Setswana – commonly spoken indigenous languages of Zimbabwe. As a result, I never gained the ability to socialise with Zimbabweans across the country who have not received English-language education or chose out of principle not to learn or communicate in the coloniser’s language.

Due to the priority given by the state to English, I ended up developing two different personas – one that mostly communicates in English, responds to Western social codes and is immersed in Western culture to be used in daily life and interactions, and another that communicates in Chishona and prioritises traditional ways of living and being, to be used in interactions with certain family members, such as my paternal grandmother, who couldn’t speak English.

As celebrated West Indian writer and political philosopher Frantz Fanon said in his seminal novel Black Skin, White Masks, “To speak a language is to take on a world, a culture”. My African peers and I, regrettably, were stuck with English (and immersed in the music, arts and literature it imposed upon us). The Zimbabwean government made no effort to legislate and promote multilingualism through education.

At a regional level, the Southern African Development Community, the Economic Community of West African States and the Organisation of African Unity fared no better. They enacted policies that promoted English, French and Portuguese as official working languages and didn’t make any effort to accommodate indigenous languages.

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