OPINION: Let’s look at the relationship between English, Kiswahili

Friday November 8 2019



Freddy Macha

Freddy Macha 

Like it or not, we Tanzanians (and Kenyans) are bilingual. Other ten or so, Swahili speaking nations that use Swahili tend to have an array of other lingos. For example in Congo DRC, French and Lingala sits beside Swahili (also known as Kingwana in esteemed lingual academic circles) mostly spoken in the east region.

I was chatting to a French music anthropologist who visited Burkina Faso several times. Dr Anna Cuomo said the country had 60 plus languages, and although she made an effort to learn courtesies in some of the languages like Mossi and Jula, it was impossible to keep up. Subsequently, French remained main tongue of communication.

Most countries are easy. In London (UK) all you need is English. So is Germany, Cuba (Spanish) or Brazil (Portuguese)...

Four languages are spoken in Switzerland i.e... French, German, Roman and English in major cities

When it comes to Tanzania, Swahili rules of course. But English is still the commercial, international assistant. While swings on we have Swanglish developing fast, among the educated and some youth. I am not a big fan of Swanglish, especially for Tanzania where English is not that well spoken and Swahili going down the drain, technically.

The mix up of L and R is among most painful instances. Each time the sun rises in the East, the meshing and jumbling of L and R gets worse and rotten. This syllable error shows how much we need to re-adjust the teaching of Swahili currently in schools and colleges. The disturbing issue is people at the top, are also muddling L and R and that dear folks? A bad example to growing youth. Many lovers of Swahili and academicians are talking about it.

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It is a thorn. A gash

And speaking of Swahili lovers, there is a WhatsApp Swahili group I am in. We chat about diverse issues involved in the language.

Early this week we were trying to find the Swahili word for a Vulture. The recent 2006 TUKI dictionary advises that vulture is Tai. But, actually, Tai is an eagle. These are both birds of prey, ie they hunt and consume other birds and creatures albeit differently.

We concluded that vultures mostly feed on carcasses and left overs, while eagles hunt for their meal. You might have heard the expression; “The vulture is a patient bird.” They wait. They also urinate on themselves to wash. Eagles on the other hand snatch smaller birds and animals.

Tai is their Swahili name.

But what is a vulture in Swahili? Inform us.

Then we looked at flowers and plants.

Mmmh. Flowers

Flowers might not be of interest to most but in the arts you need to evoke, in songs, you cannot JUST sing about waridi this and waridi (rose) that. We are blessed with millions of flora and fauna and flowers.

What are their Swahili names?

I remember in early 1980s I was with a bunch of visiting English and art teachers. One of them was a keen painter and she really adored Tanzanian flowers. She kind of knew the names of say Frangi Pani, Poinsettias, Bougainvillea and the elegant Flaming Trees. They are plenty in Moshi and Arusha...as well as parts of Kenya. I did see them in Nakuru upon going there for holidays in early 70s.

You tend to see them lining our roads ...they have orange-reddish gorgeous flowers that bring fire and flames in mind. Their fruits are long green things. No wonder an exciting novel written by the late Elspeth Huxley (1907- 1997), The Flame Trees of Thika, gave them a title. Ms Huxley tale of childhood in central Kenya warmly charts out detailed description of Gikuyus and Maasais.

African landscapes are indeed, beautiful. British-Zimbabwean writer Nobel laureate Doris Lessing expounded Africa’s natural geography really well. But what about Swahili writers?

How many of us writing in Swahili have narrated our vegetation in detail? Do we know names of trees and flowers? Many times I have read phrases such as: Ilikuwa miti mizuri (there were nice trees) or Ndege waliimba vizuri (birds sang beautifully)...but what are the actual names of the birds beside kuku na jogoo?

Are we too lazy to find out? People in local areas might know how these plants are called, yes; however, are writers, singers, journalists and bloggers bothering to find out?

I popped the same question in my weekly column of the Sunday News during the 1980s. One reader replied by claiming that most of us are busy struggling to make ends meet...so much that “there is no time to suss out colours of sunsets and flowers...”

Might be true.

But my issue is with fellow professionals.

Those reading this column right now.