THINKING CRITICALLY: Criminalising Kiswahili in aviation

Wednesday January 29 2014

Dr Azaveli Feza Lwatama

Dr Azaveli Feza Lwatama  

By Dr Azaveli Lwaitama

A sad incident was witnessed at Mwanza airport last Sunday, and left one wondering about the extent to which the struggle for self-determination and full human dignity for peoples of African ancestry is still unfinished business. In essence, the incident seems to be an illustration of the extent to which advocacy for the use of Kiswahili as an international aviation language may, absurdly, lead to one being treated as a criminal.

An airhostess with a local airline threw off the plane a passenger whose “crime” was to politely ask why instructions to passengers sitting next to emergency doors could not be given in Kiswahili. In this incident, the airhostess did actually have her egoistic wish realised and the passenger, who incidentally has been a teacher of English for the better part of his adult life, was unceremoniously bundled off the plane minutes before takeoff.

Four police officers took the passenger to the police post at Mwanza airport where he would have spent the night in a police cell had one of the officers not acted with uncharacteristic even-handedness. Four lawyers dispatched by a personal friend, who owns a Mwanza-based media house, and another two sent by the Legal and Human Rights Centre intervened and negotiated a police bond for him.

The next morning, the thoroughly dejected and humiliated passenger reported to the officer in charge of Mwanza Police Station, who took further statements from him and, with professional finesse, allowed him to continue to be out on bond while police continued with their investigations. They would thereafter determine whether there are sufficient grounds to arraign him before a court of law on charges of disorderly conduct and defying a legitimate order by airhostesses.

What is sad about the incident is that the passenger who was thrown off the plane had only politely offered unsolicited advice that perhaps an option ought to exist for giving instructions in Kiswahili to passengers sitting next to emergency doors on domestic flights in Tanzania where Kiswahili is the national language. It seems that this piece of unsolicited advice irritated one of the blessed airhostesses who was then motivated to teach this old passenger, who apparently did not know the importance of English in aviation, a good lesson!

The airhostess reported to her superiors the supposed misbehaviour of the old man, who was wearing a Muslim cap and who looked like a he was in an airplane for the first time. Otherwise how could he dare to advocate the use of Kiswahili as an aviation language? Another airhostess came to where the passenger was sitting and stated that since he did not know English, he should be given another seat away from the emergency door.


Not knowing this was part of the strategy by the first airhostess to manufacture evidence of a passenger who was proving to be a security threat and therefore needed to be forced off the plane, the traveller again politely told the second airhostess that he had adequate competence in English, and there was no need for him to be shifted to another seat on that account. The second airhostess quietly left and informed the captain to delay takeoff and bring in police to take the passenger off the plane.

The captain did not bother to countercheck the claims of the two airhostesses by sending a third crew member to talk to the passenger who was sitting by the window seat closest to the emergency door next to the accused traveller or passengers immediately behind the “troublesome” man.

Critical thinking suggests that if Kiswahili had been accorded the status of an aviation language like English, then this incident would never have happened. What is particularly baffling is why an airline operating in Tanzania, flying both domestic and regional routes, and which ordinarily briefs passengers on security and safety procedures in both English and Kiswahili, could train its airhostesses to treat as offensive the suggestion that it was absurd not to explain in Kiswahili how to open emergency doors and rudely order passengers presumed not to know English to vacate seats near emergency doors.