Thursday, 17 March 2016

My Swahili journey and why Ugandans do not speak the language

I recently decided to start teaching myself Swahili, which is the most widely spoken language in East Africa.

I wanted to learn Swahili (or Kiswahili as it is called in Swahili) because I have been a keen supporter of the East African community initiatives and I am a firm believer in the idea of an East African federation.

However, over the years I have increasingly began to feel like a bit of a fraud because of my inability to speak any Swahili.

I have been finding my inability to speak Swahili at odds with my preaching the gospel of integration and getting East Africans to come together as one.

Because Swahili is the de facto langauage of the East African community, I felt I was not setting the right example myself by not speaking Swahili, which I believe is the easiest step an individual Ugandan can take towards being part of the bigger East African family.

It is now a few weeks into my "Learn Swahili" project and everything is going rather well. I wish I had embarked on this earlier.

However, as I have been studying Swahili, I have also been reflecting on why the language is not spoken as widely in Uganda as it is in other East African countries.

Everybody will tell you that Ugandans do not speak Swahili because it is a language that was long associated with brutal military dictatorships and their soldiers but this, while true, is only a small component of the whole story.

The reasons why Swahili never developed as a widespread lingua franca in Uganda have more to do with opposition to in from the kings of Buganda and the early Christian missionaries.

The British in Uganda had decided in the early 20th century to promote the Swahili language as a means of communication among lower levels of government and as a language of instruction in the early years of education.

However, the Christian missionaries at the time resisted, and worked against this, because they associated Swahili with Islam and they felt that teaching Swahili might somehow give Islam a foothold in Uganda.

This missionary opposition to Swahili might not have amounted to much if the Kabaka of Buganda, Daudi Chwa II, had supported the policy of teaching Swahili.

But Kabaka Chwa was not only opposed to Swahili, he was actually quite emphatic about how he would never allow the language to be taught in his kingdom.

Kabaka Chwa believed that teaching Swahili would lead to a situation where it became the lingua franca of the Uganda Protectorate and he was afraid this would then diminish the cultural influence Luganda, and by extension Buganda, was already beginning to have on the expansion and establishment of British rule in the protectorate.

The Baganda collaborated with the British from the beginning of their establishment of the Uganda Protectorate and they had been rewarded with lands from other kingdoms and communities and Baganda chiefs were being used to spread British rule to other parts of Uganda especially in the East and parts of the West.

This had led to a situation where Baganda had been elevated to a special status by the British and by default Luganda had started to gain an equally special status in local administration and education outside Buganda.

It is against this background that Kabaka Chwa felt that Swahili would diminish this new found status of Luganda and he thus opposed its teaching in Buganda and since the British depended on the goodwill of the Baganda at this time, they acquiesced to the Kabaka's demands.

Because British colonialism spread out from Buganda to the rest of Uganda, when the teaching of Swahili in Buganda was abandoned the Swahili project died for all practical purposes though efforts to teach it continued up to the late 1940s.

In the late 1960s President Milton Obote, through his "Move to the left" initiative had laid out plans to make Swahili a national language and a unifying force in Uganda.

Obote was a great admirer of President Nyerere of Tanzania and he wanted to emulate what the Tanzanian president was doing at the time to do away with tribal identities in Tanzania and create a Tanzanian identity through Swahili.

However, Obote was overthrown before his plans could take off.

Therefore by the time the military dictatorships of the 70s and 80s came around Swahili was already pretty much dead and it has been struggling since.

Anyway, I am committed to my pursuit of fluency in Swahili and I hope by the end of the year I will have attained a level of proficiency that will enable me hold general conversations on most common topics. By the end of next year, I want to be able to write, talk and debate on any topic of interest.