THE RISE OF KISWAHILI

The rise and development of a language policy in German East Africa by Ann Brumfit: from Sprache und Geschichte in Afrika 2 (1980) pp.219-331

Tanzania is unique in sub-Saharan Africa in having a single, widely used and accepted African national language. Though vernacular languages survive and are still used for daily verbal communication in many areas, especially by the older people, they have been widely displaced by Kiswahili among the younger generation and retain virtually no significance as vehicles of literate communication. A traveller in any part of Tanzania can now easily get by with Kiswahili. In local government offices he will hear little else and almost all official documents and communications are in this language. Parliament (Bunge) transacts its business in the national language and with the exception of most major legislation, for which English is retained for the time being, the laws are increasingly in Kiswahili. Official documents and pronouncements, such as the republican constitution, development plans and budget speeches, use the national language exclusively and provide evidence of linguistic development, for which the existing dictionaries make increasingly inadequate provision.*

The happy possession of a single official African language undoubtedly powerfully reinforces national unity in Tanzania and provides a psychological outlet for pride in nationhood. Unlike Kenya or Nigeria, where the use of European lingua franca seems inescapable, Tanzanians can employ an essentially Bantu language closely related to the local vernaculars and in this respect a more natural expression of their own identity and traditional habits of thought.

How did Tanzania come to enjoy this considerable advantage? The reasons are in part geographical and in part historical. Apart from small enclaves of nilotic and nilo-hamitic origin, the people of Tanzania are of Bantu stock. In this respect they differ fundamentally from the population of Kenya, for whom the colonial partition of Africa has secured the presence of a large nilotic minority, whose language and culture differ radically from those of the Bantu majority, and not inconsiderable populations of nilo- hamitic origin, such as the Kisii.l The nilotic Luo have been traditionally resistant to the penetration of Kiswahili, which in Kenya, notwithstanding its general inclusion as a subject in the primary school and limited use as an urban lingua franca, has remained largely a coastal vernacular.

But the reasons for the pre-eminence of Kiswahili in Tanzania are predominantly historical and the essay to which this article refers traces these origins from early times to the end of German rule. The earliest and most important influence leading to the spread of Kiswahili was the penetration of the inland areas of Tanganyika by Swahili traders from Zanzibar and the coastal strip in search of slaves and ivory.

The early overland routes emanated from Zanzibar and passed through Tanganyika from Bagamoyo in the north and Kilwa in the south, leading to the establishment of inland trading posts occupied by Swahili traders from the coast. Some of these trading centres eventually became towns such as Tabora, Ujiji and Songea. In due course people from inland tribes began to make journeys to the coast for the purposes of trade during the dry season and in pursuit of this aim acquired a working knowledge of Kiswahili. As trade gradually penetrated the rural areas and with increasing labour mobility in search of work on plantations, in commerce or on the railways, the utility of Kiswahili as a lingua franca became increasingly apparent.

The value of Kiswahili as a common language of administration early became evident to the German colonial government and during the German period increasing provision for it was made in the schools, in spite of opposition in Berlin, where German was the favoured second language and Kiswahili was distrusted on account of its Islamic associations. The Protestant missions were also initially hostile to Kiswahili both as a possible vehicle of islamic proselytism and in view of the Lutheran conviction that religion should be taught in the mother tongue. But in the end, with the gradual opening up of the country and the increasing mobility of its people, the inevitable spread of Kiswahili and its potential as a vehicle for Christian teaching were recognised.

While it cannot be said that either the German colonial government, or the missions, provided the initial impetus which caused Kiswahili to rise supreme over the other vernacular languages of mainland Tanzania and to penetrate to all corners of the country, both government and missions – including the post-war government under the Mandate – eventually did much to promote Kiswahili, both by their use of it in their respective spheres, and by teaching it in the schools under their control. In spite of the early associations with slavery, it was a utilitarian argument that eventually triumphed.

The article provides a most interesting, well-documented account of the origins and growth of Kiswahili and the influence upon its propagation exerted by the German colonial authorities and the catholic and protestant missions. In so doing, the narrative at the same time provides usefu1 insight into the conditions prevailing in the closing decades of the nineteenth century and the years leading up to the Great War. The legacy of colonial governments has by no means always, or in all respects, been an asset to the successor governments of independent Africa, but in respect of language, notwithstanding the early perverse intentions of the imperial government in Berlin, the German colonial authorities and German scholarship certainly made a valuable contribution. It has been the genius of independent Tanzania that has transformed this inheritance into a vehicle fit for the complex requirements of life in a modern society.

*Such phrases as ‘pato la taifa’ (GDP) are now in common parlance among people who talk of such things. Percent is ‘asimilia’, correlate ‘wianisha’ and evaluation technique ‘ubinu za tathmini’.

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