An old Swahili saying says ‘Hayawi hayawi huwa.’ This translates to what seems impossible will finally happen. The long-awaited World Kiswahili Language Day has arrived today.
The credit goes to the declaration of the 41st Session of Member States of UNESCO in 2021 which declared July 7 each year as World Kiswahili Language Day. The world welcomes this day with gusto and enthusiasm as Kiswahili had already carved out a place for itself in most of the international media including BBC, VoA, RFI, Radio China, Radio Tehran among others.
Kiswahili has also found its place as a language and as a field of study in many universities in Europe, the United States, Canada and Asia. Now Swahili is important globally.
In Africa, Kiswahili is the only African language that is the official language of the African Union (AU). This is no small feat considering that the others have always been foreign languages like English, French, Arabic, Portuguese and German.
It is one of the most spoken languages in Africa and the most spoken in sub-Saharan Africa. Swahili is ranked among the 10 most spoken languages in the world, with over 200 million speakers. It is one of the lingua francas in many countries in East, Central and Southern Africa as well as the Middle East.
Kiswahili is also one of the official languages, not only of the AU, but also of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and the East African Community (EAC) and its countries led by Kenya, Uganda and recently Uganda.
It is therefore an indispensable tool in achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and in facilitating regional integration, particularly in the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (ACFTA).
It may be recalled that in the 1950s the United Nations established the Kiswahili Language Unit of United Nations Radio in New York, and today Kiswahili is the only African language within the Directorate of Global Communications United Nations.
Kenya celebrates the day in a variety of ways, with universities and Kiswahili associations holding virtual and physical gatherings and processions separately. At the national level, CS of Tourism and Wildlife Najib Balala led the National Kiswahili Day Celebration 2022 Steering Committee in the preparations that will be central to all celebrations.
procession of the day
The msafara (procession) will depart from the KICC at 10am towards the National Museums of Kenya. Other partners include the University of Nairobi, the Year of African Diaspora Return and Connections, UNESCO-KCOM and the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage, among others.
While the pomp and ceremony praise the tune enjoying a local language that has gained international recognition, what Kenya needs to operationalize is the National Kiswahili Council (Baraza la Kiswahili la Kenya- BAKIKE).
Naturally, the lessons of longtime Tanzanian equivalent Baraza la Kiswahili la Taifa (BAKITA) will be crucial. Building on our recognition of Kiswahili as a national and official language along with English in our Constitution, Kenya continues to lead the region in terms of the language’s legislative anchoring.
It is BAKIKE or the Language Policy of Kenya, which is at the draft stage that can transform the language from a cultural and academic product to a commercial product. Kenya must treat Kiswahili as we treat other valuable exports or other professional advice.
The second and most crucial initiative that the ministries in charge of education, tourism and culture must promote is national awareness through existing structures to bring about a change in national culture. There is a need for Kenyans, as is the case in Tanzania, to own Swahili, love it and value it as an official language and as a beautiful cultural product to adopt. Outfits like Brand Kenya can’t mark Kenya – the land of Hakuna Matata – enough without a touch of Swahili. We are originally from Swahili.
We need a national structure to recognize the heroes and experts who have propelled Kiswahili to great heights. The likes of the late Professor Ken Walibora, Professor Sheikh Nabhany, Professor Mwenda Mukuthuria and the late Ahmed Nassir should be posthumously commended for their contributions. Their living equivalent must be assigned during their lifetime.
A case in point is Lamu-born Ustadh Mahmud Abdikadir Mau, who is currently working at the University of Bayreuth in Germany on classical Swahili poems written in Arabic characters. We have some Kenyan poets who have such abilities and knowledge.
However, small steps have been taken and progress is visible. With the regulations of the National Assembly and the Senate translated into Swahili and the debates conducted in this language on Thursday, things can only improve. Now county assemblies are expected to follow suit and translate their standing orders and other official documents into Kiswahili. It’s definitely a good start.
-The writer is a Swahili scholar, author, translation expert and digital communication specialist. E-mail: [email protected]