On the Commoditization and Commercialization of Kiswahili

About two years ago, friends (Ali Mufuruki, Rahm 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 and later Steve Jobs once said: people don’t know what they want, until you show it to them. We can therefore be entrepreneurs in front-running our Swahili exceptionalism and show to the people of Africa, what they probably want. I hope entrepreneurship by the private sector will complement the Government’s recent 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 of the above, we still observe some key aspects that require our reflections and intervention in order to make Kiswahili more prominent among us, even in our own measure. 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 the Wretched of the Earth) 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 which we can leverage the Swahili exceptionalism into a commodity that could be sold in the market for our mutual economic benefits?, well this will be a follow-on to this one: How do we build Swahili exceptionalism, and get Tanzanians to draw strength from it, feel psychologically empowered and personally invested, triple their efforts to drive the nation forward and make Swahili a tradable Commodity? Below are some of the suggestions, basically starting from looking within:
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 should encourage us to use Swahili everywhere — as Mwalimu Nyerere and Ngugi wa Thiong’o suggest, we have to stop the deliberate disassociation of the language of conceptualisation, of thinking, of formal education, of mental development (at the moment, mostly English), from the language of daily interaction in the home and in the community (Swahili). We need to make them both Swahili. Language is the ultimate creator and preserver of self-identity and self-confidence, as described before, as we speak it every hour of every day. Our government leaders have to lead the way and use Swahili on every platform, local and international. We saw this with the Vietnamese delegation that visited Tanzania earlier this year; clearly they could speak English, but, when addressing the public, they spoke in their own tongue.
We have to grow and make widely available a vast body of professional and academic subjects and texts in Swahili, and encourage study in them. Reproduce and spread widely the works of literature, philosophy, etc., that already exist in Swahili, for example, the works of Shabaan Robert, Muhammed Said Abdulla and Julius Nyerere, as well as more recent writers. Encourage the creation of vast amounts of Swahili works in medicine, law, business, literature, physics, education, mathematics, history, engineering, economics, philosophy, etc.
Why don’t we teach project management, electronics, business studies, medicine, agricultural and factory technician courses in Swahili? This would be the greatest equalizing force in Tanzania, where instead of forcing everyone to learn everything in a language that is not their own, they learn in a native language in which they can excel even further. We need to build our intellectual tradition and glorify it.
We can even translate on a mass scale foreign works into Swahili, e.g.,the works of Professor Ha-Joon Chang’s work on economics like Bad Samaritans and Transformative Industrial Policy for Africa, or Thomas Sankara’s speeches on society, politics and economics in Thomas Sankara Speaks; or translate science texts from Singapore, vocational and technical texts from Vietnam and Germany, medical texts from India and the US, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novels like Half of a Yellow Sun, the Harry Potter series, etc. We need a healthy fusion of locally produced Swahili work and work from abroad that we translate into Swahili.
We should real set an example for other African nations from this context. As we carry out all the above measures and more, we will become more united, self-confident, proud, and this will accelerate industrialization and growth. Just we have drawn from other nations in building unity and Swahili exceptionalism, so must we assist other African countries in strategizing their way of doing the same. We could even, for example, spread the academic and professional use of Swahili (after we’ve built up the requisite knowledge base in it) throughout East Africa, other parts of Africa and the diaspora, as a way of uniting people and strengthening their senses of identity
Let us learn from other nations.
The above is not an exhaustive list. As done above, we must continue to research what other nations have done to drum up a sense of exceptionalism and nationalism, and adopt what could work for us, and build upon it
Finally, we should remind ourselves that true nation-building is both extrinsic and intrinsic: as we build the external (industries, infrastructure and economy), we must simultaneously strengthen the internal (mindset, identity and confidence) values of our people. One without the other will inevitably lead to failure. Once internalized and understood, can then turn into an aspect of geopolitical-cultural-social-economic tool.

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