World Kiswahili Language Day Celebrated Amid Debates on Adoption as African Continent’s Lingua Franca


Kiswahili illustration

July 7 marks World Kiswahili Language Day, a celebration of the vibrant Swahili language and its impact on the African continent. This year’s commemoration comes amidst a backdrop of ongoing discussions and debates surrounding the adoption of Swahili as an official lingua franca in various countries. The  adoption of new legislation at a continental level regarding Swahili has sparked a series of discussions, shedding light on the information gap and raising questions about its implementation and relevance to African integration and unity.

Cho cha Lugha cha Kiafrika (ACALAN) kina jukumu la kukuza na kuendeleza lugha za Kiafrika kama #Kiswahili kama njia ya kuendeleza ushirikiano na maendeleo wa bara. #SikuYaLughaKiswahili. As seen on Twitter/@_AfricanUnion

With approximately 200 million speakers worldwide, Swahili has its roots primarily in Kenya and Tanzania. However, its influence extends across vast regions of Africa, from sections of Somalia to Southern Africa and parts of Central Africa. Swahili and its dialects are among the ten most commonly spoken languages on the continent, serving as a significant means of communication and cultural expression.

The unexpected adoption of Swahili as an official working language by the African Union in 2021 took many by surprise, prompting extensive deliberations. One of the prevailing concerns voiced by critics was the nature of Kiswahili that would be taught in schools and its impact on the linguistic diversity of the continent. Some perceived some governments like Uganda’s aggressive implementation of Swahili as a political maneuver, drawing parallels to the imposition of foreign languages during the colonial era.

In a recent incident at the East African Legislative Assembly (Eala), the exclusion of Kiswahili, the lingua franca and an official language of the East African Community (EAC), from parliamentary debates sparked a heated debate among lawmakers. While some argued for discussions to be conducted solely in English, the working language of the EAC, others advocate for the inclusion of Kiswahili, highlighting its importance and accessibility to a wider population. While the EAC is not directly governed by the African Union, its exclusion of Kiswahili contradicts the broader vision of language inclusion and diversity espoused by the continental body.

Critics of Swahili adoption have also argued that the decision could potentially undermine local languages, and thousands of other dialects spoken across Africa and beyond. They fear that the emphasis on Swahili could marginalize these languages and erode cultural diversity. The discussion raised valid concerns about the need to strike a balance between promoting Swahili as a unifying language and preserving the rich linguistic heritage of the continent.

However, amidst the debates and differing opinions, Pan Africanist circles have reaffirmed the significance of Swahili in achieving regional integration and unity, which are fundamental to the African Union’s development plan, Agenda 2063. Advocates argue that embracing Swahili as a common language can bridge communication gaps and foster greater cooperation among African nations. In particular, the Ugandan cabinet justified the mandatory instruction of Swahili in primary and secondary schools as a step toward integration and regional unity. The East African Community (EAC) bloc, comprising several nations in the region, also endorsed the adoption of Swahili to facilitate communication and enhance collaboration though its parliament recently rejected its use.



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