Exploring SwahiliAn Inquiry into East African CultureAnthony ScalettaDr. Ako InuzukaCommunication 0083December 8, 2009<br ...
Exploring Swahili : An Inquiry into East African Culture
Exploring Swahili : An Inquiry into East African Culture
Exploring Swahili : An Inquiry into East African Culture
Exploring Swahili : An Inquiry into East African Culture
Exploring Swahili : An Inquiry into East African Culture
Exploring Swahili : An Inquiry into East African Culture
Exploring Swahili : An Inquiry into East African Culture
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Exploring Swahili : An Inquiry into East African Culture

  1. 1. Exploring SwahiliAn Inquiry into East African CultureAnthony ScalettaDr. Ako InuzukaCommunication 0083December 8, 2009<br />There’s an old Swahili proverb that says, “Hurry, hurry has no blessing” (Haraka, haraka haina baraka), which is roughly the equivalent of the English proverb; “Haste makes waste.” In Eastern Africa, where Swahili is a widely spoken language, it is a commonly held belief that nothing good will come out of hastily rushing around. This proverb is in fact a most accurate reflection of the East African way of life. The relaxed cultural value orientation of time and overall laidback pace at which things move in East Africa can be quite difficult for an American to get used to. I know this because I recently spent several months in the East African country of Tanzania as a student-volunteer working in a rural village in the northwestern district of Karagwe. During my time in Tanzania, I received a trial-by-fire introductory lesson in the Swahili language. Although I could not understand the majority of what was being said to me, I was instantly captivated by the beautiful melodic structure of the spoken language. Having been deeply immersed in Swahili culture, and in an effort to better understand both the language and the people, I sought desperately to know more about this wonderful language that was so foreign to me. However, the isolation of the Karagwe district removed me from the luxuries of the library and the conveniences of modernity (i.e. the internet) that I have become so accustomed to, thus I was afforded very little opportunity to research my new found interest in Swahili. Now, I find myself back in United States where virtually any information or knowledge that I may seek is right at my fingertips. My recent experiences in Tanzania have sent me on a quest to know more about Swahili. I believe that by exploring the language of a culture we can gain valuable insights into that culture. So that begs the question: What does the Swahili language tell us about the culture of those that speak it? To better answer this question and in the hope of gaining a better understanding of Swahili culture, let us explore the Swahili language through a cursory examination of its history and its diffusion as well as take a closer look at the role that it plays in contemporary Tanzanian and Kenyan culture. <br />Kiswahili, or Swahili as it is known in English, is one of the most widely spoken languages in all of Africa. Its use is most prevalent in East Africa, where it is internationally recognized as the region’s dominant language of communication. Swahili is the mother tongue of around four to five million people and is spoken as a second or third language by another 40 to 50 million people (“Swahili,” 2004). For this reason, Swahili is used as an effective means of intertribal communication, and has subsequently become the lingua franca of the East African region (Polome, 1967). Swahili’s linguistic lineage reveals that it is a Bantu language and a member of the Niger-Congo language family, with its name being derived from the Arabic word for coastal, ‘sawahil’ (“Swahili,” 2004). <br />The development and diffusion of Swahili is an interesting story of contact between nations and peoples and reflects the many political and social changes that have taken place in East Africa over time. In their book, Swahili State and Society: The Political Economy of an African Language, Ali and Alamin Mazrui (1995) emphasize that, “Missionaries, merchants and administrators, politicians as well as educators, have all played a part in this drama of linguistic spread” (p. 1). Swahili’s origins can be traced back as far as the 7th century to when it was first spoken by the indigenous people of the coastal mainland (present-day Tanzania and Kenya) and on the East African islands of Zanzibar and Pemba, where it was used as the key language of communication for conducting trade along the coast. Indeed, many centuries later Zanzibar City remains the nexus of the Swahili language. This is due in large part to the fact that in 1930 the International Swahili Language Committee to the East African Dependencies chose the coastal dialect of Zanzibar to be used as the standard form of Swahili (Eastman, 1995, p. 174). From its early origins as an indigenous coastal language Swahili diffused further inland and up and down Africa’s eastern seaboard in the 19th century whenever the slave trade really began to flourish. The