By Ciugu Mwagiru*
For those concerned about the loss of African heritage and our rapidly vanishing languages and cultures, the best news of the decade is that Tanzania plans to promote the teaching of Kiswahili in foreign countries and will be setting up offices for that purpose through its embassies abroad.
Amos Makalla, the country’s deputy Minister for Information, Youth, Culture and Sports, said recently, the project will kick off “very soon” with the opening of a teaching office in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, which also hosts the headquarters of the African Union.
He made the announcement soon after the Tanzanian parliament ratified a protocol on the establishment of the East African Kiswahili Commission, which seeks to recognise Kiswahili as the regional bloc’s lingua franca.
Tanzania becomes the second country to ratify the protocol after Kenya.
Mr Makalla said the move would help strengthen Kiswahili which is also seen as a unifying factor in the region.
Although the Ugandan parliament is yet to ratify the new protocol, it is one of the three countries that initially worked on its preparation.
As for Rwanda and Burundi, they have already sought the green light from the East African Community Secretariat to embark on the promotion of Kiswahili in their countries.
The two latest members of the EAC will, however, have to wait until all the initial signatories of the protocol ratify it.
Kiswahili has become a second language for millions of people in East and Central Africa, where it is either an official or national language.
Scholars say in Tanzania, it is common for non-speakers to pick up Kiswahili as their first language, mainly in urban areas.
According to statistics contained in an American publication, Ethnologue: Languages of the World, there were 787,630 first-language Kiswahili speakers scattered in different parts of the country.
It is also spoken as a second language by more than 30 million rural people.
In Kenya, the greater part of the country can speak the language. In fact, most educated Kenyans can communicate fluently in Kiswahili, since it is a compulsory subject in both primary and secondary school, and is also widely taught in institutions of higher learning.
As for Uganda, Kiswahili was declared a compulsory subject in primary schools in 1992, although that mandate has not been well implemented.
Also, Kiswahili was declared an official language in 2005, in preparation for the East African Federation but it is yet to pick up in the country.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, five eastern provinces speak it.
Already an official language of the African Union, alongside English, French, Arabic, Portuguese and Spanish, Kiswahili has grown fast and now thrives in unexpected places: Libya, the Comoros Islands, Mayotte, Mozambique, Oman, Rwanda, Somalia, United Arab Emirates and even South Africa, Canada and the US. This growth is largely the result of historical migratory patterns.
In Mayotte, it is identified as Comorian, while in Somalia, where the Afro-Asiatic Somali language predominates, it has two variants: Kibajuni and Chimwiini.
Kibajuni also serves as the mother tongue of the Bajuni minority ethnic group that inhabits the tiny Bajuni Islands and the southern Kismayu region of Somalia.
On the other hand, the Chimwiini variant, also known as Chimbalazi, is spoken along the Benadir coast by the Bravanese people.
In Oman, an estimated 22,000 people speak Kiswahili, most of them being descendants of Zanzibari Omanis repatriated after the fall of the Sultanate of Zanzibar.
As for South Africa, it had an estimated 2,000 Kiswahili speakers by 2006, most of them settled in Chatsworth, an urban area near Durban along the Natal coastline.
According to historians, they are descendants of people brought from Zanzibar and northern Mozambique between 1873 and 1878, who retained their Muslim faith while working as gardeners.
Farther afield, Kiswahili — or other closely related languages — is spoken by nearly the entire population of the Comoros and by relatively small numbers of people in northern Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique.
Historically, well into the 20th Century, the language was still understood in the southern ports of the Red Sea and along the coasts of southern Arabia and the Persian Gulf.
Classified by linguists as a Bantu language, Kiswahili has grown so rapidly over time that today, it is prominent on the African linguistic map.
With some of its vocabulary derived from Arabic through more than 12 centuries of contact with Arabic-speaking peoples, it has also incorporated Persian, German, Portuguese, English and French words into its vocabulary through sustained contacts during the past five centuries.
Numerous variants of the language have also evolved in recent decades in different parts of Africa. Among them is Kingwana, a variety spoken in the eastern and southern regions of the DRC.
A variety commonly referred to as “Copperbelt Kiswahili,” is spoken in the south.
In Kenya, Sheng, a street patois that blends Kiswahili, English and a variety of ethnic languages, is widely spoken — mostly by the younger generation — mainly in and around Nairobi.
Having its origins in the Nairobi slums and the poorer parts of the city, Sheng is today considered fashionable and cosmopolitan by a growing segment of the population.
At the global level, Kiswahili has grown fast, and today, estimates show it is spoken by some 120 to 150 million people, a huge jump from the 2007 figures.
In that year, Kiswahili was estimated to have six million native speakers and 40 million second language speakers.
In the same year, it was estimated that there were 10,000 Kiswahili speakers in Mozambique, most of them in the northern regions of the country bordering Tanzania.
As for Burundi, there were 6,360 Kiswahili speakers by 2000, spread around the capital Bujumbura, but also in cities such as Gitega.
In response to the rapid spread of the language over vast territories, top world institutions have adopted Kiswahili as a major communication channel, with leading world broadcasters having programmes in the language.
These include BBC World Service, Voice of America, Radio Deutsche Welle, Voice of Russia, China Radio International, Radio France Internationale and Radio South Africa.
*Source The East African