Scholar roots for lingua franca status for Kiswahili

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon May 15 13:26:47 UTC 2006

>>From Kenya Times,

Scholar roots for lingua franca status for Kiswahili


Prof Kimani Njogu has, for sometimes, been fighting to ensure Kiswahili
does not only become Kenyas official language but is also adopted and used
within the African Union member states. Seeping through his writings over
the last five years, one comes across a restless man out to see that one
of the local languages is domesticated and made the lingua franca of the
continent that has never known unity of any kind. Kimani, who is also the
chairman of Chama Cha Kiswahili Cha Taifa (CHAKITA), wants Kiswahili to be
elevated to be at par or even higher than either English or French. His
writings all show a man trying, amidst numerous hurdles, to promote and
sustain Kiswahili, that he says, has for some times been perceived as a
preserve of the low class and the unsophisticated. In an article titled
Language and Political Leadership, Prof Kimani writes, When the African
Union (AU) adopted Kiswahili as one of the languages of this important
gathering, it was assumed that an East African head of state would take
the lead in speaking in the language in order to set the pace for the

He anchors his argument on the fact that a lot of Kiswahili works have
mainly been undertaken in Kenya and Tanzania and cites several East
African scholars who have made contributions in the development of
Kiswahili. The late President Julius Nyerere made it the language of the
politics of ujamaa na kujitegemea, argues Kimani adding, he (Nyerere)
translated classical works into Kiswahili and wrote original pieces in the
language. Kimani, unlike other scholars, does not think teaching material
or manpower have led to the quackmire that Kiswahili is facing now. There
are enough grammar books, dictionaries and literary works, adding that
postgraduate students pursuing Kiswahili are now writing their
dissertations using the language. He further argues that Kiswahii scholars
no longer need to explain some literary issues and terms using another

The two main challenges that Kiswahili has had to face over time are
attitude change and the knowledge of the language, points Kimani and
further adds, Were able to teach, study and research Kiswahili as one
could study Japanese, Italian or French. Writing again in 2004, Kimani
laments that even after former Mozambique President Joachim Chisano had
made his farewell speech as AU chair in Kiswahili, East African heads of
states missed a great opportunity to provide leadership showcasing the
national language. He seems surprised that the Mozambiquans, who learnt
Kiswahili from Tanzanians during their struggle for independence, as many
of them were exiled there, should be the one setting the pace for the East
African people. But why should we learn Kiswahili when high courts
records, government correspondences, presidential speeches and even
university degree certificates in Kiwahili are all written in English.
Through Kiswahili, Africans can start disconnecting from the uncomfortable
links with neocolonialism. It would be an assertion of the urge for
cultural independence, asserts Kimani.

A CHAKITA meeting, held in 2004, recognised that governments ought to play
a bigger role in promoting both national and local languages. Kimani is
envisioning Africa speaking Kiswahili. He wants to see East African
governments move fast and legislate the formation of National Kiswahli
Councils as a matter of urgency to allow Microsoft to localise the
computer keyboard into Kiswahili. He sarcastically notes that it took
dictator Amin Dada to declare Kiswahili a national language in both radio
and TV broadcast for the Ugandans to embrace it. CHAKITA, has throughout
Kimanis tenure, made several proposals to educational bodies and
commissions. For example, it proposed to Koech Commission that Kiswahili
continues to be taught and examined as a compulsory subject in all levels
of education.

He believes that if Kiswahili language is to claim vintage position
globally, all the concerned parties must nurture and defend it
purposefully. In another illuminating article titled Chakita to Promote
Kiswahili Kimani notes , It is unfortunate that Kenya has not taken
position on the role of Kiswahili as a tool for development. There is no
government organ handling language policies. But not all is lost. Had the
Bomas draft constitution been adopted, Kimani would be the happiest man
since Kenyas constitution would have been available in Kiswahili. Kimani
is quoted to have once commended then Constitution of Kenya Review
Commission (CKRC) secretary Dr PLO Lumumba , who he described as a fluent
Kiswahili speaker, for the limitless times he made his public
presentations in the language. He also feels that lawyers should be
trained to argue their cases in Kiswahili without the aid of interpreters
so that time and money are saved and these legal proceedings become

But the presidential speeches made in English still bother Prof Kimani. I
still do not understand why we should be addressed in English during our
National Days, wonders Kimani adding, sarcastically though, presidential
aides could seek guidance if they are not competent in writing a Kiswahili
speech. His argument is that effective language learning can guide Africa
in its path towards democracy. He writes that, The choice of a language
with which the bulk of the people can relate becomes critical. It is
erroneous to assume that English and French can become the languages of
democratisation as they lack the emotion to do so. To prove his point,
Kimani, in the same interview, had systematically cited several strides
that Kiswahili has made in the last four decades both locally and
globally. He further cited Prince William as one of the prominent persons
pursuing Kiswahili and wondered why East Africans are running away from
that which more people are yearning for.

There is a university in Egypt that has about 300 Kiswahili students and a
number of Kenyans are teaching there, Kimani said adding that a prominent
Kenyan scholar, Prof Chege Githiora of the University of Oriental and
African Studies has authored the first Kiswahili-Spanish dictionary.
Kimani has also challenged one of the public universities to pilot an
academic programme where all subjects or units are taught and assessed in
Kiswahili. Maybe, it is time Africa listens to this seasoned researcher,
don, critic and writer whose book Ufundishaji wa Kiswahili-Nadharia na
Mbinu that won Noma Award in 2000 for publishing in African languages.

ktelwa at

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