Dictionary of Languages (2004) acknowledges that, “The rapid spread of Swahili is partly due to slavery and the need for a lingua franca among the communities of captured slaves.” Due to a long history of spice and slave trade in the region, we can see major influences of Arabic on the Swahili language and, to a lesser extent, some super strata of Portuguese and English, linguistic reminders of the region’s colonial past. <br />Present-day Swahili culture is made up of a diverse blend of ethnic ingredients borrowed from the African, Asian, Arab, Indian, and European cultures (Mazuri & Mazuri, 1995, p. 5). When I strolled through Zanzibar City, I quickly realized that it may be the quintessential example of the unique patchwork that is Swahili culture, for this city is the pot in which all of these ethnic ingredients have been melted. The city’s dominance as a coastal trade hub brought in traders from all over the world who in turn brought elements of the their culture to the city, as evidenced in the ethnically speckled architecture and the plethora of ethnic eateries that constitute the city’s unique built environment. The vestiges of the region’s ancient commercial dominance are equally apparent in the ethnic make-up of the people that inhabit the coastal areas. In “Tourism in Kenya and the Marginalization of Swahili,” Eastman (1995) notes that, “On the coast, Swahili has a glorious history of trade and interaction with the Middle East and it is the decedents of these (early merchant) families that one sees on the coast, modern remnants of some mysterious past” (p. 173). <br />Today, Swahili is the national language of both Tanzania and Kenya, while it is also widely used in Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and the eastern portions of the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as the Indian Ocean islands of Comoros and Zanzibar. Additionally, there are some Swahili speakers as far north as the southern regions of Ethiopia and Somalia and as far south as the northern regions of Zambia and Mozambique. Gleaning this pattern of diffusion really helps to illustrate the geographic extent of the once burgeoning coastal trade network that spanned most of the East African shoreline. When considering the vast geographic area in which Swahili is used, it is not difficult to imagine that the language has a seemingly endless variation of dialects. These dialects are often distinguished by their regional differences and can often be further differentiated between urban and rural (“Swahili,” 2004). Interestingly, even my untrained ears were able to detect some of these variations as I traveled to different parts of Tanzania and Uganda. When I spoke Swahili in the coastal regions of Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam I was typically easily understood, but the further inland I traveled my attempts to speak the standard coastal dialect to rural Tanzanians generated both confusion and laughter. <br />To better understand Swahili’s role in contemporary East African culture, we should examine its use as a language of wider communication in the countries of Tanzania and Kenya. While both countries have declared Swahili its national language, this has had clearly divergent effects on each country. In Tanzania, the country’s promulgation of Swahili as a national language has had a unifying effect on the state, however in Kenya it has acted as a centrifugal force. In both countries, the diffusion of Swahili occurred prior to independence, as it was the intention of the colonial powers to use this ‘common’ indigenous language to quell intertribal conflicts. This strategy led to widespread acceptance of Swahili in Tanzania because there were fewer dominant tribes than in Kenya, and therefore less tribal conflict. Upon gaining independence in 1961, President Julius Nyerere decided that continuing to promote the use of Swahili could only further unify the newly formed country. Indeed, Tanzania’s nationalization of Swahili and the subsequent unification of its people has proven quite successful, as it is generally considered to be one of the most stable and peaceful nations in all of Africa. In 1973, following Tanzania’s lead and amid some social and political resistance, President Kenyatta declared Swahili the national language of Kenya (Harries, 1976, p. 153). In contrast to Tanzania however, Kenya has not shared the same level of harmonious linguistic amalgamation as its neighbor to the south. <br />The standardization of Swahili in Kenya has been problematic for several reasons. Polome (1967) asserts that, “In Kenya, the situation is more complex: whereas Tanzania counts dozens of tribes, with only few numerically quite important ones, Kenya has several nationalistically minded tribes with their own language and cultural background” (p. 4). This has led to what Polome (1967) defines as a “definite trend to favor the tribal language” among many Kenyans whose first language is not Swahili (p. 5). Amazingly, in a country that is only about twice the size of the state of Nevada there are over 40 different indigenous languages that are spoken as either “mother tongues or languages of intra-ethnic communication and solidarity” (Musau, 1999, p. 120). It is also interesting to note that some tribal Kenyans have resisted using Swahili, albeit an indigenous African language, because of its association with the former colonial power. <br />Although, this resistance can more likely be chalked up to the fact that Swahili has facilitated the rural to urban migration of a large number of tribal Kenyans by providing the ethnically mixed tribesman-turned-urban-dwellers with an interethnic language of communication, thus it has in effect become an agent of ‘detribalization.’ The first time that I saw evidence of this rural to urban migration of tribal East Africans I was not sure what to make of the fact that there were warriors from the Maasai tribe, dressed in their traditional Kente cloths and wielding spears, standing in the middle of the bustling downtown of Arusha City. Indeed, they had left their rural pastoral lifestyles behind and migrated to the city in search of work. Swahili was likely their only means of communication with other urban East Africans. Mazuri and Mazuri (1995) contend that, “Swahili has played a part in making the network of loyalties among Kenyans more complex and more diversified and has indeed facilitated ‘detribalization,’ but it is also relevant to remember that Swahili has significantly facilitated the transformation of many Kenyans from peasants to proletarians, from independent rural cultivators to being members of the urban workforce” (p. 2). This rural to urban transformation has been more pronounced in Kenya than in other parts of East Africa because its capital city of Nairobi is one of the fastest growing cities, both economically and demographically, in the world. <br />Professor Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, admires the Tanzanian indigenization of Swahili and believes that, “Swahili has not been sufficiently indigenized by Kenyans to make it more functional and unless Swahili is treated with pride and conviction, that it is ‘our language,’ it will continue to be seen as foreign by speakers of other indigenous tongues in Kenya” (Abu, 2004, p. 28). Furthermore, Professor Maathai has openly expressed her frustration with Kenya’s promotion of the non-African language of English and she readily acknowledges that, “To show that we are sophisticated we speak English” (Abu, 2004, p. 28). Professor Maathai’s statement provides us with a glimpse into one of the fundamental reasons for Kenya’s abysmal success in nationalizing Swahili. At around the same time Kenya made the move to nationalize Swahili it also declared English to be the country’s other ‘official’ language. This has proved to be problematic for the promotion of Swahili, as it has worked to weaken Swahili’s standing as Kenya’s national language because “English has higher prestige than Swahili and all other Kenyan languages” (Musau, 1999, p. 120). <br />Eastman (1995) grants that while the government ‘officially’ acknowledges both languages, “Most bureaucrats have a decided preference for English, and this is a tendency which is likely to continue to expand” (p. 174). Additionally, Eastman (1995) notes that, “Even though Swahili is the national language, it is used only in restricted domains” (p. 175). For example, Swahili is only used as the language of instruction in primary school and then a switch is made to English for both the secondary and university levels (Eastman, 1995). Through the design of its education system and the implementation of a English standard in the media, the Kenyan government has been quite effective at suppressing the use of Swahili, which is paradoxical considering that it is supposed to be the country’s national language. Another factor that has worked to marginalize Swahili in Kenya has been the rapid expansion of the country’s tourism industry. Tourism’s effect on Swahili should not be overlooked because it is tourism that forms the basis of Kenya’s economic development strategy and the Kenyan government decided that the language of the tourism industry should be English rather than Swahili. Eastman (1995) refers to this as a critical “misfit between Swahili language and culture and Kenyan tourism” and she notes that, “With the growth of tourism in Kenya, there is little emphasis put on the role of Swahili or on using the language, despite the fact that it is still being promulgated as the language of nation-building” (p. 172). So, the marginalization of Swahili culture in Kenya can be attributed to the role that English plays in not only the country’s tourism industry but also its education and administrative systems as well. These factors collectively promote the widespread use of English in Kenya and in turn suppress the use of Swahili. <br />Not only is Kenya’s widespread use of English a reflection of the fact that those in power have a preference for English, but it is also a reminder that English is the world’s lingua franca. If Kenya wants to compete in the globalized market, it is advantageous for its government