Finally Tanzanians ready to let Swahili grow

Nov 92009

Editors Note: The author discusses the growth of the Kiswahili dialect in Tanzania.

For decades, Tanzanians have cherished their version of Swahili, considered to be the purest in the region. But in the spirit of opening up, they now seem to be accepting the "less pure" versions of the neighbours.

Last week I gate crashed into a retreat of top Tanzanian editors and media managers that was taking place in Arusha and it was a most rewarding experience. The captains of Tanzania’s media industry discussed many things but I was most struck by the hard look they took at the growth of Kiswahili in the digital era.

I was in Arusha as part of my tour of the northern regions of the country, in a programme kindly supported by the Knight Foundation through the International Centre For Journalists in Washington. The Tanzanian media chiefs, mostly in their forties and fifties, were all in agreement that the Swahili language must be left to grow with the times to serve the region and the continent.

For me, this was a huge relief because when I first went to Tanzania in 2004 to set up The Citizen newspaper and wrote an article about the ‘death’ and rebirth of English in Tanzania, I received a barrage of mail attacks by Tanzanians mostly in the Diaspora for daring to talk about their language. Hostile responses are part of a columnist’s life, but some of them leave you wondering why the any reactions do not respond to the points you raise, but you learn to live with it. A very celebral Kenyan friend had warned me before I left Kampala about speaking my ‘Luswaayili’ instead of Kiswahili in Bongoland. He is now hereby advised to withdraw his caution, since the ‘Waswahili’ now seem ready to accept when I call them ‘Baswaayili’. I think and agree that Uganda has the most atrocious Swahili in the region, though the Tanzanians say Congolese Swahili is simply hilarious.

Now these Tanzanian media men and women agreed that the Swahili options on the internet search engines and key Microsoft programmes only exist in textbooks and are definitely not what the users, who are mostly young people, use. They further agreed that that all versions of Swahili, from Kenya to Congo, are valid and should not be denigrated just because they are not the ‘pure’ Tanzanian version. They generally viewed as unfortunate and outdated the tendency to laugh at the Kiswahili spoken by other people from the East African region. For a communications worker, things could not be more pleasant.

At the very same time, thousands of troops from East African countries were assembling in Arusha to prepare for joint exercises to secure the region. In one of the editors’ sessions, the Zimbabwean facilitator Francis Mdlongwa quoted a Chinese saying which goes like, “We can share a bed, but please let me keep my dreams to myself.” But here were the East African leaders going as far as sharing the most sensitive dreams – their military.

My faith in the East African integration then received a further boost. The tendency of the elite in East Africa is to castigate the leaders and governments, saying they are lagging behind the people, who are for faster integration. But when these men (we don’t yet have a woman president in the region) decide to get their armies to operate together, it is a big step in building trust for the future.

Having lived closely with people from all the five countries of the community – growing up with many from the new entrants of Rwanda and Burundi, and then living both in Kenya and Tanzania - I can dare state what each has to gain from closer integration, beyond the official and the obvious.

Deeply landlocked Rwanda and Burundi should love to own a port, but would also prefer to be in a bigger unit where potential genocidal situations are neutralized. Kenya should want to invest her entrepreneurial and technical skills in a wider market without hindrance. Uganda would like to leverage its central location to harness the advantages of integration to extend our activities to Congo and Sudan. And Tanzania could develop its vast territory, human and natural resources better and with less effort with unrestricted access to what has been developed in the neighbourhood.

Of course there are fears, like allowing completely free movement within the region, free settlement and access to land. But there are ways around these fears. Tanzania just needs to take steps to protect her citizens’ inheritance. They could for instance parcel out all the land and lease it to each of the 40 million citizens with a condition that any piece can only be transferred at a stiff but not deterrent fee.