On the Commoditization and Commercialization of Kiswahili

About two years ago, friends (Ali Mufuruki, Rahim Mawji, Gilman Kasiga) and I wrote a book, themed: Tanzania’s Industrialization Journey, 2016 to 2056. The book attempts to suggest possible solutions on how to go about industrializing our nation – moving from agrarian to a modern industrial state. In the soft side of this attempt is the aspect of cultural changes, and the need leverage on our cultural exceptional cases, particularly Kiswahili exceptionalism, on encouraging and motivating us to take pride by being a Swahili Nation. There are also suggestions on how we can turn this whole pride thing into some form of economic benefits –packaging Kiswahili into a tradable commodity, commercialize it and sell it into the marketplace, to those in demand, as we have it in abundant supply. So, in today’s article, I would like us to focus on this topic, while referring to some of what we said in the book – basically complementing current efforts by our Government in this space.

Let us start by putting the context right: with more than 120 different ethnic groups and tribal languages, Tanzania is genetically the most diverse country in the world, and yet, of all African countries, it is the one that has not had any serious ethnic conflicts because of the unity fostered by Mwalimu Nyerere under Swahili nationhood. Spoken as a first or second national language by more than 140 million people in Tanzania, Burundi, Congo (Kinshasa), Kenya, Mayotte, Mozambique, Oman, Rwanda, Somalia, South Africa, Uganda, UAE and the USA; Swahili is the single most widely spoken language in Africa and one of the top ten most widely spoken languages in the whole world! And there is a significant potential to expand the base of potential Swahili users to far more than the current 140 million. As Henry Ford (the founder of Ford Motor Company) and later Steve Jobs (co-founder of Apple Inc.) both once said: people don’t know what they want, until you show it to them. We can therefore be entrepreneurs front-running our Swahili exceptionalism and show to the people of Africa and beyond, what they want. I hope enterprise spirit by our private sector and private citizens will complement the recent Government’s efforts.

Let’s proceed — under the leadership of our Founding Father Mwalimu Nyerere, Tanzania deliberately embraced Swahili not only as a national language but also as a way to express our national identity and pride of us, as a people. As a result, proper Swahili writing, grammar and literature are taught in school as mandatory subjects all the way to secondary school. Swahili is used as the default medium of communication in government offices, parliament and now, even in international conferences. Although we have not achieved similar success in finding the way back to our cultural and traditional roots (Christian or Islamic faith institutions have continue to dominate the spiritual space within which we congregate); but we, Tanzanians can claim today to be one of the few African countries that have successfully used a common indigenous language as a tool for the unification of its people into a strong, peaceful and harmonious society.

Despite the above, we still observe key aspects on this matter that require our deep reflections and intervention in order to make Kiswahili even more prominent among ourselves. For instance, rather than creating and translating works in literature, economics, business, history, etc., in Swahili and encouraging the widespread use of Swahili among political leaders and citizens and in formal education and businesses, we see English as the sign of sophistication, we think that economics and philosophy and technical concepts can only be studied in English, we clamor to name and operate our businesses, schools and research institutes in English and our political leaders use English when foreign delegations use their own languages. We sometimes forget that all major powers that have risen recently/are rising e.g., China, Japan, South Korea, Norway, Malaysia, Vietnam, Sweden, Thailand, Germany, Qatar, UAE, etc., all use their own languages – often with a unique script – for everything and sometimes teach English, but only as a secondary language.

Based on the above, as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (on Decolonizing the Mind) and Frantz Fanon (on Wretched of the Earth) both says, psychological freedom – the rejection of colonizers’ linguistic, cultural and identity forms, and a strong re-adoption of and belief in one’s own – is a precondition for achieving political and economic freedom.
Now for us, we are fortunate that Mwalimu Nyerere sowed the seed of psychological freedom early on and instilled in Tanzanians a sense of self-pride, self-worth and self-love that was independent of the European. He fostered nationalism and mandated the widespread use of Swahili, which has made Tanzania along with Ethiopia and most recently Rwanda, the only countries in Sub-Saharan Africa that use their native languages in the conduct of official government business.
We must therefore actively forge a Swahili/Tanzanian identity of uniqueness, greatness, brilliance, and unity and self-confidence and self-pride in being Swahili/East African (and not striving to be American or British or Chinese). We should find a suitable term for this in Swahili; Uzalendo comes close, as does Rwanda’s Agaciro, but Swahili language scholars can likely find a better-suited word to embody this spirit.
So how do we go about building the structure upon this foundation? How do we build Swahili exceptionalism, and get Tanzanians to draw strength from it, to feel psychologically empowered and personally invested, triple their efforts to drive the nation forward and make Swahili a tradable Commodity that can be commercialized and sold in the market place across the continent and beyond? These are some of the suggestions, starting from within ourselves: (i) we need to come up with national values, slogans, aims and disseminate them everywhere across the country as a reminder of Swahili exceptionalism, and the greatness it was always meant to achieve.

We will continue next week…

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