The politics of a Swahili identity

If you’ve been in Tanzania, you’ve probably heard some foreigner say something to this effect: The reason that Tanzania lags behind in some areas is that the kids learn Swahili instead of English.

Mwalimu Julius Nyerere

Mwalimu Julius Nyerere

On the surface, this makes at least some amount of sense. It may be (let me rephrase: it is) completely unfair and the result of a history of imperialism and exploitation, but nevertheless ignorance of English is a huge handicap if you want to get keyed into the global economy these days. More than that: English, this crappy, haphazard mongrel of a language, represents power. Without it, you are weak, vis-ร -vis the rest of the world. And many Tanzanians struggle with English.

All that may be true, and yet, the comment that Tanzanians “should” learn English strikes me as seductive but treacherous. What I read between the lines when people (Americans) say that is that Tanzanian culture is inferior and prevents them from developing. (Believe it or not, I’ve heard that exact argument — basically that people live slovenly here because their culture does not encourage industriousness — from well-educated people.)

It also betrays an ignorance about some basic aspects of Tanzanian history. I don’t expect everyone in the world to know this — and I’m no expert on Tanzanian history myself — but if you come here you should at least know that Tanzania’s Swahili identity is one of the aspects of the country about which people here are most proud. The Swahili identity is a symbol for unity — no Kenya-style election violence here, nor land ownership tied up in ethnicity. It is also a symbol for freedom and resistance to colonial oppression. Besides the Arabic-speaking countries (and I guess there’s no reason they should be counted separately) Tanzania is the only African country to have adopted a tongue that is not the language of a colonizer as a national language that is the true standard in courts and government.

I think that’s something to feel pretty good about if you’re Tanzanian. And everybody I’ve talked to, from globally aware local officials in Mbeya to the guy who sat next to me for 14 unfortunate hours on a bus the other day (and told me about the damage witchcraft does and the inhumanity of homosexuals — first John McCain-supporting Tanzanian I’ve met), recognize this. Identity is the most important thing, they say. Swahili is our national language — people say this with a look of happiness and satisfaction. It reflects the progressiveness of Mwalimu Nyerere.

Now, I’m all for bilingual education. (In fact, my friends Ken Schneider and Marcia Jarmel released an excellent documentary this year, called Speaking in Tongues, that convincingly shows why it is better for everyone.) But the reinforcement ofย  English should be a Tanzanian decision, and should not come at the expense of Swahili. Most people I’ve spoken to here are fully in favor of better English being taught in schools.

They should not be subjected to foreigners telling them that their language — or their culture, or their genes, or anything else we consider essential to the self — is holding them back. A strong Swahili identity is a form of liberation.

8 thoughts on “The politics of a Swahili identity

  1. Pingback: A few clarifications about my rant on Swahili identity « The Long Gone Daddy

  2. The North African countries which speak Arabic also embraced the colonizer’s language. Arabic is not the indigenous language for the people of North Africa, but was brought to the continent during the Arabs’ colonization of the area. I think because it’s not French, English, or Portuguese it loses a bit of it’s colonial “luster”, but it is nonetheless a foreign language for the non-Arabs of North Africa.

  3. Good point Shireen — for the non-Arabs of North Africa. But there are plenty of Arabs in North Africa who arrived there not as colonizers but as migrants and traders and are for all intents and purposes indigenous. The language also spread independently of actual mass human movement because of religion etc. I don’t think the Arab “colonizing” apparatus was as complete as the European one. I know this is an issue for Berber speakers though (and perhaps some Sudanese friends? ๐Ÿ™‚ )

  4. Hi Eamon!

    – I’ve started following your blog ๐Ÿ™‚ I tend to agree with you most of the way on this blog post. However, not all the way on this one thing:

    ‘The Swahili identity is a symbol for unity โ€” no Kenya-style election violence here, nor land ownership tied up in ethnicity. It is also a symbol for freedom and resistance to colonial oppression.’

    I don’t buy that unity thing. I think it is a too easy cliche to go along with.

    We haven’t seen any tribal clashes here, as in Kenya and Uganda, but the differences do exist, though under the surface. In today’s Tanzania the differences however, are not specifically tribal, though most Tanzanians, like the Ugandans and Kenyans will also first see themselves as part of a family, clan and then tribe.

    But, it is so much more about social class, of the ones who have (i.e. the land and resources) and who haven’t – a difference which has progressed profoundly after Nyerere stepped down, but in Africa in general.

    In Tanzania, in particular, this is interesting as the introduction of Kiswahili was tied to the idea of Ujamaa, unity and that we are all ‘watanzania’ – Nyerere’s socialistic concept, which didn’t work, and was taken over by a kind of fast capitalim which enhances the differences between people.

    Here are LOTS of problems over land and resources, not tribal ones, but between i.e. pastoralists and government/business men/South African and Australian mining companies, Chinese or Arab investors – etc.

    I don’t think Swahili necessarily will tie TZ together if this development continues. And I think it will. Politically, I am also thinking of the presidential election 2010, which will be predictable (Kikwete is the only option and everybody knows) – but then new constellations will be made between 2010 and the next election.

    Add to that that the watanzania are tired of the corruption and the differences in access to resources….and that they get more outspoken. Things do run pole pole, but I don’t think the common language identity is enough in the long run.

    On another note – the problem really is that the government doesn’t take education seriously. Part of the Kiswahili problem is also that is might not be taught proberly; English is introduced at an too early stage etc. Rakesh Rajani from Twaweza (and before HakiElimu) has spoken and written a lot on identity, language and education.

    Hope you are enjoying Kenya?
    Best reetings Pernille

    • Hey Pernille,

      I am flattered that you’re following my blog! I only wish I could update more often and respond to comments faster. Thanks to a 24 hr unlimited internet promo from Safaricom, I’m trying to handle as much internet stuff as possible right now.

      You have good points and it’s important that the land and corruption problems in Tanzania are not glossed over. (Some bloggers make Tanzania sound like some kind of East African paradise compared to Kenya, which apparently must be hell on earth: You probably saw the Guardian report on land issues up near Arusha; it was truly shocking (this is about the Emirati and American game areas).

      While acknowledging that Tanzania does have these problems — many of which, as you note, exist in a lot of African countries — it’s also worth pointing out that these problems are not a result of Nyerere’s vision of unity and Swahili unity. I don’t think that what Tanzania lacks in terms of unity cannot be blamed on that vision. And when I wrote this post, I was responding to people who basically had that knee-jerk hypothesis after a few days in Tanzania — even if they had never actually heard of Nyerere! It’s astounding how much more tribe, land rights and political power intersect in Kenya, and how greater the potential for violence seems. Nyerere was one of those intellectual leaders who really understood the way that colonialism had messed up law, politics and society, and how all the terms on which the colonizers built their states — tribe, citizen vs. subject, etc. — had to be dismantled for any semblance of national unity. It’s sort of cool that some of the main pan-Africanists at UDSM are of Indian ancestry, and I think this might be a result of the inclusive philosophy of nation that exists more in Tanzania than in other places.

      That being said, Nyerere’s vision was not a panacea and did not go far enough. (And I guess his resettlement program was an abject failure, even if the intentions were good.) But I hope, as TZ opens up economically and everything, it does not discard the good qualities and ideas that Nyerere introduced. You might be right that the counter-currents are just too strong, though.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. This is obviously an issue to which you are much closer than me because of your work.

      And yes I’m enjoying Kenya. Speaking of Swahili, I am not suffering nearly so much here for not speaking it!


  5. Pingback: More on Mwalimu « The Long Gone Daddy

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