to promote the use of English. Many Kenyans realize that in an ever increasingly interconnected world English proficiency is a sure-fire way to achieve professional advancement; therefore they will often choose to learn and use English over Swahili when they have the opportunity. In this sense, English provides most Kenyans and East Africans for that matter, with an economic opportunity that Swahili simply cannot. However, when it comes to the historical significance and cultural value that Swahili provides most East Africans, English falls well short of the mark. It is certainly worth asking if English, through the process of globalization, will eventually choke out the Swahili language much like Swahili has choked out the use of many of East Africa’s indigenous languages. Eastman (1995) would argue that, “Socioeconomically, the Swahili lifestyle does not lend itself to Western style business or industry (including tourism),” therefore the “internal organization of Swahili society (will) continue as if things have not changed” (p. 176). Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that a language and culture that has been around for thousands of years will one day buckle to the pressures of Western world. <br />Mazuri and Mazuri (1995) believe the following: <br />The issue is not one of turning one’s back on European languages. Western leadership in science and technology is likely to last well into the next century. East Africans will continue to need important stimulus from Western, as well as other foreign sources. But technological and scientific interdependence requires that East Africans in turn begin to make a contribution to the new world culture of the future. The development of Swahili itself, on one side, and the contributions of Swahili to the development of East African societies, on the other, are part of Africa’s preparation for a fuller involvement in a world culture which is indeed compatible with the present stage of human knowledge. (p. 34) <br />In conclusion, I believe that the Swahili language is here to stay. Although its use has diminished in parts of inland East Africa (especially Kenya), the coastal Swahili culture is too strong and proud to let it simply give way to outside forces. It is through the Swahili coastal region that this unique culture, with its storied past and its beautiful language, will be upheld. It is also interesting to see the magnitude to which a language has the ability to either divide or unite a people. As we have seen, Swahili has done plenty of both over the years. We must not forget that the need to use Swahili as tool to unify tribal East Africans is a direct result of colonialism. The fact that a group of white Europeans had the audacity to carve up the African continent in any manner that they saw fit has created a lot of artificial boundaries that most Africans have no reason to recognize. However, what has been done is done; and the people of East Africa have been left to try and unite themselves within the borders of a superficially created state. Using an indigenous African language to do so is testament to both the resilience and ingenuity of the East African people in the face of a difficult problem that was forced upon them. Indeed, I can assure you that they are an extremely industrious people and as they continue to progress they will surely become major contributors to what the Mazuris have referred to as “Africa’s full involvement in (the) world culture.” Perhaps, the greatest lesson that I have learned from Swahili culture is the “pole pole” concept, which similar to the previously quoted proverb, means to take things slowly and steadily and allow life to come to you rather than the other way around. Certainly this is a valuable lesson for many Americans, for we are a culture based on the hustle and bustle of striving for success and often we forget to simply be. I am sure that we could all learn a lot from Swahili culture if we would just “pole pole.” <br />References<br />Abu, E. (2004). Kenya a shining example. New African, (434), 28-29. Retrieved November 22, 2009, from http://www.africasia.com/icpubs <br />Eastman, C. M. (1995). Tourism in Kenya and the marginalization of Swahili. Annals of Tourism Research, 22(1), 172-185. <br />Harries, L. (1976). The nationalization of Swahili in Kenya. Language in Society, 5(2), 153-164. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4166868 <br />Mazrui, A. A., & Mazrui, A. M. (1995). Swahili state and society political economy of an African language. Nairobi: East African Educational, James Currey. <br />Musau, P. M. (1999). Constraints on the acquisition planning of indigenous African language: The case of Kiswahili in Kenya. Language, Culture and Curriculum, 12(2), 117-127. doi: 10.1080/07908319908666572 <br />Polome, E. C. (1967). Swahili language handbook. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics. <br />Swahili. (2004). In Dictionary of Languages. Retrieved November 22, 2009, from http://www.credoreference.com/entry/dictlang/swahili. <br />

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