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.
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-à-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 of 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.