Battle for acceptance of Kiswahili in Uganda is being slowly won

Mr Wallah bin Wallah and Prof Kimani Njogu

Mr Wallah bin Wallah and Prof Kimani Njogu

Echoing the likely sentiments of the classical victim of romantic love, I recently wrote: “Ikiwa umenirogabasi ongeza urogi (if you have bewitched me, fine then, increase the dose of your charms)”. As is often the case in such circumstances, the utterance may have been addressed to a real-life person, but we’ll skip the identification parade for now.

What I can confess and admit to is that, from me, these words would be a sincere crie de coeur to Kiswahili. If any one passion has dominated the latter years of my life and career, it has, curiously, been Kiswahili. Mwalimu Joseph Mwamburi, my friend and co-author, with Wallah bin Wallah and Henry Indindi, of the Kurunzi ya Kiswahili course, once suggested that I should be given the nickname Mswahilisti.

This was at an East African Kiswahili teachers’ conference in Kampala, where, with a few loyal friends, I have for over a decade now been conducting an “evangelistic” campaign for the acceptance and promotion of Kiswahili in Uganda. It is, admittedly an uphill task, but my fellow Waswahilisti and I are not just about to give up the fight. And, thankfully, it is slowly but steadily beginning to bear fruit.

Of course, we cannot arrogate to ourselves such fundamental developments as the 2003 constitutional amendment that proclaimed Kiswahili as the second official language of Uganda or the now fairly fast-moving process of setting up a National Kiswahili Authority. But we are encouraged by the fact that we are now regularly consulted by the policy makers on most matters regarding Kiswahili.

Thus, we participated in the teaching of the Basic Kiswahili orientation course for the Members of the Eighth Parliament, in the development of the primary and secondary school syllabi through the National Curriculum Development Centre, and in the formation of the National Kiswahili Authority, mentioned above, through the Ministry of Gender Labour and Social Development.

The reader may wonder what gender and all that has to do with Kiswahili. Well, it just happens that in Kampala this ministry, currently headed by my long-time friend and literary colleague at Makerere University, Ms Mary Karooro Okurut, also houses the Department of Culture, which is responsible for language development in the country.

Ms Okurut, also the founder of the famous FEMRITE, the Uganda Women Writers Association, of which I am an honorary member, last month launched the final stage of establishing the National Kiswahili Authority, where the Waswahilisti will certainly feature.

In any case, we are already well-known, whether famous or notorious, to the ministry for our activism. Some time ago, when my friend, Mr James Mugume, the Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs, introduced me to his counterpart in the Gender, Labour and Social Development ministry, his colleague, she paid me a rather curious compliment. She said something like, “I’ve heard about you. You’re the gentleman who would wake up at three in the morning to go and work for Kiswahili.”

I suspect that the PS had received this impression of my enthusiasm — or is it madness — for Kiswahili from my dear friend Juliana Naumo, now the Commissioner for Culture, with whom I worked closely on our contribution to the formation of the East African Kiswahili Council.

It all started in 2004 when I received a letter from the East African Community secretariat at Arusha, through the ministry, that I had been designated to represent Uganda, along with my beloved comrade, Prof Kimani Njogu, from Kenya and Dr Anna Kishe from Tanzania, on the Task force for the formation of the East African Kiswahili Commission. Dr Kishe, who was then Executive Secretary of the Tanzanian National Kiswahili Council (BAKITA), was to be our chairperson.

I went to the ministry to seek facilitation to attend the task force’s inaugural meeting in Arusha but, not surprisingly, no funds were “available” for that project. I thought the opportunity for Uganda, and for me, was too good to let pass without a try. So, I scraped a few coins from my pocket and caught the good old Akamba Bus, through Nairobi, to Arusha. The rest, as they say, is history. Uganda participated fully in the work of the task force, and the East African Kiswahili Commission is an entity assented to by all the states of the East African Community.

(By the way, I sorely miss the Akamba Bus Service. It was an institution with which many of us had grown up, and in its own way it, too, symbolised the East African spirit. I lived and taught in Machakos, the birthplace of the Akamba Bus, between 1977 and 1978, and I was both surprised and amused to actually see in the town some of the elderly drivers and conductors who had ferried me scores of times on their buses between Kampala and Nairobi. So, the Akamba buses were really as Akamba as they were East African!)

