Like Biblical Prophet Kiswahili not Popular at Home

By Finnigan Wa Simbeye, Paris

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

Posted July 26, 2002

ONE of the most spoken languages in Africa, Kiswahili recently made headway into international circles when African Union (AU)’s Council of Ministers endorsed it as one of the official languages of the new Union.

Of late, the language is not very popular at home, or at least its second home of Tanzania where ordinary people and the elite are currently frenzied by a wave of new foreign languages such as English and French. Many Tanzanian middle class families today struggling to make ends meet are managing the luxury of taking their children to mostly substandard international schools in major towns such as Dar es Salaam, the commercial capital, and Arusha, which former US President Bill Clinton christened the Geneva of Africa, abeit astronomical fees. Some families with deep pockets are sending their kids to neighbouring Kenya, considered as the region’s English language perfection centre, for kindergarten and primary education.

If you ask an average Tanzanian today, who went to school during the past two and a half decades of the country’s founder President the late Mwalimu Julius Nyerere’s leadership, what major grievances they have against the late African statesman, they will probably say,

“Ah alitunyima elimu bwana. Hakutaka tujifunze Kiingereza na lugha nyingine za kigeni kwani tungejuwa mambo mengi ambayo yeye alikuwa anatudanganya!“ This can literally translate into, “Well, he denied us education. He did not want people to learn English and other foreign languages because he knew that we could then understand many things which he used to lie to us.“

Among many Tanzanians including the elite there is a feeling that Kiswahili was exaggeratedly given priority over any other foreign languages during the late Mwl. Nyerere’s tenure of office, a development blamed for the country’s poor education standards today.

Many Tanzanians and Africans think that being educated is speaking fluent English and French, languages which unfortunately stand for a legacy of oppression, exploitation of the continent by Europeans.

In one of its editorials last April, the country’s leading private daily, The Guardian newspaper, urged authorities to move quickly into transformation of the country’s ailing education system to allow introduction of English as universal medium of instruction from primary school level, if education standards are to be improved.

The Guardian’s editorial argued that there is need for the country to officially endorse English as medium of instruction in the education system of the country because, among other advantages, English is an international language, has ample reading material to allow pupils and students read widely for education is about extensive reading and understanding of issues and that Tanzania’s education systems needs foreign experts to beef up manpower and skill shortages.

The editorial offended some upright Tanzanians, including language experts like Dr. Martha Qorro of University of Dar es Salaam’s Department of Foreign Languages and Linguistics who squarely attacked the brainwashing arguments raised by the paper’s editorial.

Dealing with the editorial blow by blow, Dr. Qorro, argued that Kiswahili is not to blame for Tanzania’s poor education standards and stressed that research results have shown that students learn better in their mother languages than foreign ones.

“Not everyone who recommends a change of medium of instruction to Kiswahili is a Kiswahili professor, I for one, am not a Kiswahili professor. I have been teaching English in the past 25 years,“ she argued in her well researched facts ladden article published by the same paper some days after the editorial.

That Kiswahili has short-comings to be fully utilised as an international language of instruction in education, is true but that going for English or French will make matters better is the folly of hiring a monkey to guard a maize farm.

The AU Council of Ministers’ decision has shown the wisdom with which Tanzania’s founder President the late Mwl Nyerere had in advocating universal use of the language across east Africa during early days of independence. Today, Kiswahili stands tall as the only local language that has been adopted as official language for three sovereign countries, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

Today, Kiswahili is spoken by an estimated over 100 million people mostly in Southern Africa and is being taught in about 50 institutions of higher learning in the United States, Europe and Africa.

The gesture being sent by the AU Ministers is a clear indication that Africa cannot continue to rely on using foreign languages as official in its daily business activities in future because such action has not worked perfectly in the interest of Africans.

There are many heads of state and government in Africa who address their people in English or French for no apparent reason though such languages have no bearing among the continent’s majority tribal people residing in the most remote parts of the continent.

Like European colonialists, African leaders today feel proud when they stand at public rallies and address the people in English, French, Portuguese, Spanish or Arabic, languages which often necessitates, inappropriate translations.

Some African politicians and learned elite are so brainwashed such that they argue that anyone that doesn’t speak English or French, the two most widely used foreign languages on the continent, is unfit to hold high profile public office. In Tanzania, for example during the first multi-party elections in 1995, one ruling party respected candidate who was widely tipped to win nomination for the presidential constituency, told voters at a campaign rally not to vote for a popular opposition presidential candidate because he wasn’t conversant in English!

Probably the colonial legacy veil which has been covering the minds of African politicians is finally being removed and soon, more popular African languages such as Luo, Hausa and Zulu, just to name a few, will be accorded their deserved honour to be official working languages of the AU.

The African electorate needs to follow deliberations of the AU institutions live by listening from the speaker’s mouth and not wait for a faulting translator to tell them what the person they voted into office has said, after the correct message gets to residents of Paris, London, Lisbon or Madrid before the intended person.

Hiding behind unaffordable costs of adopting African popular languages for the AU’s deliberations, won’t last brainwashed politicians and learned elite long, because even the foreign languages that the continent is using are already costing African tax payers a lot, even if unofficially unrecognised. The many bogus experts sent to Africa by using the language trap, is enough reason for the continent’s ruling elite to understand that Africa needs to learn the hard way how to invest heavily in various sectors like education now, if the future is to become any better.

Use of foreign languages in daily life has marginalised many of the continent’s people from actively taking part in the decision making process of their countries and continent. Kiswahili deserves the honour accorded it by the AU and hopefully other popular African languages will follow soon.

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