Tuesday, 8 January 2008

When Speaking the Same Language Matters: Tanzania, Kenya and Kiswahili

It is always risky to make comments about societies which you have only observed briefly, but listening and reading news reports about post-election trouble in Kenya, I find myself returning again and again to the short time I spent in East Africa in 2001.

I went to research a novel The Violets of Usambara, which will finally—after nearly 10 years of work—be published this spring. Before I left I did not bother to learn any Kiswahili: half the time would be spent in the former Belgian colony of Burundi and I speak good French, and I thought I’d find plenty of people who spoke English in the former British colonies of Tanzania and Kenya where I went for the second part of the trip. That was a mistake. French served me well in Burundi, but outside Dar es Salaam, only the more educated Tanzanians spoke English, making communication a little difficult.

At independence Tanzania named Kiswahili the “national” language as a way to unify a new country where about 100 tribal languages were spoken. Now primary education in state schools is in Kiswahili, with English instruction reserved for secondary schools. Nearly all signs were in Kiswahili as well as English when I was there, and while there were daily newspapers in Kiswahili for sale in every little town, I couldn’t find the English paper outside Dar.

Kenya made different choices, which were apparent as soon as we crossed the border on the road from Arusha to Nairobi. Signs were in English with Kiswahili added only on some “keep out” ones, and while I could find two English dailies in Nairobi, there seemed to be far fewer Kiswahili papers as well as fewer people reading newspapers on buses and street corners too.

So when there was talk of Rwanda-like ethnic conflict last week in Kenya, I began to wonder if part of the problem was due to lack of success in making one nation out of many tribal groups by building on one language.

I don’t know. Certainly people who speak the same language don’t always get along. In Rwanda and Burundi Hutus and Tutsis speak the same languages, but that hasn’t stopped them from hating and killing each other. Yet all other things being equal, it is easier to communicate, to discuss, and to negotiate if the players--at all levels of society--can communicate in a language that everyone knows well.

The importance of Kiswahili—a sophisticated language with written poetry going back 800 or so years—in Eastern and Central Africa was underscored before I left Tanzania. When I spent a day at the UN genocide trials in Arusha, I passed one of the recesses talking to a Rwandan reporter fluent in French. About half way through our conversation a UN library employee from Tanzania’s coast with whom I’d been speaking in English earlier came up. I introduced the two men and started to translate back and forth from French to English. But then they realized that they both spoke Kiswahili and the conversation took off, with them translating occasionally for me so I could understand what they were saying.

I never picked up more than a few words of Kiswahili: hapana, no; sawa, okay; karibu, welcome; mzungu, white person; duka, shop; choo, WC, and, of course, asante sana, thank you very much.


Martin Langeland said...

Who said: "One people divided by a common language"?
No matter what 'people' we mean, conflict seems more apt than not to happen. We all nourish our sense of abuse by the other.
So I guess any commonality might help avoid violent disputes, but only if the parties are willing to work together first. Thinking of my own experience in Japan not knowing Japanese I remember a willingness to communicate effectively, at least on a limited basis, with cafe and coffee house proprietors/wait staff. But any interaction much more complicated required immense and frustrating effort.

Mary Soderstrom said...

"A willingness to communicate effectively" can go a long way: that's why asante sana was one of the words I learned in Kiswahili. Saying thank you never hurts.


Bryce said...

Interesting history, facts, and comments. A good read.

I know of this site in Kiswahili and thought you might enjoy it or pass it on:

Kiswahili wiki browser

Mary Soderstrom said...

Glad you found this interesting. Thanks for othe link to the Kiswahili site.