Recent events in the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage point to the possibility that Kenya might, finally, have the long-awaited policy and legislative framework that will integrate the languages of Kenya in national development.
The framework will ensure that development is inclusive and sensitive to the aspirations of the majority of the people who communicate in the languages of Kenya, including Kiswahili. One hopes that the framework will help us pay more attention to language as a tool for participatory and accountable governance, including economic growth, sustainable environment and social cohesion.
Although English continues to serve as an official language, it excludes the bulk of the people and denies them critical knowledge and skills. It is the informal sector, which predominantly depends on community languages, that drives our economy. Yet there is little planning and development around these languages so that they can play a more focused role in livelihood activities. It is assumed that they can respond to critical issues in agriculture, climate change, technological transfer, security and health of their own volition. But, in reality, it is only through linguistic engineering and development of institutions that languages can serve communities effectively.
Our diverse languages and cultures are the means through which we are socialised into communities. They help us receive knowledge and skills, make meaning out of life and the environment, solidify behaviours, construct identities based on gender, profession, geographical location or ethnicity. When we share languages broadly, we are able to build structures and institutions for the promotion, expression and protection of political, economic, social and cultural life. The proposed languages framework ought to help us transcend ethnic isolationism by providing structures for the learning of Kiswahili broadly and broadening avenues for the acquisition of community languages beyond the ethnic group. Delinking languages from the ethnic group is an important feature of linguistic engineering in the construction of the nation-state.
Language is core to identity formation and collective solidarity. In our case, language can be used deliberately to create a nation defined by diversity of cultural experiences. The common experiences that are shared linguistically and symbolically contribute to relations of solidarity and interpersonal understanding. In the process of collectivising the meaning of life by community members, the nation is born.
In reality, the nation is a work of labour. It is not self-constructing. Rather, nation building is a political process pursued deliberately and rigorously by citizens. Through a common language, such as Kiswahili, our communities can construct a broad speech community and this, coupled with a shared vision, increases trust and a collective sense of belonging.
It is not surprising that the East African Community member states are developing Kiswahili as the regional lingua franca. They hope to use the language to enhance integration and to realise the East African Community Vision 2050 and Africa’s Agenda 2063. By adopting structures for developing Kiswahili, Kenya will become a key player in the regional integration agenda.
Kiswahili, spoken by over 120 million people, is one of the working languages of the African Union. It has broad acceptance on the continent and is one of the continent’s vehicular cross-border languages. There is ongoing work to enhance its role as the language of pan-African consciousness and a number of AU member states are warming up to it. Among other reasons, the language’s broad appeal results from the fact that its ethnic anchorage is loose and it has a flexible accommodative capacity to harness vocabulary. In other words, Kiswahili easily borrows from other world languages to propel itself forwards. But for Kiswahili to effectively occupy its rightful place as the language of wider communication, there is work that needs to be undertaken at the policy, legislative, and institutional levels in East Africa.
The East African Kiswahili Commission, as an institution of the EAC, speaks to the resolve of the region to develop and promote the language. Article 137 of the East African Community Treaty provides that Kiswahili shall be promoted, developed and used as the lingua franca of the community. The commission became operational in July 2015. A recent meeting of the Academy of African Languages called for Kiswahili to be recognised and promoted as a language of wider communication on the continent.
At the partner states level, Article 7 of Kenya’s Constitution recognises Kiswahili as the national language and co-official language, alongside English. Tanzania has had Kiswahili as the de facto national and official language since the Arusha Declaration of 1967. Under Mwalimu Nyerere, the Baraza la Kiswahili la Taifa was formed to promote the language nationally.
Other countries are following suit and on February 8, 2017 the Rwandan parliament passed a law making Kiswahili one of the nation’s official languages. Uganda is in the process of finalising legislation that will make Kiswahili a national language. The language is already incorporated into the Ugandan educational system despite negative attitudes among sections of society because of the language’s past association with the military and its excesses under Idi Amin. Kiswahili speakers in Burundi have also been advocating increased visibility.
These recent policy actions in the region point to a conscious decision to integrate Swahiliphone Africa through policy formulation and implementation. As the language of regional integration, Kiswahili will be a carrier of knowledge and culture and contribute to the inscription and consolidation of an East African identity.
As an official language in Kenya, Kiswahili will serve to increase intercultural understanding, social cohesion and inclusive development.
But a number of things will need to change.
First, the usage of Kiswahili in media and educational institutions ought to focus on communication and less on linguistic obscurity and purism. The books used in our educational institutions are generally unfriendly and tend to bully learners through unnecessary complexities and opaqueness. Many seek to teach linguistics — the science of language — rather than communication. The result of this linguistic bullying is a resistance to the language. Secondly, there is a need for political support for Kiswahili.
Our development of Kiswahili ought to go hand in glove with the promotion of other Kenyan languages. This is because, notwithstanding the need to develop Kiswahili as a national and regional language, community languages serve critical identity and economic functions that cannot be wished away. They are carriers of histories and philosophies and are actively used in securing livelihoods at all levels of our society. The policy and legislative framework being proposed by the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage will need to take cognisance of languages spoken in Kenya, including emerging ones and those in danger of extinction.
Prof Kimani Njogu is a member of the Academy of African Languages and is based as Twaweza Communications. [email protected]