The Pan-africanisation of Swahili: A quest to (re-)shape modern African Identity Politics

Author: Jumoke Adeyanju (SOAS University of London, London)
Speaker: Jumoke Adeyanju
Topic: Language Ideologies
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL AFALA 2023 General Session


Swahili is the most thriving and widely spoken language in East Africa and the number of speakers outside the continent is growing steadily. Over half of Swahili speakers learn Swahili as their second language in addition to their first language, usually also a Bantu languge that plays a less important socio-political role. During the de-colonization process in the 1960s, Tanzania’s first president ‘Mwalimu’ Julius Kambarage Nyerere implemented a number of national reformation approaches, setting the ‘Swahilisation’ of the nation as the highest priority, to promote self-determination of African identities while maintaining national identity. This paper discusses the new wave of expanding Swahili language policies in Eastern and Southern Africa as a means to unify the continent. What does this mean in terms of Pan African Thought and Practices of cultural unification? How may the spread of the ideas of “Swahilisation” affect educational and academic sectors, politics and foreign policies beyond Eastern Africa? The nuances and (re)-definitions of African diasporas has been discussed thoroughly in academia yet few have delved into analyzing today’s characteristics of (re)-shaping African Identity Politics in regards to language; specifically Kiswahili. Through comparative political thought theories, I will focus on the political economy of Swahili as well as a possible increase in disparities between Africans from the diaspora and those socialised on the continent to embrace Kiswahili as a Pan-African language. This paper juxtaposes Kiswahili as a chance to unravel colonial borders and its potential linguistic prevalence to undermine marginalized languages on the continent. While the diasporic subject’s quest to construe Kiswahili as a Pan-African identifier of self, a common understanding of belonging and nativity, efforts of decolonizing the tongue in a post-colonial era have already reached an institutional level. The re-emerging urgency of the EAC as a unifying entity evoked a widespread shift of internal African discourses on the political and economic importance of Kiswahili. Despite all this, post-colonial structures are gaining the upper hand institutionally. For example, although in Tanzania, Swahili is recognized as the sole official language, English occupies a central role in the University space. Recently, reports of PhD students (Dr. Hlezi Kunju, Rhodes University and Dr. Nompumelelo Kapa, University of Fort Hare) handing in their dissertations in isiXhosa for the first time in history have been praised as setting a milestone in shifting power relations of (African) languages in the academic space. Can Kiswahili counter these post-colonial structures?

Keywords: Swahilisation, EAC, African identity, decolonization of language, diaspora, academic space, language dichotomy, Kiswahili, Pan-african language, post-colonialism, de-colonisation