The story of how Swahili became Africa’s most spoken language
Once an obscure island dialect of an African Bantu language, Swahili has become Africa’s most internationally recognized language. It is comparable to the few languages in the world that have more than 200 million users.
Over the two millennia of growth and adaptation of Swahili, the creators of this history – immigrants from the interior of Africa, traders from Asia, Arab and European occupiers, European and Indian settlers, colonial rulers and individuals from various postcolonial nations – have used Swahili and adapted for their own purposes. They took it everywhere they went west.
The Swahili-speaking area of Africa now spans a third of the continent from south to north and touches the opposite coast, encompassing the heart of Africa.
The historic Swahili lands lie on the Indian Ocean coastline of East Africa. A 2,500 kilometer chain of coastal cities stretching from Mogadishu, Somalia, to Sofala, Mozambique, as well as offshore islands as far away as the Comoros and Seychelles.
This coastal region has long served as an international crossroads of trade and human circulation. People from all walks of life and from regions as dispersed as Indonesia, Persia, the African Great Lakes, the United States and Europe all met. Hunter-gatherers, herders and farmers mingled with traders and townspeople.
Africans devoted to the ancestors and spirits of their lands met Muslims, Hindus, Portuguese Catholics and British Anglicans. Workers (including slaves, porters and labourers), soldiers, rulers and diplomats had intermingled since ancient times. Anyone who traveled to the East African coastline could choose to become Swahili, and many did.
The list of Swahili enthusiasts and defenders includes notable intellectuals, freedom fighters, civil rights activists, political leaders, learned professional societies, artists, and health workers. Not to mention the usual professional writers, poets and artists.
The first was Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka. Since the 1960s, the Nigerian writer, poet and playwright has repeatedly called for the use of Swahili as a transcontinental language for Africa. The African Union (AU), the “United States of Africa”, nurtured the same sense of continental unity in July 2004 and adopted Swahili as its official language. When Joaquim Chissano (then President of Mozambique) put this motion on the table, he addressed the AU in the impeccable Swahili he had learned in Tanzania, where he was educated in exile from the Portuguese colony .
The African Union did not adopt Swahili as the international language of Africa by chance. Swahili has a much longer history of building bridges between people across the African continent and in the diaspora.
The sense of unity, the insistence that all of Africa is one, will simply not go away. Languages are essential to everyone’s sense of belonging, to expressing what is in their hearts. The AU’s decision was particularly striking given that the populations of its member states speak about two thousand languages (about a third of all human languages), several dozen of them with more than a million speakers.
How did Swahili come to occupy such an important place among so many groups with diverse histories and linguistic traditions?
A language of liberation
During the decades leading up to the independence of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in the early 1960s, Swahili functioned as an international medium for political collaboration. It allowed freedom fighters from across the region to communicate their common aspirations even though their native languages varied widely.
The rise of Swahili, for some Africans, was the mark of a true cultural and personal independence vis-à-vis the European colonizers and their languages of control and command. Unique among independent nations in Africa, the Tanzanian government uses Swahili for all official business and, most impressively, in basic education. Indeed, the Swahili word uhuru (freedom), which emerged from this struggle for independence, has become part of the global lexicon of political emancipation.
The highest political offices in East Africa began using and promoting Swahili soon after independence. Presidents Julius Nyerere of Tanzania (1962–85) and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya (1964–78) promoted Swahili as integral to the political and economic interests, security and liberation of the region. The political power of the language was demonstrated, less happily, by Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (1971-1979), who used Swahili for his army and secret police operations during his reign of terror.
Under Nyerere, Tanzania became one of only two African nations to declare a native African language as the country’s official mode of communication (the other being Ethiopia, along with Amharic). Nyerere personally translated two of William Shakespeare’s plays into Swahili to demonstrate Swahili’s ability to carry the expressive weight of great literary works.
Read: Ministers propose official use of Kiswahili at SADC meetings
Nyerere even made the Swahili term a reference to Tanzanian citizenship. Later, this label acquired socialist connotations by praising the common men and women of the nation. He stood in sharp contrast to the elite Western-oriented Europeans and Africans with rapidly – and by dubious implication – amassed wealth.
Ultimately, the term expanded further to encompass the poor of all races, of African and non-African descent. In my own experience as a lecturer at Stanford University in the 1990s, for example, several students from Kenya and Tanzania referred to the poor white neighborhood of East Palo Alto, California, as Uswahilini, “Swahili land”. As opposed to Uzunguni, “country of the mzungu (white person)”.
Nyerere considered it prestigious to be called Swahili. With his influence, the term became imbued with socio-political connotations of poor but dignified and even noble. This in turn helped to build a popular Pan-African identity independent of the elite-dominated national governments of Africa’s fifty or so nation-states.
Little did I realize then that the Swahili label had been used as a conceptual rallying point for solidarity across community lines, competitive cities, and residents of many walks of life for over a millennium.
Kwanzaa and ujamaa
In 1966, (activist and author) Maulana Ron Karenga associated the black freedom movement with Swahili, choosing Swahili as the official language and creating the celebration of Kwanzaa. The term Kwanzaa is derived from the Swahili word ku-anza, which means “to begin” or “first”. The festival was intended to celebrate the matunda ya kwanza, “firstfruits”. According to Karenga, Kwanzaa symbolizes the festivities of ancient African harvests.
Celebrants were encouraged to adopt Swahili names and to address each other with Swahili titles of respect. Based on the Nyerere principle of ujamaa (unity in mutual contributions), Kwanzaa celebrates seven principles or pillars. Unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (ujima), cooperative economy (ujamaa), shared purpose (nia), individual creativity (kuumba) and faith (imani).
Nyerere has also become the icon of “community brotherhood” under the slogan of the Swahili word ujamaa. This word has gained such appeal that it has been used as far away as among Australian Aborigines and African Americans and across the world from London to Papua New Guinea. Not to mention its ongoing celebration on many US college campuses in the form of dormitories named ujamaa houses.
Today, Swahili is the most widely recognized African language outside the continent. The global presence of Swahili in radio broadcasts and on the Internet is unmatched among the languages of sub-Saharan Africa.
Swahili is broadcast regularly in Burundi, DRC, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland and Tanzania. On the international stage, no other African language can be heard so often and so widely on global news channels.
At least as far back as Trader Horn (1931), Swahili words and speech have been heard in hundreds of movies and TV series, such as Star Trek, Out of Africa, Disney’s The Lion King, and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. . The Lion King featured several Swahili words, the best known being the names of characters including Simba (lion), Rafiki (friend) and Pumbaa (to be giddy). Swahili phrases included asante sana (thank you very much) and, of course, that no-fuss philosophy known as hakuna matata repeated throughout the film.
Swahili does not have the number of speakers, wealth and political power associated with global languages such as Mandarin, English or Spanish. But Swahili appears to be the only language with over 100 million speakers that has more second-language speakers than native speakers.
By immersing themselves in the affairs of a seafaring culture at a key trading gate, the people who eventually became known as Waswahili (Swahili people) carved out a niche for themselves. They were important enough in trade that newcomers had no choice but to speak Swahili as the language of trade and diplomacy. And the Swahili population became more entrenched as successive generations of second-language speakers of Swahili lost their ancestral languages and became bona fide Swahili.
The key to understanding this story is to deeply examine the Swahili people’s response to the challenges. How they made their fortunes and faced misfortunes. And, more importantly, how they honed their skills to balance confrontation and resistance with adaptation and innovation as they interacted with newcomers from other linguistic backgrounds.