Tuesday update #1. Why is Swahili so underdeveloped in Uganda?

On 4th December, ‘The world in words’ podcast touched on some very interesting topics under the title ‘A comeback for Africa’s homegrown languages?‘. Two news items particularly drew my attention:

  • Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni pointing out the neglect indigenous languages have suffered and engaging Ugandans to promote their mother tongues. He also contends that Swahili isn’t rich enough a language to serve as an African lingua franca!
  • The recurring debate on language policy, especially pertaining to access to information for the majority of citizens. The example put forward was that of Ghana, where politicians debate in English, which is effectively a minority language as most Ghanians are not proficient English speakers.

These issues and a few more are presented in the following podcast:

While I shall take this opportunity to revive the debate on access to information in the Saturday post, I’d like to attempt an answer to one of the pending questions in the pod (11’32): ‘Why was Kenya able to preserve the status of Swahili when it became independant, in a way that was different from Uganda?

Given the high status enjoyed by Swahili in Kenya and a fortiori in Tanzania, I think the question should be turned around to read: ‘Why has Uganda not been able to retain the status of Swahili like her East African neighbours have?

I will cite two main reasons for this: the emotional baggage carried by Swahili in Ugandans’ minds and the competition with Luganda and English.

Other powerful lingua francas exist in Uganda

When I traveled in Uganda, I did meet a couple of people who could communicate in Swahili, some who were native speakers and at the other end of the spectrum, others who only had a rudimentary knowledge of the language.  Some still, were returnees from exile in Kenya where they had naturally picked up Swahili.

However, the majority of people I talked to could not communicate at all in Swahili, so that English ended up being my best chance of getting by. Like in Kenya, it has unsurprisingly become the lingua franca of the educated. Ugandans from different parts of the country and different linguistic backgrounds naturally converse in English, especially in Kampala.

Wobulenzi market, central Uganda.

Wobulenzi market, central Uganda.

The reason for the language situation I experienced is that I was traveling in a region – central Uganda – where Luganda is used as a popular lingua franca, not Swahili. Luganda is the language of the Baganda on whose traditional lands the capital Kampala is situated. Despite its controversial status especially in the West and the North, Luganda does enjoy some prestige.

Several popular newspapers and magazines are published in Luganda. On TV, the news is broadcast in English, Luganda and Swahili. There is some interest in developing Swahili, as evidenced by a daily TV programme teaching adults basic conversational Swahili.

This effort seems to remain somewhat marginal though, in the face of an existing lingua franca covering, not all, but a significant part of the Ugandan territory – including the administrative centre of power, Kampala.

An emotional stigma attached to Swahili

The other reason for the reluctance to adopt Swahili as a national lingua franca is the perception of the language in Uganda.  During Idi Amin’s regime, Swahili was the language used by the brutal military and it is still associated with crooks, thugs and the violence of the dictatorship. This stigma greatly impedes the development of Swahili in Uganda. As Joas Kajiage points out in the Tanzanian newspaper The Citizen:

As a result, many Ugandans loathe the language and hardly bother to learn it. Some of the most familiar Kiswahili words among Ugandans, according to Mr Kategaya, are commanding words used by the robbers such as fungua – open – and toka – get out.

Nakulabye classroom, Uganda

Nakulabye classroom, Uganda

Despite these hurdles, things are changing rapidly. Swahili is seen as a means of integration into the East African Community and will be made a compulsory subject in Ugandan primary schools as of 2013. This move does not come without challenges including a shortage of teaching materials and a lack of qualified Swahili teachers in the country, which might create opportunities for their Tanzanian and Kenyan counterparts.

The debate is far from over…

Further reading:

The retrospective development of Uganda’s educational language policy: successes and challenges (pdf) by Phillip Oketcho


Background: In the excellent podcast ‘The world in words’, Patrick Cox (@patricox) takes a humorous look at language-related issues and information tidbits. I highly recommend listening to his programme to pepper your week with some fun facts about language :)

Featured images AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works by Simon Bradwell and AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike by wordloaf

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