Kiswahili’s feeble footprint on the sands of time

Guest blog post

 By an anonymous writer

The much carelessly and popularly bandied about impression that Kiswahili can and eventually will unite the eastern Africa region, or Africa as a whole, is mereapplesauce, misguided marketplace chatter, and, in fact, no more than a silly myth.

Language was never meant to be propagated in a greenhouse or pieced together in a sterilised laboratory as some self-appointed Kiswahili grammarians, puritans and high priests and other arbiters of usage would have the rest of the world believe.

In the words of Noah Webster, the renowned American lexicographer, editor and writer who breathed his last 150 plus years ago and whose name became synonymous with the English dictionary, “Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground”.

But there are ways in which language may be harnessed for greater returns in the social, political and economic milieu.

It is true that language is a “powerful index of nationality” as argued by one

Desmond Thomas in a paper titled, “Slovakia: Language and National Unity”. The late Julius Nyerere knew that. However, the argument that ‘Nyererian’ Tanzania was meshed into nationhood by Kiswahili is mythical and misleading. The fact is behind Kiswahili was very careful husbandry of a worldview whose expression needed an idiom. In the circumstances, Kiswahili became the obvious choice.

How we easily forget that languages are merely the means through which all manner of human ideological wares, including doomsday theologies, are marketed. Well, like soap after a garment is sparkling clean, language gets easily forgotten the moment it delivers results.

Kiswahili has been spoken in East Africa for many years and found its way to the greater eastern Africa— Congo, Mozambique, the Central African Republic, Rwanda, Burundi and southern Sudan included — largely through vagabond momentum.

Indeed, no formal institution or effort has much of a moral right to claim 24-carat credit for the spread of Kiswahili. Actually, the spread of Kiswahili right into the nooks and crannies of the greater easternAfrica and elsewhere in the world is akin to germination of seeds dispersed by wind.

On this score, however, Kiswahili is neither lonely nor alone — but that is not the point. Rather, the issue here is that where other big world languages were able to shake off derelict and footloose labels within reasonable timeframes, Kiswahili has meandered for centuries, in the wake condemning its spread to sheer happenstance, slovenly wanderings and wild mercies. No wonder, as observed by some snob recently, Kiswahili is wide in spread but rather thin in prestige, the latter being the critical attribute that calibrates the hierarchy of respect among languages. This reminds me of some grating remarks my ears had to endure regarding Kiswahili, from yet another snooty type who likened it to a staple dish plebeians are wont to routinely partake of against persistent longing for a special delicacy reserved only for festivities.

Several questions about Kiswahli then linger. Is it true Kiswahili is bedecked in inferior garb compared to other widely spoken world languages, some with fewer speakers by far? Does the fact that Kiswahili is now widely studied abroad and taught in some renowned universities across the world count for anything? Has this fact been mistaken to mean that Kiswahili is at par with Mandarin, French and English, for instance?

Is Kiswahili studied abroad for purely romantic reasons? And could there be a university or two out there that offers Kiswahili as a means to unpack the peculiarities of the ‘negro’ and his ‘atavistic’ attractions? Compared to their peers in other fields of African studies, are Kiswahili scholars both diminished and lilylivered? And is Kiswahili yet worthy as national or regional lingua franca anyway?

If Kiswahili is almost a millennium old, why, then, has it not made huge footprints on the sands of time and established itself firmly as the language of choice in Africa? Anything to do with its diminished ambassadors?