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Tanzania is a unique country in sub-Saharan Africa in having a single, widely used and accepted African national language that connects its entire population. Kiswahili – a language estimated to have at least 100 million speakers across the continent is mostly spoken there; it is also the only official international language of Africa that is really indigenous to the continent. Tanzania boasts highest proficiency in the language, although there is a craze amongst the country’s population threatening to take that pride away.

Kiswahili has been spoken in Tanzania for centuries, and it is due to that fact that there has been peaceful co-existence among its more than 100 ethnic groups. The country’s first president, made it possible by using the language to connect the entire country despite traditional and cultural diversity.

In the past few years, Kiswahili has seen massive growth within and outside the continent whereby it has been conferred with an official or national language status by several countries in Eastern Africa. Unlike many widely spoken languages, which are native to Africa, Kiswahili is an official language in many countries in East and Central Africa and widely used in schools. Kiswahili is the only language from Africa included among the official languages of the African Union and its status as a lingua franca in the east and central African region makes it an extremely important language. It is taught in more than 50 universities in United States of America and many other universities in Europe and Asia.

Now, despite seeing such successes, Kiswahili is going through tough times at home. Kenya hosts the world’s second largest population of speakers behind Tanzania, and Kiswahili is also an official working language alongside English. There are more speakers of Kiswahili than English in the country although it is widely known that Kiswahili sanifu (standard Swahili) mostly exists in its coastal regions but when it comes to big cities like Nairobi and Kisumu, “Sheng” is in power. Sheng is generally a concoction of Kiswahili, English and some local languages mostly used among Kenyan urban youths although it has now spread to rural areas, and influenced other people beyond borders. Hardly anyone cares much to learn Kiswahili sanifu since the language is mostly used in informal settings; most official matters from academic instructions to court and parliamentary sessions are all conducted in English.

In Tanzania, where Kiswahili is believed to be strongly existent and perfectly used, is also starting to loosen its grips on the language that defines the country and its people. Just like in Kenya with their “Sheng”, Tanzania has adopted a similar concoction referred to by many as “Swanglish”, which is increasingly coming to fashion amongst many people. Words in “Swanglish” are sometimes shortened, reversed or twisted versions of the originals, but often a mixture of both English and Kiswahili.

“Swanglish” was once considered a language of the educated and elites since they were the ones with a few show-off vocabularies (picked from school abroad) to throw into a conversation, but today it is commonplace to come across lowly educated individuals who prefer applying English words (which often happen to be wrong replacements) in Kiswahili conversations, and only to make it worse, some dare to Americanise (and sometimes Anglicise) their accents and produce even more unpleasant lingo. Sometimes they (so-called native speakers) would go as far as asking “how do you say this in Swahili?” while others would refer to every English term they use as “technical”. For instance, someone would say, Hiki kinatumika kuongozea gari katika ulekeo autakao dereva; kiataalam tunakiita “steering wheel”, this translates to “this is used to control a car in whichever direction the driver wishes; it is “technically” called steering wheel.

There has been a wide spread belief that the use of “Swanglish” presents people as smarter and more educated, but it is those same people that use it who cannot fluently communicate in either of the two. The fact that English is a huge problem in Tanzania is widely understood within and outside borders, and now the country is speeding towards losing Kiswahili; this makes one wonder what happens next when proficiency of Kiswahili among Tanzanians disappears completely. Who will become the proudly Swahili people in the coming generations?

In daily Kiswahili conversations, one should not be surprised to hear these: “actually”, “in fact”, “because”, “not really”, “although”, “of course”, “exactly” “after all” “salary slip” “bank statement”, “system”, “shopping”, “birthday”, “breakfast”, “lunch”, “beach”, “as a matter of fact”, “air conditioner” etc.

What irks so bad is the fact that most users of this mixture are neither proficient in English nor Kiswahili.

In Tanzania, Kiswahili is suffering neglect since its speakers do not put efforts in strengthening it. Much of the effort has been shifted to English through English medium schools, where every parent wants to take their children. This move, however, has my support since the position of the language in global interactions is highly crucial and inescapable, but Kiswahili is even more important for it represents and tells many stories about not only Tanzania but also the whole of East Africa and beyond.

I remember hearing an old man once saying, “Today most Tanzanians are just comfortable speaking Kiswahili, but no longer awesome in it”. I must admit I concurred with that statement since it is true that our tongues may have been used to the language and provided easiness and comfortability with speech, but that fact does not necessarily make someone masterly.

Today, barely any youth can go two or three sentences without “varnishing” with a few English words and Kiswahili cha mtaani (street language) – which produces new words on a daily basis that beclouds the original terms, and adopted by younger kids who grow up clueless of the right words to use. Kiswahili cha mtaani is a dynamic language with an ever-changing and developing vocabulary. The youth are still coming up with new words and expressions, inventing and borrowing, as they always have, from numerous languages.

Some of the commonly used street words in Tanzania includes: jero (five hundred shillings), buku (a thousand shillings), moko (moja), bese/be (two), mshkaji/mwana/msela (friend), demu/mtoto (girl), wakishua (from a wealthy background), (ma) njota (water), mshiko/chapaa (money), danta (down), noma/kwere (problem/chaos), boya (stupid), mazagazaga/zaga (stuff/things), parangana (resist/work hard), skonga (school), kitaa (neighbourhood/street) sauna (tell/inform) etc.

Many people are used to these to the extent that they cannot remember the last time they used the original versions of such words.

The mass media (mostly electronic) is arguably favouring the situation as many television and radio personalities use “Swanglish” in all varieties of programmes – from entertainment which features mainly youth hosts and guests, to serious programmes that engage high ranking governmental officials, scholars, businesspersons and others. People watch and listen to these interviews and dialogues and pick up whatever comes their way, especially when heard from most influential people such as journalists and politicians. The media, which has a great power to influence the people, can be a perfect weapon to assassinate a language and also a great keeper to preserve it.

Apart from the media and celebrities, numerous reasons are reportedly fuelling the trend: people in the academia are also sometimes blamed to have contributed in putting Kiswahili in such state. In schools, from primary to higher levels of education, “Swanglish” is increasingly gaining momentum during the learning process. This is due to another unfortunate fact that English is “partially” taught as a subject in all public schools in the country mostly by teachers who cannot speak it themselves. It becomes the language of instruction in secondary and tertiary education levels where teaching materials are in English as per the curricula but some academics opt for Swanglish, which encourages the situation to worsen. Consequently, this terrible mixture affects everyone from pre-schoolers to university dons.

Ajidhaniye amesimama, aangalie asianguke! (He who believes to be standing firm, should be careful not to fall!)


* Mweha Msemo writes from Tanzania and can be contacted at <[email protected]>