Swahili as a Compulsory Subject in East African Schools
Nobody knows just how many people speak Swahili as a primary or secondary language. Estimates range wildly from five million primary speakers and 60 million secondary speakers to 15 million primary speakers and 150 million secondary speakers. Because of its origins as a widespread trade language and lingua franca with a low ratio of primary to secondary speakers, there is a long and storied debate about the extent to which Swahili should be institutionalized in schools and colleges throughout East Africa.
As a widely-spoken alternative to colonial languages, Swahili became the language of independence in East Africa. Shortly after independence in 1961, Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere made his country the first to declare Swahili a national language, making it compulsory in schools as part of his Ujamaa socialist policies to unite Tanzania and eventually East Africa. This also made Tanzania one of the first African countries to declare an indigenous national language, a powerful rebuke to its colonial past. In 1970 Kenya followed suit to declare Swahili as its only national language, but it was not compulsory in education until 1985.
Today, Swahili has grown to become the national or official language of Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, the DRC and Rwanda. However, its role as a compulsory language in education has been slower to adopt and more controversial. In Tanzania, where it was first made compulsory, Swahili has until recently been the primary language of school until secondary education, where it then switched to English. This caused tensions as many otherwise bright students felt poorly equipped for higher education due to an institutionalized language barrier.
In Uganda, problems have been even more pronounced. Due to Tanzania’s 1979 invasion and subsequent occupation of Uganda, Swahili became notorious as the language of occupiers. Though the Ugandan government attempted to make Swahili compulsory in 2007, the plans were soon scrapped until being revived in 2016.
Rwanda is the most recent nation to experiment with making Swahili compulsory. Though the Rwandan government states that Swahili is necessary as a growing regional language uniting East African cultures and economies, educators fear that the move will be difficult to implement and require significant changes to staff, curriculums and materials. Given the competing demands of local languages and English on national education systems, we have yet to see the optimum balance of language education in East African schools.
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