The announcement was made by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on 23 November during its 41st Member States’ session held in Paris, France. 

This makes Swahili the first African language to be feted by the UN. It is one of the official languages of the African Union (AU). Swahili is “among the 10 most widely spoken languages in the world, with more than 200 million speakers,” UNESCO states in its proposal to Member States last month to proclaim World Kiswahili Language Day. With its origin in East Africa, Swahili speakers spread over more than 14 countries: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), South Sudan, Somalia, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, Comoros, and as far as Oman and Yemen in the Middle East. Southern African countries such as South Africa and Botswana have introduced it in schools, while Namibia and others are considering doing so. Soon after UNESCO made the announcement, many Swahili speakers, language experts, universities and other learning institutions took to social media to celebrate the move, while media houses in Africa gave it extensive coverage.

Hull Swahili Diaspora tweeted: “We are so proud of this. We are looking forward to start teaching everyone Swahili.” While Ombeni Aaron tweeted: “Swahili becomes the first African language to be honoured by UNESCO.” “We received the news of UNESCO designating 7 July as Swahili Language Day with great joy. We consider this as Tanzania’s gift to the world,” said Professor Kennedy Gastorn, Tanzanian’s Permanent Representative to the UN headquarters in New York, in an interview with UN News – Kiswahili. “Tanzania has been leading this effort at UNESCO. In March this year we met here in New York and I requested my fellow ambassadors from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, as well as those from the East African Community, to support us,” said Professor Gastorn.

Why 7 July?

Professor Gastorn says Tanzania requested this specific day because on 7 July 1954, the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU)—the ruling party of then Tanganyika—led by Julius Nyerere, declared Swahili as an important tool in the fight for independence. “Although Tanzania has over 120 languages, they chose Swahili to unify them,” says Dr. Leonard Muaka, a professor of Swahili and Linguistics at Howard University. He is also the President of the Global Association for the Promotion of Swahili, known as CHAUKIDU. “Mwalimu” (meaning teacher is Swahili) Julius Nyerere served as prime minister and then president of Tanganyika between 1961 and 1964, and later as the president of Tanzania from 1964 to 1985.

Ethnologue, an online platform that provides information on world languages, categorizes Swahili as an institutional language, given the large number of people who speak it and its “vitality” which is the extent “the language is used as a means of communication in various social contexts for specific purposes,” such as daily use in the home. On the other end of the spectrum are extinct languages. Dr. Muaka also explains how migration helped the language to grow beyond the African continent. “People from countries like Somalia, the DRC, or Burundi who sought refuge in countries like Kenya, where Swahili is spoken, got to learn Swahili through immersion.  “They would later relocate to countries like the US, where they continue to speak Swahili. Consequently, communities are built. That’s how Swahili has continued to flourish in America,” says Dr. Muaka.

Growth of Swahili in America

Somewhere in Washington DC, students at Howard University are learning Swahili. The professor enters the class and greets the students:

Prof: Hamjambo? (How are you?)

Students: Hatujambo!(We are fine!)  

Howard is one of the more than 100 universities, colleges and schools in the US that offer Swahili as a course.   Kate Mensah, an American-Ghanaian undergraduate Swahili student at Howard and a non-native Swahili speaker, says she chose to study it because of her love for languages and her goal of learning one language from each continent. She plans to travel to East Africa again to immerse herself in the culture. “A friend who studied Swahili recommended it to me. After one course, I fell in love with Swahili and decided to pursue it further. I love the culture behind the language and the linguistic differences it has with western languages,” says Ms. Mensah. The language is also taught in elementary, middle and high schools in the US—most of them chartered schools—to mostly African American children. Approximately 90,000 people speak Swahili in the United States, according to Piedmont Global Language Solutions, a US-based language services provider. Africa Renewal spoke to one of them, Dr. Melanie Zeck, a librarian at the US Library of the Congress, about her interest in Swahili. “I started my first Swahili lesson in August 2020 and by May of 2021, I was able to give an international paper at a conference,” she explained. Dr. Zeck had previously learned Hungarian through an immersion programme, so another agglutinative language (language in which a word carries many grammatical elements) did not surprise her.  In the English language, different words are used to form meaning, but in Swahili, words are long and combined. For example, “Hamjambo?” is one word in Swahili that translates to “How are you?”, three words in English. In her conversation with Africa Renewal, Dr. Zeck was unsure of any record of the first Swahili book in the Library of Congress, that states itself to be the largest library in the world. However, what is known is that the language was first taught at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in 1961, according to R.A Snoxhall.

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