Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Presidential language debate wags its tail again


By Prof Mramba Nyindo

Spiritually stated, we are agreed that human speech is one of the precious gifts of our Creator. Infants and children acquire the ability to speak slowly and gradually become conversant and fluent in languages by ‘imitating’ what they hear from their parents.

That humans acquire the ability to speak elevates them above all other creatures on earth. How we acquire this ability and are able to speak, for example 150 different languages as we do in Tanzania, is yet another evidence of perfection in creation.

Lexicographers write or compile dictionaries. However, with respect to African languages, a few have a dictionary. Exceptions, nevertheless, do exist and the Swahili language has dictionaries, both for Kiswahili to Kiswahili and Kiswahili to English versions. There is also a 1,005 - page English to Kiswahili dictionary by the Tuki (Institute of Kiswahili Studies, University of Dar es Salaam).

Authors of this literary updated book should be congratulated for a job well done! But Kiswahili is a national language. Tanzanian tribal languages, similar to other languages elsewhere, do not have dictionaries.

Language is passed from one generation to another orally with accuracy and has precision that one would wonder how this happens in the absence of lexicography.

At this juncture where do we start with lexicographic arrangement of East African languages? East African languages are classified as Bantu, Nilotic and NiloHamitic forms. However, I leave this academic exercise for East African lexicographers, linguists and literature professors to tackle, if possible in the near future.

My experience shows that Kiswahili as an African language made appreciable growth and recognition beyond the Tanzanian borders in the 70s.

From this year onward, I have personally witnessed it grow and become more applied and used more often in Kenya and Uganda than before.

Tanzania had a historic advantage over Kenya and Uganda because it did not have one or two tribes of its tribal mates, which exceeded others in terms of numerical size, maneuverability and capability to conduct and excel in business among other attributes, thereby creating marked competitive tribal differences. The end results of social economic difference was tribal hatred and fights.

Kiswahili has been used more widely in Tanzania even before the arrival of the Germans and later when it was ruled by the United Kingdom from 1916-1961. Final credit for modeling, structuring and final golden architectural touch that established Tanganyika and moved it to become Tanzania and thereby consolidating Kiswahili as a national language goes to Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Baba wa Taifa.

Tribalism, politics, social structure

Once more, in the 70s, Professor Ali Mazrui, the celebrated African political scientist, wrote about east African political leadership and how the type of language used by the president in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania influences the psychology surrounding the three presidencies. His article also explored tribalism, politics and social structure in the three east African countries. He summarized his analysis by stating that in political terms and considering national coherence use of English or Kiswahili or both by an east African President has implications in his popularity or otherwise.

Mazrui stated that for a Ugandan President the use of English is imperative in the conduct of his presidential activities. Use of Kiswahili may spice his administrative functions somehow but would add little value to his success per se. This is to state that use, no use or little use of Kiswahili by a Ugandan President was inconsequential.

For a Kenyan President, professor Mazrui stated that the situation is different from that of the Ugandan. A Kenyan President must know both English and Kiswahili that will make it possible for him to move a crowd at an appropriate moment. Kenya’s Mzee Jommo Kenyatta effectively used Kiswahili words and expressions, particularly at political rallies, and when he interjected his English speech with Swahili phrases or words the crowd became exhilarated, the message was sent and delivered to the entire nation, so to speak!

Prof Mazrui pointed out that the Tanzanian situation is even more interesting and unique in that the use of Kiswahili is the norm; it is the sine qua non. This means that a Tanzanian President does not necessarily require the use of English to be an effective and appreciated leader in his addresses.

On the contrary, too frequent use of English in a speech or speaking English to a Tanzanian crowd or rally may be viewed as sign of pride or conceited personality on the part of the president.

The scenario given above illustrates exactly what is happening in Tanzania currently. It is not new. Every tenth year when a new government is formed, even if it is from the same political party, the new leader is totally a new personality. Each new President builds his image around his personality. Mwalimu had power to move a crowd and this power arose from the magnetising mirth that he had (see the 12 personality images of Mwalimu Nyerere in: Mwalimu, the Influence of Nyerere by Colin Legum and Geoffrey Mmari. Britain - Tanzania Society. 1995.)

Therefore, each of the four preceding Tanzanian Presidents was a new and unique personality politically and socially. The modus operandi for each of the four presidents was different in form and structure and was genetically driven.

Stated slightly differently, each new Tanzanian President, including the current one, calls the shots loud and clear in Kiswahili so that no Tanzanian will have an excuse that he did not understand what His Excellency President JPM said and instructed to be done.


Prof Mramba Nyindo is a basic science teacher with peripheral legal-political interests.