Books & Arts | April 20, 2015 at 10:00 am

A Language of Their Own: Swahili and Its Influences

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“Africa will write its own history, and it will be, to the north and to the south of the Sahara, a history of glory and dignity.” So wrote Patrice Lumumba, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s first prime minister, in 1960. Though his leadership was unconnected to Swahili particularly, the words spoke to a new, proud pan-Africanism to which Swahili was inextricably linked.

When the Kenyan government adopted Swahili as its official language in 1970, it lauded the language for being more African than was English, the previous choice for the government and people’s affairs. As The New York Times reported then, “the governing council of the Kenya African National Union, the ruling party, decided that the widespread use of English language smacked of neo-colonialism, or at least was un-African.”

Swahili in Arabic script is inscribed on a door in Lamu, Kenya.

Swahili in Arabic script is inscribed on a door in Lamu, Kenya.

Or so it was said. But Swahili itself appears to be, at least somewhat, “un-African.” Jomo Kenyatta, president at the time, seemingly chose to overlook Swahili’s foreign influences. The language was born from the interactions between dwellers of the East African coast and traders from the Middle East. Those traders spread its vocabulary as they rode their ivory and slave caravans farther inland, reaching the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the west and Uganda in the north. Indeed, the very name “Swahili” stems from the Arabic for “of the coast,” sawahili. The language also incorporates pieces of English, German, Portuguese, and other tongues belonging to the merchants and colonizers who permeated the region. Yet, curiously, Swahili has come to represent pride in post-colonial identity.

Tanzanian Nationhood

This is true nowhere more than in Tanzania. English or French could serve practical purposes as well as Swahili, offering a common tongue for governmental and economic affairs. In fact, both do serve such purposes in various African regions, English still filling that role alongside Swahili in Tanzania and Kenya. But Tanzanians’ loyalty is primarily to Swahili—a language they can more easily consider African. Recent linguistic studies have supported this identification, establishing Swahili’s foreign influences as only secondary to its development as a language with deeply African roots. More importantly, the very act of identifying with the language legitimizes it. Swahili has become African.

Tanzanians accept the language’s significance more completely than Kenyans and cherish it more ardently. Their relationship with their chosen tongue began at the birth of the country itself, in 1964. From the start, Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s first president, promoted Ujamaa, a nationalist and pan-Africanist ideology that revolved around reliance on Swahili instead of on European languages. Though Tanzanian citizens possess tribal affiliations and typically speak a tribal language in addition to Swahili, they value their allegiance to their country. This priority is rare in Africa, a continent of people whose first loyalty belongs more commonly to their tribe. That general preference is unsurprising: many country borders were drawn by European colonial powers, rulers who disregarded or intentionally opposed grouping Africans according to tribal and linguistic affiliations. Tanzanians, though, feel unified—a credit to the strength of Nyerere’s vision.

Even the Hadza, Tanzania’s only remaining hunter-gatherer tribe, identify with this bond. They have chosen Swahili as their second language—after Hadzane, their tribal language—in the years after Tanzania’s independence. (They formerly spoke Isanzu, a Bantu language, instead, in order to communicate with a tribe living south of them.) The switch testifies to Swahili’s utility, capable of being greater than that of any single tribal language while, significantly, maintaining Tanzanian pride.

Americans Join the Debate

Similarly, some African-Americans have praised the language’s authentic value, an affiliation that Dr. Maulana Karenga, the American founder of the holiday Kwanzaa and a leader of US Organization, supports wholeheartedly. “We wanted to escape Western tradition and tribalism, both. Swahili is not a tribal language—it represents a collective effort and our group does too,” he told a Life magazine reporter in 1968. As the Black Power movement gained strength in the late 1960s, the language became for the movement’s members a symbol of meaningful black identity. The timing was excellently coordinated: just as East Africans themselves were accepting Swahili as both tool and emblem of nationalism, US was offering it a place in America—extending the significance to the swelling Black nationalism in which the organization was engaged.

This approach possessed real issues, as some of Karenga’s colleagues within the Africana studies field in the States pointed out. When the William Howard Taft High School in New York City joined the trend by deciding to offer Swahili classes, a vibrant debate ensued. A New York Times editorial questioned Swahili’s importance in an American curriculum. At least two letters to the editor doubted its legitimacy as an African language.

Even beyond the tradition of Arab slave traders’ using Swahili, it was true the link between the language and African-American heritage was tenuous. Most African Americans’ ancestors came from the west coast of Africa, where Swahili is not spoken. John McWhorter, linguist and associate professor at Columbia University, has argued for the Ghanaian language Twi as a more suitable option. But Swahili felt to Karenga like an appropriate language for pan-African unity. It became Kwanzaa’s established language, providing the holiday with the roots of its name and the words for its seven principles. Karenga’s preference fit well with Nyerere’s.

Literature of the People

Swahili political literature offers more complexity than Nyerere and Karenga’s happy faith in unity, however. Fortunatus Kawegere, a Tanzanian author and translator dissatisfied with President Nyerere, made his views known subtly through language, such as the vocabulary he chose for a translation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Shamba la Wanyama, as the Swahili version is called, rejects the book’s decidedly English features—the English names, the descriptions of British farm implements—in favor of Tanzanian equivalents. Kawegere turns the book into an East African tale, situating it in Ibura, a neighborhood of a Tanzanian town, and labeling the animals’ socialism in the same precise terms by which Nyerere defined his own. To clarify even further his frustration with the president, Kawegere removes the animals’ references to the farmer’s whips as intentionally as republican Romans might have eradicated from a text the loathsome word “king.” Because whips so effectively evoke colonial rule, Kawegere is careful not to risk allowing their presence to justify the animals’—i.e., Nyerere’s—policies.

While other Swahili translators have confined themselves more faithfully to their source texts, the choice each has made to contribute to a significantly multi-ethnic literature is intentional. And Kawegere’s case is proof that the choice asserts power, not concession: the language has developed an identity entirely its own. East African culture has even embraced the Middle Eastern and Western influences indelibly wound up in it. Swahili literature comfortably mixes works written in the language originally and works translated into it, often with an East African twist. Nyerere himself translated both Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and his Merchant of Venice into Swahili.

Even the very earliest Swahili literature, dated to roughly 1652, retained foreign origins: it was a translation of the Arabic poem known as the Hamziyya, telling of the Prophet Muhammad. Since then, numerous Swahili authors have composed praise poems that draw both from Muslim prayers to Allah and from Bantu odes to political leaders or courageous animals. Some scholars have credited Islam, centuries back, with unifying the region ideologically as Swahili has linguistically. East Africans’ Swahili literature, then, reflects their culture.

Swahili identity emerged from the melding of its oddly disparate influences, and even Nyerere recognized its inability to exist in isolation. As he remarked to the sixth Pan-African Congress in 1974, “Humanity is indivisible.”

Image Credit: Justin Clements, Wikimedia Commons

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