Power of Kiswahili and a beautiful book to go with it

Wednesday March 18 2020

Distinguished Kiswahili scholar Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed Nabhany displays his awards. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By Austin Bukenya

Jameni (my people), help me! I am in the middle of an eventful phase of my long love affair with Kiswahili and other things Swahili. Indeed, I seem to be in a sort of dilemma. (I remember novelist Ken Walibora teasing me with his infectious laugh when I suggested to him that the “horns of a dilemma” are “pembe za mtanziko” in Kiswahili).


But let me start by telling you about a heart-warming book that I have been reading this week. It is called Shihabuddin Chiraghdin: Life Journey of a Swahili Scholar, and it is an intimate biography of the famous Mwalimu by his own daughter, Ms Latifa S. Chiraghdin. The text has been around since 2012, but it is the new Asian African Heritage Trust edition that caught my attention.

It is such a basketful of lovely revelations, both intended and (apparently) unintended by the author, that I find myself in a bit of a dilemma (mtanziko again!) about it. I would like to share all the biographical, historical and linguistic delicacies in the text. But I know that my editor does not expect me to devote an entire column to a book review. So, I will limit my remarks to just the few bits that hit me personally.

Yes, I said personally. I did not get to meet Mwalimu Shihabuddin Chiraghdin in person, as he passed away in 1976, a year before I settled in Kenya. But I knew about him. The famous Tanzanian poet Mathias Mnyapala had called him “zimwi likujualo” (friendly genie), when the older man handed him his draft of Historia ya Kiswahili, which Chiraghdin eventually completed and published.



In Kenya, he was for many decades a household name in Kiswahili studies and education, along with luminaries like Said Karama, Kamal Khan and Abdilatif Abdalla. But what made the biography personally relevant to me was that many of the personalities that Ms Chiraghdin mentions as close associates of her father, even relatives, were actually my own acquaintances and teachers. These include my beloved Mwalimu, Prof Mohamed Abdulaziz, and the late Sheikh Ahmed Nabhany.

Another specially touching aspect of Ms Chiraghdin’s book for me is the detached and objective lucidity with which she portrays not only her family but also the realities of the whole of the Waswahili community. This intimate revelation of the structure and culture of this fascinating community, so complex and elusive that some rash ignoramuses even deny its existence, would make this text required reading in our cohesion-starved society.

Another aspect that may even surprise Ms Chiraghdin, a former top-flight public servant, but which struck me with endearing force in her book was the apparent attention that Mwalimu Chiraghdin paid to the education of not only his students, mostly boys, but also to that of his own daughters. The clarity, elegance and fluency of Ms Chiraghdin’s writing is itself a moving testimony to Mwalimu’s efforts.


Back to my big dilemma, I do not know whether to dance and celebrate or run and hide in the face of what is happening to Kiswahili in Uganda. Briefly, the “dancing” news is that the Waganda, many of whom were opposed to the language, are finally embracing it.

The Uganda Cabinet has approved the formation of a National Kiswahili Council. It will coordinate, promote and regulate the development of the language in the country, in cooperation with the East African Kiswahili Commission, an organ of the East African Community. There are also steps being taken to implement the teaching of Kiswahili at various levels of education.

I have been receiving personal congratulations on these developments, especially from my former students, several of whom are doctoral graduates or candidates in Kiswahili from various universities. I have had to pause and wonder why I should be complimented on the prospective success of a project to which many people have contributed more than I.

I humbly admit, however, that I have become one of the loudest advocates of Kiswahili in Uganda. This is not because of my qualifications in Kiswahili, which are non-existent, or special competence in cultural, social or educational planning. Rather it was a combination of the paucity of voices willing to speak up for the language and my admittedly unshakeable faith in and love of the language that probably thrust me into the undeserved limelight.


That is how I came to be nominated to represent Uganda, alongside Kenya’s Professor Kimani Njogu and Tanzania’s Dr Anna Kishe, on the EAC’s task force that worked on the setting up of the East African Kiswahili Commission. I suggested to my colleagues that we should call the task force “jopo shinikizi” (pressure panel) in Kiswahili. Our chair, Dr Kishe, suggested that we should call it simply “jopo kazi” (working panel), to which we agreed.

You had to come from Uganda, where “titwagala Luswayiri”(we don’t want Kiswahili) was and still is a common utterance among some segments of the population, to understand the need for pressure, advocacy and activism. My own guiding light in the struggle has always been the dictum that chema chajiuza (a good thing sells itself). If the Waganda could be persuaded of the beauty and usefulness of Kiswahili, they would adopt it. Apparently, it is beginning to work.

So, I suppose I have cause to celebrate. There is, however, a deep caution in my joy. My friends are now asking me what action to take following the Cabinet decision. The question is flattering, but the sober truth is that I do not know the answer. The processes of setting up the council are largely political, and there, I am decidedly out of my depth.

But penye nia pana njia (where there is a will there is a way). Moreover, as Latifa Chiraghdin hints in her book, the Waswahili are a very “possessive community”, and once you join them, you are recognised as a Mswahili.

If the Waswahili want me to continue the struggle, who am I to refuse?

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