Swahili in Uganda: From the Language of the Military to the Language of the Market
Swahili does not owe its origins to trade alone. Throughout the colonial era, Swahili was used as the predominant military language for colonial armies relying on African conscripts. Both the British King’s African Rifles (KAR), Britain’s main military arm in its African territories, and German colonial forces relied on Swahili in their operations.
Fighting in both World Wars as well as several intermittent conflicts throughout East Africa, the King’s African Rifles communicated in a simplified version of Swahili made to accommodate the varied sociolinguistic groups of the KAR’s soldiers and European officers’ limited knowledge of the language. This simplified version of the language, known as KiKAR (with Ki- used as a prefix for all languages referenced in Swahili), became feared in parts of East Africa, especially where Swahili was originally less prominent.
In Uganda for example, where the predominant language is historically Luganda, Swahili or KiKAR was most often encountered in frightening situations. The Swahili many Ugandans knew came from commands such as “Fungua mlango!” (“Open the door!”), or “Piga risasi!” (“Shoot!”). The association between Swahili and the military, especially in Uganda, continued after the colonial era as independent states’ militaries remained composed of former KAR soldiers. The most notable of these soldiers was probably Lieutenant Idi Amin Dada, the first Ugandan to be promoted to officer rank in the KAR, and eventual dictator of Uganda.
While it is often mentioned anecdotally that Uganda’s invasion by Swahili-speaking Tanzania in the Kagera War of 1978-79 gave Swahili a bad reputation throughout Uganda, the truth is more complex. In the Kagera War, cross-border conflicts led to an invasion of Tanzania by Idi Amin’s Uganda, and a counter-invasion of Uganda by Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania. Tanzanian forces claim they were greeted as liberators by Ugandans terrified of Amin’s violent regime. However, the Tanzanian military’s early atrocities committed in retaliation for Ugandan massacres, though ceased upon orders by Nyerere, led Ugandans to fear both militaries in their country. What they had in common was the Swahili language.
After the Tanzanian overthrow of Amin and the return of normalcy, Swahili became perceived as an undesirable language in Uganda said to be common among riff-raff and fearsome military figures. Uganda held conflicting positions about implementing Swahili, the language of its regional neighbors, in its classrooms – first withholding compulsory Swahili education, then mandating it, repealing the mandate and finally implementing Swahili in schools only recently. This is largely due to the rise of regional trade making Swahili more important than ever for businesspeople throughout East Africa. The economic need for Swahili in Uganda, combined with the rise in East African cultural exchanges through music, migration and governance, indicates that the language is no longer to be shunned.
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