Once just an obscure island dialect of an African Bantu tongue, Swahili has evolved into Africa’s most internationally recognised language. It is peer to the few languages of the world that boast over 200 million users. Over the two millennia of Swahili’s growth and adaptation, the moulders of this story – immigrants from inland Africa, traders from Asia, Arab and European occupiers, European and Indian settlers, colonial rulers, and individuals from various postcolonial nations – have used Swahili and adapted it to their own purposes. They have taken it wherever they have gone to the west. Africa’s Swahili-speaking zone now extends across a full third of the continent from south to north and touches on the opposite coast, encompassing the heart of Africa.

The historical lands of the Swahili are on East Africa’s Indian Ocean littoral. A 2,500-kilometer chain of coastal towns from Mogadishu, Somalia to Sofala, Mozambique as well as offshore islands as far away as the Comoros and Seychelles. This coastal region has long served as an international crossroads of trade and human movement. People from all walks of life and from regions as scattered as Indonesia, Persia, the African Great Lakes, the United States and Europe all encountered one another. Hunter-gatherers, pastoralists and farmers mingled with traders and city-dwellers. Africans devoted to ancestors and the spirits of their lands met Muslims, Hindus, Portuguese Catholics and British Anglicans. Workers (among them slaves, porters and labourers), soldiers, rulers and diplomats were mixed together from ancient days. Anyone who went to the East African littoral could choose to become Swahili, and many did.

A liberation language

During the decades leading up to the independence of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in the early 1960s, Swahili functioned as an international means of political collaboration. It enabled freedom fighters throughout the region to communicate their common aspirations even though their native languages varied widely. The rise of Swahili, for some Africans, was a mark of true cultural and personal independence from the colonising Europeans and their languages of control and command. Uniquely among Africa’s independent nations, Tanzania’s government uses Swahili for all official business and, most impressively, in basic education. Indeed, the Swahili word uhuru (freedom), which emerged from this independence struggle, became part of the global lexicon of political empowerment. The highest political offices in East Africa began using and promoting Swahili soon after independence. Presidents Julius Nyerere of Tanzania (1962–85) and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya (1964–78) promoted Swahili as integral to the region’s political and economic interests, security and liberation. The political power of language was demonstrated, less happily, by Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (1971–79), who used Swahili for his army and secret police operations during his reign of terror. Under Nyerere, Tanzania became one of only two African nations ever to declare a native African language as the country’s official mode of communication (the other is Ethiopia, with Amharic). Nyerere personally translated two of William Shakespeare’s plays into Swahili to demonstrate the capacity of Swahili to bear the expressive weight of great literary works. 


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