Anyway, the story soon spread along the corridors of the ministry that Bukenya had actually found his way to Arusha on foot! Well, if the guy could walk all the way from Kampala to Arusha for the sake of Kiswahili, waking up at 3am to run a small errand for it wouldn’t be that much of a big deal.


What, however, the story-tellers didn’t tell us is why a 60-year-old man, as I was then, should think nothing of tearing across three countries, at his own expense, for the sake of a language, and especially a language that is not that highly thought of in Uganda. I, too, am sometimes tempted to wonder why I go banging on every door in sight for the sake of Kiswahili.

Often, indeed, it feels like banging one’s head against a wall when one runs into the thick indifference or even derisive “decampaigning” (as the Ugandans say) that characterise attitudes towards Kiswahili. In such moments, I try to brace my faith in our language by thinking back on the events that triggered my awareness of the priceless gift of Kiswahili to all East Africans. To me, this awareness, not to say fanatical love, of the lingo is the magic, the ‘urogi’ that wouldn’t let me either rest or relax in the quest for its recognition.

For me, it all goes back to the 19th century, when my grandmother, Hajara Binti Ramadhan, was born, most probably in Bagamoyo. Her father was one of the first converts to Islam in Uganda, and when their leader, Prince Nuhu Kyabasinga Mbogo, was exiled by the British to Zanzibar, a large number of his followers accompanied him, among them Ramadhan Mukasa, my great-grandfather.

He was one of those who didn’t cross to Zanzibar but remained on the Mainland, a distinct group that was teasingly called “Waganda wa Migombani” by the locals. He eventually became amubaliya (as the Waganda say ‘baharia’), a seaman, and he didn’t return to Uganda, even after the peace agreements there. But his wife Zubeida did get back, with Hajara, then a nine or ten-year-old little girl, who wore a khanga, spoke Kiswahili and, to the horror of the Baganda traditionists, had pierced earlobes with rings in them.

When I first returned to Uganda from Dar es Salaam on a short university vacation, Hajara, then in her late 70s or early 80s, was keen to try on me the few Kiswahili utterances that she could remember from her childhood. I thought they sounded pretty genuine. Then, remembering the tides, she asked me, “Does the sea still go on visits?” This, for me, was iconic of how deeply the Swahili coast and its worldview ran in my grandmother’s consciousness. With what justification could I, her descendant, claim that Kiswahili was “foreign” to me?

But most of my wake-up moments to Kiswahili were of a fairly practical and utilitarian nature. Our first arrival in Dar es Salaam was itself dramatised by two events. One was that we, the Ugandan truants who had missed our flight from Nairobi the previous day, did not know how to get to the campus at Ubungo from the airport, and we could hardly express ourselves in Kiswahili.

Secondly, the Kenyan second-year student who had offered to help us get there was totally intoxicated and hardly able to utter a word when we got to Dar es Salaam. He had been gorging himself on alcoholic refreshments all the way from Nairobi, a process aggravated by the three-quarters of an hour which we spent on the tarmac at the Zanzibar Airport without leaving the plane. We counted ourselves lucky when we were able to shake our “guide” awake and get him off the plane. But it would have been a little too much to expect him to negotiate a safe passage for us to the university.

I cannot quite remember how we finally got to the campus, around 9.30pm. I believe it was still by courtesy of the ever-solicitous East African Airways ground staff, a few of whom might have condescended to listen to our “Kizungu” pleas for help. But the point had been impressed upon us, I believe, as it should be upon today’s Kiswahili-shunning Ugandans, that you couldn’t get very far in East Africa without a working proficiency in Kiswahili.

My big plunge into Kiswahili, however, was yet to come. This included the hilarious incident, which I recently narrated to Ken Walibora on a flight from Kisumu, of my having to read Muyaka’s mashairi (poetry) in the original when I could hardly write a correct Kiswahili sentence. But we will leave that for another day.

Prof Bukenya is one of the leading African scholars of English and literature in East Africa. He taught for many years in Kenya.




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