• June 6th, 2020

Unfinished business: Musings on the Kiswahili debate

I was not certain about my reaction when I saw the piece called ‘African togetherness’ used for a second time last week. Then I noticed Professor Jairos Kangira’s article. The professor’s piece called for introspection as the country considers the efficacy of introducing Kiswahili into the educational curriculum.
   A few “velvety adjectives and superlatives” – as Thomas Sankara called them - almost knocked me out. Polyglot, not polygot as appeared in Professor Kangira’s piece, was one of them. My brother columnist is anxious that introducing Kiswahili will make polyglots out of students.

A polyglot is a person who knows and is able to use several languages. This is not unusual. My father spoke nine African languages fluently. The late Wangari Maathai answered this question brilliantly in her autobiography, Unbowed. She regrets not having her father’s ability with languages, and describes herself in all-too familiar language.

  “Except for the skin we shared, we were ‘foreigners’ to one another as the British settlers were. These ethnic biases, many of which were planted as early as one’s childhood, became amplified, and were embraced by national political rhetoric.”

Politics is key here. After all, my article was built on President John Magufuli’s pronouncements while visiting Namibia and Zimbabwe in May. I will use a different illustration for this instalment.
   Former Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano addressed the June 2004 African Union (AU) summit in Kiswahili. Olusegun Obasanjo was so moved that he too said a few Kiswahili words in acknowledging Chissano’s bold example.

Sankara would have similarly celebrated this small yet important footprint on the path to an African togetherness. “The people of Africa are increasingly hard to please today… they’re saying no to meetings and conferences whose function is to adopt resolutions that are never acted on…
   Africa stands face-to-face with its problems – problems the OAU (then) always succeeds in avoiding by putting off their solution until tomorrow. That tomorrow is today.”

In March this year, my brother Kangira wrote an essay which reflected the views of “scholars in decoloniality.” The professor highlighted the roles played by South African students, civil society and government agencies in the fight to “emancipate ourselves from mental slavery.”

   Kangira lauded the “new dispensation that promotes Africanness.” Quite significantly, he referred to a discussion which investigated the feasibility of university curricula drawn up in African languages. The debate was inconclusive. Professor Kangira made the following observation:

“The likely solution appeared to be the adoption of the Kiswahili language as Tanzania proved beyond reasonable doubt that an African language can be used in education and all sectors of the society including business and the judiciary.”

But this is not [about] Kangira and Kamwi! Lioba Moshi of the University of Georgia says Kiswahili “has and continues to be used to shape the understanding of the world about Africa (even when we view this as being done at the expense of other African indigenous languages).”

   Further, Moshi writes that, “if globalisation is allowed to eliminate linguistic and cultural diversity, then there will not be a chance for the development of a polycentric world where diverse experiences and knowledge contribute equally to science and technology, the two driving forces of global understanding in the 21st century and beyond.

Kiswahili has an opportunity to advocate the development of other African languages to fulfil both regional and continental communication needs. Kiswahili cannot be expected to fulfil that role alone…”
   In Constructing Human Rights in the Age of Globalization, Mahmood Monshipouri and team write that “modern technology has changed the world and has brought us an entirely different environment. 
Some kind of common moral language is needed in our international community in addition to our ‘local’ or traditional languages. In other words, common values are like common currencies. The question is, whose or which morals and values can become the common currency?” 

   In last week’s article, Professor Kangira argued that “there is no urgent need to make Swahili or any other foreign language compulsory for all learners in Namibia.” I totally agree. For this reason, I made reference to South African basic education minister Angie Motshekga. In 2014, she said that, “there are currently 15 non-official languages listed in the national curriculum as optional (note optional) subjects. These include French, German and Mandarin. There is unfortunately no African language on the list.”

   South Africa’s next (reported) step was only in May this year, when it signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Kenya. Under the agreement, Kenya is expected to provide resources to help introduce Kiswahili into the South African educational system next year. That is, six years after the initial commitment! I believe Tanzania has expressed a similar willingness to assist with learning materials and teachers.

As I read my brother Kangira’s piece on decolonising African education, I kept asking when he proposes the process should begin. My generation used to think whites were poor when we saw them in faded, overused shorts and farmer shoes. Then we had a belated Damascene moment: we learnt that the shorts and farmer shoes distinguished them as owners of the means of production.

   Yet, in closing, I fully agree with Professor Kangira on some of his concerns. The process of introducing Kiswahili should involve all stakeholders. I have read reports that some are complaining about their exclusion.

When done carefully, we can rejoice with Maathai when she observed; “they were surprised that I spoke Kikuyu, as well as the national (Swahili) and the official (English) languages.”

Staff Reporter
2019-08-09 08:10:54 | 9 months ago

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