News that Swahili has been adopted as one of the African Union’s working languages has been well received in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where nearly half the population speaks it, writes it or understands it.
The Organisation of African Unity, which has been replaced by the 53-nation AU, had approved Swahili as a working language several years ago. The pan-African body adopted Swahili as its working language during its annual heads-of-state summit in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, in July.
Having originated along the shores of the Indian Ocean, Swahili is a mixture of Arabic and local languages that was spoken mostly in Tanzania. A number of neighbouring countries such as Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Comoros, Mozambique, Malawi and the DRC have adopted the language as their own.
In all, Swahili is spoken by about 70-million people in Africa, according to estimates provided by Lugunga bya Ombe, a correspondent for the BBC’s Swahili Service in the DRC. In early July, he participated in a Swahili workshop in Nairobi, Kenya, where various aspects of the language were debated.
Swahili, alongside English, is an official language in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.
The AU’s adoption of Swahili will surely make its instruction more sought-after and its practice more widespread in Africa. In the DRC, the language has been superseded by French in primary education.
Swahili is one of the four ”vernacular” languages used in radio and television in the DRC. The others are Lingala, spoken mostly in the northern provinces of Equator and Oriental, as well as in the capital, Kinshasa; Kikongo, spoken in the west, mostly in Kinshasa and Lower Congo province; and Tshiluba, spoken in the two south-central provinces of Kasai.
Five of Congo’s 11 provinces are wholly Swahili-speaking: the Oriental province, North and South Kivu in the east, Maniema in the central east and Katanga in the south-west.
The impact of adopting Swahili as the AU’s fifth working language — along with English, French, Portuguese and Arabic — might ”allow Swahili speakers to rediscover and redefine themselves in the African cultural dimension”, says Banza Tiefolo, from Katanga province.
But Swahili could also — if manipulated by politicians — become a factor of division. Swahili has failed to prevent the spread of armed conflict in the Great Lakes region, where it is commonly spoken.
The Great Lakes region countries — the DRC, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda — have resorted to fighting while ignoring the common language that binds them, laments Ombe.
”Swahili could have contributed to the restoration of peace in the Great Lakes region, where all parties to the conflict speak the common language,” he says.
Nonetheless, Swahili remains the sole language that unifies all of Central and East Africa. Many Congolese journalists and linguists often travel to the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to brush up on or perfect their Swahili.
According to Yoka Liye, a professor of linguistics at the University of Kinshasa, one of Swahili’s distinctions is its value as a language of diplomacy.
”It’s also a language that has taken great inspiration from the cultures of the Indian Ocean coast, which are essentially based on compromise and negotiation. In addition, it’s a very dynamic language, which has managed to evolve with the times by adapting typically Swahili terms to modern technology,” Liye says.
In Kinshasa, Swahili has had problems intermingling with Lingala, the popular language that the Belgian colonisers imposed on the DRC. Lingala also owes much of its popularity to modern Congolese music, which is often sung in that language.
The arrival in 1997 in Kinshasa of rebel leader Laurent-Desire Kabila and his young soldiers, the Kadogos, boosted the popularity of Swahili, since it was the language of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for Liberation army.
Unfortunately, the military character of the newcomers sparked a backlash by non-Swahili speakers.
But for Mamina Kangu, a teacher who originally hails from the Lower Congo province, Swahili’s importance is in ”its pluses” for Africa.
The adoption of Swahili as a working AU language is expected to stimulate interests in teaching Swahili in schools. Alphonse Paluku, a retired teacher, has just completed writing an educational material for teaching in primary school.
”I hope to find funding to put these materials, which are the first of their kind in [the DRC], into the hands of schoolchildren,” Paluku says. — IPS