Dispatches from Dar, RCA In-House, Series

Dispatches from Dar: Kiswahili

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By Mpuga Rukidi, Uganda:

Kiswahili, as I said before, is Tanzania's biggest export to the world. It is, alongside Hausa, Somali and Kinyarwanda, one of the languages in which the BBC broadcasts in Africa.  Kiswahili, or Swahili, informally, is a language that is strewn in the DNA of every Tanzanian. It sets the country apart, making it one of the few nations in Sub Saharan Africa, alongside Ethiopia, Rwanda, Burundi and Ethiopia, at least on the basis of having a common language.

The interaction with the Arab world created the language, which then became widely spoken. But perhaps the language would not have attained the status it has today had not it not been due to the nation's founding father's influence.

Nyerere veered the country towards Socialism where all people would be equal. He wanted to create a classless society. Equality in economic matters was also to extend to language. As a result, the country was to be united through the use of one language, and it would not be any language. It was to be Kiswahili. He was keen not to make any tribe's languages the national language. That would encourage ethnic superiority and tensions. Kiswahili was to be the national language.

In Tanzania, numerous government reports and anything that can be thought of is written in Kiswahili, alongside English of course if it is an official document. The language is taught in schools. All learners in primary school are instructed in the language and English is taught only as a subject. The result is amazing. Everyone speaks the language and, interestingly, unlike with many Ugandan languages I know and speak, there is an equivalent word for virtually every English word. Words like Email, package and all.

The use of Kiswahili and the quest for oneness can also be noticed if you are keen. Here, I am told by some of my friends, there was an emphasis towards minimising tribal identities. It is not uncommon, for example, to find people with names like Stephen John or Charles Martin. It may look strange if you are new here, but if you think that this is a country that has not had any ethnic conflict in a region that is one of the most volatile in Africa on account of ethnicity, think again.

Here, unlike in many African countries, you have one language that everyone speaks and most write, competently. But it is how young people sing this language, joy in their eyes, that captures my attention, more than anything else. If you are a visitor, you have to pay attention when a young person speaks, like you are listening to a Black American speak English. Young people don't speak; they just sing, literally. If you don't pay attention, you may here only the last words. And somehow, perhaps because of the love for this language, the words just roll off the tongues with admirable ease. I have learnt how to listen now. I pay more attention and my vocabulary is growing by leaps and bounds. I will be listening more so I can bring you more dispatches.

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