Swahili, once an isolated dialect spoken on an African island, has now become widely recognized and spoken by over 200 million people worldwide.
Fifteen percent of the population in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda speak Swahili. The language is well known to their neighbors in Africa and the Middle East due to its spread through commerce, academia and tourism.
It has absorbed a variety of vocabulary from other languages such as Arabic, Portuguese, Hindi and German, with the more prevalent use of Arabic loanwords in older and more Bantu-based versions of the language like Kimrima and Kitumbatu.
Swahili, a language that has been in development and adaptation for over two millennia, has been shaped by the influence of immigrants, traders, occupiers, settlers, and people from various postcolonial nations.
It has been adopted and tailored to the needs of its speakers, spreading across the interior of Africa, covering a third of the continent from south to north and reaching the opposite shore. It is now spoken in a vast region, reflecting the diverse and dynamic history of Africa.
The origin of the language itself is still a matter of debate, despite the fact that the history of Swahili language penetration from the coastal hinterland of East Africa essentially coincides with that of Arab trade towards central Africa.
Swahili, however, is usually acknowledged to have emerged as a result of trade between East African coast dwellers and Arabs. At the end of the first century A.D., the first reference to describe trade relations between Arabs and the east coast of Africa was made.
The traditional territories of the Swahili language are located along the 2,500-kilometer coast of East Africa, stretching from Sofala in Mozambique to Mogadishu in Somalia, and also including offshore islands such as the Comoros and Seychelles.
This region, known for its rich history of trade and migration, has always been an international hub for people from diverse backgrounds and distant places like Indonesia, Persia, the African Great Lakes, the US, and Europe.
It has been a melting pot of different cultures, where farmers, pastoralists, hunter-gathers, traders, and city dwellers coexisted and interacted with each other.
The coastal region of East Africa has been a melting pot of different cultures, religions, and backgrounds.
Muslims, Hindus, Portuguese Catholics, and British Anglicans have all interacted with the indigenous African people who were deeply connected to their ancestors and the spirits of their homelands.
This diverse population has included workers, soldiers, kings, and diplomats, who have all coexisted and interacted with each other.
Also, anyone who travelled to this region had the opportunity to become part of the Swahili culture, and many did.
Swahili has gained widespread support and advocacy from a diverse group of influential figures, including renowned intellectuals, liberation fighters, civil rights activists, politicians, heads of scholarly professional groups, celebrities, and healthcare professionals.
Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian writer, poet, and Nobel laureate, has been particularly vocal in advocating for the use of Swahili as a transcontinental language for Africa since the 1960s.
The African Union (AU) also recognized the unifying potential of the language by adopting it as an official language in July 2004.
As Joaquim Chissano (then-President of Mozambique) introduced the motion, he addressed the AU in the faultless Swahili he had acquired in Tanzania, where he had been educated while in exile from Portuguese territory.
Swahili was not chosen by the African Union as the continent’s official language by accident. Swahili has a considerably longer history of uniting peoples in the diaspora and throughout the continent of Africa.
The sense of belonging and determination that Africa as a whole is one never goes away. Languages are fundamental to everyone’s sense of identity and ability to express their inner selves.
Given that the populations of its member nations speak an estimated two thousand languages (approximately one-third of all human languages), and several dozens of them have more than one million speakers, the AU’s decision was especially surprising.
Swahili played a key role in uniting people across East Africa during the fight for independence from European colonizers. It allowed individuals from different backgrounds to communicate and work towards a common goal.
Today, it continues to be an important symbol of cultural and linguistic freedom for many Africans.
Tanzania’s government uses it as the official language for all official transactions and in primary education. Its significance is also seen in the use of the word ‘Uhuru’ meaning freedom in political empowerment movements.
After gaining independence, the government of East Africa promoted and adopted the use of Swahili.
This was supported by the leaders of the region such as Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya as essential for political and economic interests, security, and liberation.
