Kiswahili: No General Application in Uganda?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Feb 24 16:45:55 UTC 2005

Kiswahili: No General Application

The Monitor (Kampala)
February 24, 2005
Posted to the web February 23, 2005

By Kintu Nyago

>>From my experience with East and Southern African cities, Kampala and
Johannesburg are the more culturally plural, that is in terms of language
diversity. With inhabitants freely expressing themselves in any of their
languages that they deem fit, rather than being constrained to relate to
each other in one State-imposed lingua franca. And this is a strength that
adds to the cosmopolitan outlook and cultural tolerance of these two post
conflict societies.

On the other hand, the language policies of a number of our neighbours,
notably Sudan with Arabic and Kenya and Tanzania with Kiswahili, have led
to cultural-cide. This has undermined their numerous indigenous languages.

In societies that lack the written record, like ours, language is our main
repository of culture - a point also made recently by Sauda Namyalo, a
Buganda Kingdom official, while commenting on the "Vagina Monologues"

That is why in a democratic and plural Uganda, we should find as deeply
perturbing the constitutional change recommendation of the Ssempebwa
Commission, stating that "The State should take steps to intensify the
teaching of Kiswahili in schools and popularizing it in all areas of
Uganda." And continues: "Kiswahili should be developed as the lingua
franca to foster integration in the East Africa region."

More disturbing was Cabinet's response to this lofty recommendation, in
its White Paper, when they stated that "Government agrees with the
recommendation and ... this should be reflected in Article 6 of the

Now unlike in Tanzania and Kenya, in Uganda Kiswahili is a foreign
language. So why commit cultural-cide, moreover through our own elected
government and taxes?

In a country where resources are extremely scarce, would it not be better
and much more democratic and sustainable to apply these same resources for
the purpose of preserving and developing our own age-old and rich
languages and culture? That is our main six or so languages - for instance
Runyoro-Rutoro, Luo, Ateso, Runyakore-Rukiga, Lugbara and Luganda.

None of the world's major languages developed on their 'own'. In Africa,
take the examples of English, French, Arabic, Kiswahili and Afrikaans. Not
only were most of these imposed from above through the State, but they
were concurrently generously bestowed with public resources for their
development! Of course at the expense of other equally deserving
indigenous languages! What an undemocratic model!

For instance in Uganda all formal educational institutions, from nursery
school to Makerere and other Universities, have a mandatory English
teacher and Department, where thought, time and financial resources are
enormously invested to propagate and develop this language.

The Tanzanian government under Mwalimu Nyerere, way back in the early
1960s, established an elaborate linguistic institute for the sole purpose
of enhancing the viability of Kiswahili. While in South Africa under
Apartheid, the Afrikaner Nationalist regime ensured that Afrikaans,
hitherto regarded as a primitive language of the rural Boers, emerged as a
truly international language of science and culture. All in a span of only
fifty years. Through in part ensuring that a number of their premier
universities such as Stellenbosch and Pretoria, exclusively used it as a
language of instruction.

As we debate the White Paper recommendation, there is need to ponder on
the question as to whether it was by accident that hitherto Kiswahili had
not been adopted as a Ugandan national language. Or was this
non-adaptation a result of our being a 'backward' people, that is compared
to our more conformist neighbours?

None of the above. The answer lies with the fact that we have always had
considerable differences with our neighbours, dating back to the
pre-colonial era. For instance Uganda had the highest concentration of
centralized authority State led societies in this region. And this led to
its own dynamics. It, for instance, hindered marauding Tippu Tipu- type
Swahili, Arab and Zanzibari merchant capitalists, mainly engaged in the
lucrative slave trade business, from penetrating this region with a free

When introduced in the court of Kabaka Suuna in the 1850s and later during
the reigns of Muteesa I and Chwa Kabalega, in Buganda and Bunyoro-Kitara
respectively, Kiswahili was a welcome cultural experience and a medium of
communication with the outside world, but on the terms of our people. That
is without it's being imposed on them.

A change of heart, seems to have emerged when the colonialists, in their
usual disrupting and imposing manner, suggested that Kiswahili becomes the
de-facto national language. This was resisted. The spirit of this
resistance is well captured in a 1921 Essay, on this subject, written by
Sir Daudi Chwa, contained in D.A Low's classical text, "The Mind of
Buganda". The intensity of this resistance led to the colonialists
developing 'cold feet', on this issue.

Surprisingly Milton Obote, during his two tenures in office, found no time
to impose Kiswahili on the Ugandan people. He was perhaps too occupied
with regime survival to engage this collision course. On the other hand,
his regimes' brutality went a long way in undermining the case of this
language in this country. With intimidating phrases as Kaa Chini, Fungua
Mulango, Wewe Nani,Nyamaza, Simama, etc increasingly being identified with
the brutality of the Uganda Army, General Service Unit, State sponsored
Kondoism and eventually the UNLA and NASA etc.

It is Idi Amin during the late 1970s who actually decreed that Kiswahili
becomes a national language. But even Amin was pragmatic enough not to
pursue this further, and his policy, in effect, never proceeded much
beyond the paper on which it was signed!

It has been argued that having one common language would create national
cohesion and unity. Unfortunately this is a simplistic and reductionist
argument. Otherwise how come the current crisis in Darfur all speak
Arabic, or Somalia with Somali, and more tragically with the attempted
genocides in Rwanda and Burundi where Kinyarwanda and Kirundi are the
languages spoken by all?

Alternatively, does the same argument assume that the new and democratic
South Africa with eleven national languages, ten of whom including
Afrikaans, are indigenous African, or Uganda with its hitherto
accommodative language policies or for that matter Nigeria and Ethiopia or
Ghana, amidst all their problems, are the most conflict prone societies in
the world? Of course not!

It has also been argued that a regional language like Kiswahili would
promote regional integration. Now how come the EAC with its mono language
mindset collapsed in the late 1970s while ECOWAS and SADC with plural
language policies consistently struggled on? How about the bustling 60 or
so years ever expanding European Union, viewed as a model for integration,
but with more official languages than member states? Is it about to
collapse tomorrow?

Uganda should adopt a democratic, accommodative and truly empowering
language policy that accords our main indigenous languages, national
status and State support.

As is the case in South Africa, Ethiopia and Eritrea. This in turn will
create a cultural renaissance, genuine development and national cohesion.
Indeed as our own recent experience since the late 1980s to date

Contact: nkintu at

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