On July 5, Uganda’s cabinet adopted Kiswahili (Swahili) – Africa’s most widely spoken indigenous language, which has long had official status in Kenya and Tanzania – as its official language and made it a compulsory subject in schools. primary and secondary, in line with a directive from the East African Community (EAC) bloc.
I wholeheartedly support this development and believe that the entire sub-Saharan continent should adopt Kiswahili as its official language.
Currently, there is no indigenous language in Africa spoken enough to serve as a common language on the continent. I find myself so often having to communicate with a fellow African in English, the language of our former colonizers. It makes me ashamed, embarrassed – but there is no alternative. Unfortunately, after independence, the founding fathers of our nations did not recognize the need to establish a common language – a language that did not belong to the settlers – which could help us to communicate easily with each other and to forge a spirit closeness and unity. Instead, they pushed us to adopt English – or French or Portuguese – as our common language.
My life, from primary school to adulthood, socially and academically, for example, has been dominated by English in my home country of Zimbabwe.
In 1980, the year Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain, I opened Hallingbury Primary School in Harare. There, our mostly white English-speaking teachers told us not to speak Chishona – my mother tongue – or any other native language of the country during school hours, and continued to punish anyone who inadvertently did so.
I suppose they were entitled to it, because the government had already designated English as the main language of communication in the country. It didn’t help that at the time everyone marveled at Prime Minister Robert Mugabe’s perfect command of English and that Western observers considered him “one of the world’s great speakers”. “. So our social indoctrination seemed normal and somewhat commendable. Just when the government of our newly independent nation should have supported and prioritized Indigenous languages and cultures, English was sold to young children as a marker of intelligence, sophistication and status. I quickly came to believe that Chishona was inferior to English and should not be associated with academia, science, or business.
After completing my primary education, I moved on to Prince Edward Secondary School, based in Harare, which is considered one of the best public schools in the country. The six years I spent there were an academic exercise in organized anglicization. The school was named after Britain’s Prince Edward and took immense pride in preserving old English traditions – and encouraging students to write, speak and think in English – at the expense of our African heritage. During my time there, I underwent an extensive and overt westernization process that distorted my African identity. And the situation was not much different outside of school. Two of the four state-owned national radio stations, Radio 1 and Radio 3, would broadcast in English and focus on English content. A significant portion of state broadcaster ZBC TV’s programming, including the main daily newscast, was also in English. We were mainly exposed to British and American programs, designed for English-speaking Western audiences, throughout our most formative years.
Besides English, I studied only one other language throughout my formal education: French. No one bothered to teach me isiNdebele, TjiKalanga, Tshivenda or Setswana, indigenous languages commonly spoken in Zimbabwe. As a result, I never acquired the ability to socialize with Zimbabweans across the country who were not educated in English or who chose on principle not to learn or communicate in the colonizer’s language.
Due to the state’s prioritization of English, I ended up developing two different personas – one that communicates primarily in English, responds to western social codes, and is immersed in western culture for use in life daily life and interactions, and another that communicates in Chishona and favors traditional ways of living and being, to be used in interactions with certain family members, such as my paternal grandmother, who did not speak English.
As the famous West Indian writer and political philosopher Frantz Fanon said in his landmark novel Black Skin, White Masks, “To speak a language is to appropriate a world, a culture”. My African peers and I, unfortunately, were stuck with English (and immersed in the music, arts and literature it forced upon us). The Zimbabwean government has made no effort to legislate and promote multilingualism through education.
At the regional level, the Southern African Development Community, the Economic Community of West African States and the Organization of African Unity fared no better. They adopted policies that promoted English, French and Portuguese as official working languages and made no effort to accommodate indigenous languages.
Renowned Kenyan scholar and writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o lamented that older generations in Africa, presenting “the languages of Europe as if they were the only ones capable of carrying knowledge, intelligence and everything else” , have created “a mentality in Africa where even African leaders expect validation from the West”.
This clearly mistaken mentality should have no place in Africa today.
During colonial times, English, Portuguese and French were introduced to the continent and prioritized in all social, economic and educational contexts, not because they were somehow “better” than indigenous languages , but because their widespread use made it easier for the colonizers. exploiting Africa’s natural and mineral resources and undermining its history, traditions and economic systems.
So why do Africans still insist on using these languages to communicate with each other?
In February this year, just months before Uganda’s decision to follow suit, the African Union finally adopted Kiswahili as its official working language alongside European languages.
Nevertheless, African leaders must do more to limit and ultimately end the dominance of colonial languages in Africa. Establishing Kiswahili as the main transnational language across sub-Saharan Africa can help heal our stained souls and restore our dignity.
Kiswahili, which has its origins in East Africa, is steeped in African history and shares similarities with a multitude of “Bantu” languages such as Chishona, Isizulu, Oshiwambo, Isixhosa and lingala, to name a few.
According to the United Nations, it already has more than 200 million speakers in more than 14 countries: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), South Sudan, Somalia, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, the Comoros and as far as Oman and Yemen in the Middle East,
The University of Cape Town plans to introduce Kiswahili as an elective language course from 2023 and as a major subject from 2028. Similarly, Addis Ababa University is expected to start teaching Kiswahili in partnership with the University of Dar es Salaam.
A continental policy for teaching Kiswahili in schools and universities can help encourage the free movement of people in Africa and foster social and economic integration. It could create a market of 1.1 billion people and be a game-changer for the media, film and TV industry – a tantalizing business prospect that can help creatives tell a plethora of historical and contemporary African stories. neglected. Widespread use of Kiswahili can also strengthen academic collaboration and help mitigate the consequences of medical colonization from the West. If more countries follow Uganda’s example and make Kiswahili an official language, it may encourage educational institutions across Africa to pay as much attention to this indigenous language as to European languages. As a result, our younger generations can finally socialize using an indigenous African language.
This is Africa, and we are Africans. It is high time we started talking to each other using an African language.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.