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A recent festival of arts, culture and conversations sought to move debates about East Africa’s integration away from elite spaces to the grassroots. It was an insightful experience whose basic message was that without active involvement of the region’s peoples the East African Community remains an elite dream.

The word ‘Zinduka’ means re-awaken or stir up in Kiswahili – more or less like ‘pambazuka’. In Kirundi it simply means wake up. It is a call to prepare to work; to do something for the day. Thus the Zinduka Festival that was held in Arusha, Tanzania, between 6 and 8 November was a call on ordinary East Africans to wake up, to be alert about the slow pace by politicians in integrating the region. Zinduka – sponsored by the akibaUhaki and other regional partners and hosted at the Sheikh Amri Abeid Stadium – was meant to celebrate the common people’s efforts and intensify those efforts to bring the different communities together. It was fitting that the Secretary General of the East African community, Dr. Richard Sezibera, opened the three-days event, whose theme was: People’s Voices, Sustainable Development, through Arts, Culture and Conversations.

Ambassador Sezibera spoke for millions of East Africans when he opened the ceremony on Thursday 6 November by insisting that the only guarantee of the region’s sustainability in the future is to integrate economically and politically. He noted that the fears of economic domination of others by one country are simply unfounded and not so helpful to ordinary East Africans. He didn’t shy away from naming Kenya as the neighbour that Uganda and Tanzania believe would ‘swallow’ them economically if all the countries of the region removed trade barriers such as tariffs and work permits that, for example, ‘foreigners’ have to pay for in Tanzania. I thought Senzibira was being too bold. But East Africa needs bold and pragmatic leaders if it will ever be one. And Sezibera should know what courageous leadership can do to the region; he is Rwandese.

Indeed the various activities on the three days demonstrated that if the people themselves took the initiative, there would be a way of going around the politicians and bureaucrats, and forcing them to speed up the integration. There was entertainment – to listen to Vitali Maembe from Dar es Salaam is to meet the reincarnation of legendary musician Mbaraka Mwinshehe; discussions on how Kiswahili can contribute to speeding up the union; a women’s forum; resource governance forum; tourism forum – it was absolutely heartening to meet and talk to the representatives of Ugandan Community Tourism Association; sports for development forum organized by the Transnzoia Youth Sports Action from Kenya; social justice forum; youth forum, etc. All these forums were as intellectually uplifting as they were, at times, revolutionary in their calls for immediate integration. Many ended with resolutions calling on wanainchi [citizens"> to act now instead of waiting for the governments to decide when to integrate. This expression of the conviction for regional integration was intensely discussed in the Kiswahili Forum.

Kiswahili is the language of the majority of Eastern Africans. You will find speakers of Kiswahili in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Djibouti, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, South Sudan, Zanzibar, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo, Malawi, Zambia and even Zimbabwe. It is an official language of the African Union. It is the language of primary school education in Tanzania – mainland and the islands. It is both an examinable subject and a language of instruction in Kenyan schools. It makes trade possible all over the region, travel manageable – for instance there are books on Kiswahili for foreign travelers to the region found in airport bookshops in Europe and America. Kiswahili makes social intercourse possible in many cases where other languages fail in the region.

Yet, as several speakers in the Kiswahili forum – organized by the Nation Media Group online Swahili portal, Swahilihub managed by Hezekiel Gikambi – argued, the EAC integration may not happen if all East Africans don’t embrace Kiswahili. For instance, Ugandans still associate Kiswahili with the military and violence, and are less likely to speak it. Many Ugandans just can’t or won’t speak Kiswahili. Burundians and the Rwandese fare no better. Kenyans mutilate the language without care when they use it. Yet, surprisingly, all the presidents of the EAC states speak Kiswahili and it’s the language of parliamentary debate in Tanzania and Kenya.

Discussants at the forum from Tanzania painted a picture of Kiswahili as a language that is (re)producing social stratification. How? Because Kiswahili is the language of instruction in public primary schools in Tanzania but English is the medium of teaching at high school and university. This simply means that children from private schools – which use English for instruction from the kindergarten – will outperform those from the government schools in national examinations and get better opportunities later in life because to get a job one needs to be competent in English. It therefore follows that if you integrate the region without deciding on one curriculum – and therefore have one language of instruction at different levels of the education system – then even regional integration will (re)produce inequality.

But the experts in Kiswahili also argued that Kiswahili is a much abused language. Many noted that the media – especially the new media – is a culprit in the bastardization of Kiswahili. They decried the manner in which the media doesn’t bother to use the correct Kiswahili, instead preferring to hide behind language innovation corrupt Kiswahili with English or words from other foreign languages, thus leaving ordinary speakers of Kiswahili confused. In a way, this abuse of Kiswahili denies news consumers the right of access to news, info and entertainment in a language they understand. Others decried the confusion caused by authors of Kiswahili books who can’t seem to agree on such important details as the number of sounds or tenses in Kiswahili or which one is the ‘standard’ Kiswahili to be taught in schools. Among other issues raised in this forum was poor training of teachers and journalists; the poor use of the language by politicians and advertisers; little or no investment in research in Kiswahili; scant effort to export the language or make it an economic product the way other languages such as English or French have become. Probably many of these problems are caused by the fact that Kiswahili seems to be unclaimed by any one of these EAC countries. Indeed the joke is, ‘Kiswahili wa born in Zanzibar, grew up in Tanzania (mainland), was killed in Kenya and buried in Uganda.’ So, what will Burundi and Rwanda inherit?

However, some Kiswahili enthusiasts have decided to do their little bit to spread it. Malonga Pacifique has decided that he will make Rwandese speak Kiswahili. He runs Kiswahili programs on Radio Rwanda and Rwanda Television. He insisted that every speaker of Kiswahili must help others speak it. He proposed the formation of an organization to advance the interests of Kiswahili from the forum. Such commitment and exhortation from other speakers pushed for the formation of a committee made up of representatives from Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi, with the main aim of engaging all other Kiswahili-driven initiatives and organizations in the region to promote Kiswahili among ordinary wanainchi.

All these efforts are laudable and the honesty reflected in the debates at the Kiswahili Forum was quite commendable. But the task to make Kiswahili one of the key drivers of regional integration will need massive efforts, because if East Africans themselves can’t systemize or standardize this lingua franca; if they can’t integrate it in businesses, schools, offices, or in their spiritual and personal life; if they can’t see Kiswahili as offering the potential to improve on neighborliness, increase their business reach, offer more opportunities for jobs or simply make their world more peaceful, then why bother about EAC integration?

* Tom Odhiambo teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]



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