However, Idi Amin’s use of Swahili for his army and secret police activities during his dictatorship in Uganda was a negative example of the language’s political power.
Tanzania, under Nyerere’s leadership, became one of the few African countries to use a native African language as the official language of communication.
Nyerere also personally translated two plays by William Shakespeare into Swahili to showcase the language’s ability to convey complex literary works.
Nyerere even made the term Swahili a synonym for Tanzanian citizenship. Later, this designation took on socialist implications while honouring the nation’s common men and women.
It stood in utter contrast to Europeans and Western-oriented elite Africans who had accumulated money fast and, inferentially, dubiously.
In the end, the phrase expanded even more to include the underprivileged of all races, including those of African and non-African heritage.
Being called Swahili was something Nyerere valued highly. His influence caused the phrase to take on socio-political meanings of the deserving.
Consequently, a Pan-African popular identity was created, one that was independent of the elite-run national governments of Africa’s fifty or so nation-states.
No one had the idea at the time that the Swahili designation had served as a theoretical focal point for unity amongst rival towns, people from various backgrounds, and community members for more than a thousand years.
Maulana Ron Karenga, an activist and author, established the Kwanzaa holiday and made Swahili the official language of the black independence movement in 1966.
Kwanzaa originates from the Swahili verb ku-anza, which means “to start” or “first.” The goal of the celebration was to honour the matunda ya kwanza, or “first fruits.” Kwanzaa, in Karenga’s opinion, represents the celebrations of traditional African harvests.
Participants in the celebration were urged to use Swahili names and respectful Swahili titles to address one another.
Kwanzaa honours seven concepts or pillars that are based on Nyerere’s principle of ujamaa (unity through mutual contributions). Unity (umoja), individual creativity (kuumba), self-determination (kujichagulia), cooperative economics (ujamaa), shared purpose (nia), collective work and responsibility (ujima), and faith (ujima) (imani).
Under the banner of “community brotherhood and sisterhood,” Nyerere also rose to prominence as an icon.
That phrase has achieved such widespread use that it is now being used everywhere from London to Papua New Guinea, including among African Americans and Australian Aborigines.
Not to add that ujamaa homes, dorms that are used to celebrate it, can be found on many college campuses in the US.
Today, Swahili is the African language that is most commonly understood outside of Africa. There is no other language spoken in sub-Saharan Africa that has the global reach as Swahili does in radio transmission and online.
Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland, and Tanzania are all frequently broadcast in Swahili.
On a global scale, no other African language is heard as frequently or as extensively from world news networks.
Swahili phrases and speech have been used in hundreds of films and television shows, including Star Trek, Out of Africa, Disney’s The Lion King, and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, at least as far back as Trader Horn (1931).
The most well-known Swahili words in The Lion King are the names of characters like Simba (the lion), Rafiki (friend), and Pumbaa (be dazed).
Asante sana (thank you very much) and hakuna matata, the principle of solving problems without fuss, were also Swahili expressions that appeared frequently throughout the film.
Swahili doesn’t have as many speakers, money, or as much political power as other world languages like Mandarin, English, or Spanish.
However, it appears that Swahili is the only language with more second-language speakers than native speakers and has more than 100 million native speakers.
The individuals who later came to be known as Waswahili (Swahili people) carved out a niche for themselves by becoming deeply involved in the affairs of a maritime civilization at a significant commercial gateway.
They were so crucial to the economy that newcomers were forced to use Swahili as the official language of commerce and diplomacy.
And when subsequent generations of Swahili second-language speakers lost their original tongues and became true Swahili, the Swahili population became increasingly entrenched.
To fully comprehend this story, one must examine the Swahili people’s responses to difficulties.
Also how they achieved success and handled adversity, and perhaps most significantly, at how they developed their capacity for juggling conflict and resistance with creativity and adaptation as they dealt with immigrants from different linguistic backgrounds.