Swahili: Growing as a National Language

Current Swahili Events

Swahili recently became the fourth official language of Rwanda. The national language is Kinyarwanda, and English and French are used in government. In 2007, the East African Community (founded by Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya) agreed to use Swahili and English as their national languages. Rwanda’s Minister of Sports and Culture, Jilienne Iwacu said that this move not only fulfills the 2007 pledge, but also will support economic integration in East Africa. Swahili gained momentum amongst the Rwanda populace after the genocide.

While Rwanda was largely a Francophone country because of its history as a colony of Belgium, the government banned French in schools in 2009. The move was justified, officially, to strengthen relations with the East African community, which mostly relies on English. However, Chris McGreal, in “Why Rwanda said adieu to French,” surmises that since the UK is the greatest donor to Rwanda, it probably has something to do with foreign aid.

Nevertheless, the move to include Swahili speaks to a hope from Tanzania’s first President Julius Nyerere, who called for a unified Africa, which would share resources and challenge western hegemony and dominance. While an African Union proved difficult to cultivate, Nyerere thought that a unified East Africa could initiate the movement. Fifty years later, his wish seems closer to fruition than ever before.

Language can a critical component of nation building. Swahili is the national language of Tanzania and one of the national languages of Kenya. Despite their proximity, shared languages and customs, Kenya and Tanzania have used language policies in different ways to different effects. Language policy has affected educational policy, curriculum reform, and institutional policies in both countries. Tanzania has seen more success in using language to build national unity, as they chose to exclusively use Swahili and not English.

Tanzania’s efforts in language policy have paid off. According to Miguel, these policies have allowed ethnically diverse communities in Tanzania have better local public good outcomes than similar communities in Kenya. Comparing Kenya and Tanzania can give insights into how policy reform can help improve social conditions.

Recently, there has been some conversations about Swahili becoming the official language of East Africa. This effort is part of the East African Community’s (EAC) attempts to harmonize the countries. This effort also includes harmonizing other policies like public school curriculums.

Work cited

AfricaNews. “Rwanda moves to make Swahili its fourth official language.” Africanews. February 10, 2017. Accessed November 6, 2017. http://www.africanews.com/2017/02/10/rwanda-moves-to-make-swahili-its-fourth-official-language//

McGreal, Chris. Why Rwanda said adieu to French.” The Guardian. January 16, 2009. Accessed November 6, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2009/jan/16/rwanda-english-genocide

Miguel, E. (2004). Tribe or Nation?: Nation building and public goods in Kenya Versus tanzania. World Politics, 56(3), 327–362. https://doi.org/10.1353/wp.2004.0018

Nyerere, Julius K. Freedom and Unity: Uhuru Na Umoja: A Selection From Writings and Speeches, 1952-65. London, Nairobi [etc.]: Oxford U.P., 1967.






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