• Without a Good Strategy It Will Take Uganda More Than Twenty Years to Become A Swahili Nation
The other day, the former Speaker of Parliament and now Minister of East African Affairs, Rt. Hon Rebecca Alitwala Kadaga tabled a bill which seeks to make Swahili a national language. In her submission, she labored to explain the importance of having a common language that can galvanize the East Africa region as one of the major weapons for fast tracking the East African federation. Although she was agitating for the obvious, one wonders why it has taken all this time to legislate for it.
The Back Ground:
As of now, Swahili is the official language used by the Ugandan security agencies like the police and army. This was designed by the British colonialists who had pushed for the East African Federation with the cryptic intention of using it as the most convenient means of controlling the region with minimal manpower. The Britons had lost a lot of resources during the Second World War against Germany’s Adolf Hitler and therefore, wanted to off load the burden of controlling very many colonies. That’s how they started granting independence to many of the colonized African countries.
So, they came up with the idea of compressing the three east African countries into one federation called the East African community. In 1953 the then secretary of colonies Oliver Leyton submitted that the East African Federation was the only option that would make the region governable, in terms of spreading the necessary services like transport, banking, education and health, among others. Oliver submitted that instead of having Uganda, Kenya or Tanzania as different entities, they could maintain a joint East African railway, East African Airways, East African university, hospital, regional army, currency, police etcetera.
Swahili, the regional language was therefore determined to be the means of communication that came in to operationalize that vision. When the then Kabaka of Buganda Frederick Muteesa heard of that idea, he immediately objected to it. But since the Britons had already made up their idea, they arrested the Kabaka and exiled him until 1955 when he returned. In his own calculation, the Kabaka felt that the federation was going to dilute the Kiganda culture. He was particularly very emotional about replacing the Luganda language with Swahili. Amongst the terms which were agreed between him and the Britons was that the Luganda language should remain dominant in Buganda to which the Britons consented and allowed him to return from exile in 1955.
However, the Swahili language was successfully adopted in the security agencies like the army, police and prisons. What however dealt a blow to the continued growth of the Swahili in Ugandan was Obote’s attack on the Kabaka’s palace in 1966. The attack left Buganda in shock and since it was the Swahili speaking army that had executed the mission, it became a language of beasts and monsters. When the then army commander Gen. Idi Amin himself staged a coup that overthrew President Obote in 1971, the Ugandan armies became notorious in abusing the human rights of Ugandans. This had the long-term effect of making Swahili very unpopular to most Bantu speaking people and they resoundingly rejected Swahili as a means of communication.
Since the Ugandan army was comprised of Northerners, it became easily dismissed from the Bantu speaking regions of the South, West and Eastern Uganda. When President Museveni stormed power in 1986, he defeated the army comprised of mostly Ugandans from the North who used Swahili as a means of communication. This compounded the stigma Ugandans had for Swahili. There was no way he could push for a language that had been used by killers to torment Ugandans and adopt it as a national language. But it is interesting to note that Swahili continued to be used by the security agencies. When President Museveni started agitating for the revival of the EAC, he forgot to agitate for the adoption of Swahili as a national language in Uganda.
If he had known that the EAC common market was realizably important, he should have started with spreading Swahili as a national language that could integrate easily with other regional countries. It turns out that he simply went for the cart before he could get the horse. Although it’s hard to get the accurate statistics, a simple observation shows that Swahili is spoken by 95% of Kenyans, 95% of Tanzanians, 80% in Burundi, 70% in Congo but less than 10% of South Sudanese and less than 20% of Ugandans. This anomaly in the common language makes the idea of the common market a little complicated.
Therefore, Hon Rebecca Kadaga was right to push for the legislation of Swahili as a national language. But given the fact that Ugandans still stigmatize Swahili as a language of the torturers and killers, it will take the country almost twenty years of teaching it in schools to spread across as the national language. But since trade cannot be hindered by lack of common language, then we can have a gradual infiltration of elementary Swahili starting from the schools at nursery level without being very aggressive. Therefore, the quickest way to spread Swahili is to make it mandatory for it to be spoken in public areas like offices, hospitals, banks, schools, police station, courts, buses and other public offices. You can also insist that it’s the only language that can be used during job interviews. Once you do that, you will not need a lot of effort to see Swahili in every corner of the country.
- Fred Daka Kamwada is a seasoned journalist, blogger and political analyst for over a decade in Uganda
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