The story of how Swahili became Africa’s most spoken language

Once an obscure island dialect of the Afrikaans Bantu language, Swahili has evolved into Africa’s most internationally recognized language. This is comparable to the few languages ​​in the world that have more than 200 million users.

Over two millennia of Swahili’s development and adaptation, this story molds – immigrants from inland Africa, traders from Asia, Arab and European settlers, European and Indian settlers, colonial rulers, and individuals from various post-colonial nations have used Swahili. have used and adapted it for their own purposes. They have taken it wherever they have gone in the West.

The Swahili-speaking region of Africa now covers a third of the continent from south to north and touches the opposite coast, encompassing the heart of Africa.


The historical land of Swahili is on the coast of the Indian Ocean in East Africa. A 2,500-kilometre chain of coastal cities from Mogadishu, Somalia to Sofala, Mozambique as well as offshore islands from the Comoros and Seychelles.

This coastal region has long served as an international crossroads of trade and human movement. People from all walks of life and regions as scattered as Indonesia, Persia, the African Great Lakes, the United States and Europe face each other. Hunters, shepherds and farmers mingled with merchants and townspeople.

Dedicated to the ancestors and spirits of their land, Africans met Muslims, Hindus, Portuguese Catholics and British Anglicans. Workers (among them slaves, porters and labourers), soldiers, rulers and diplomats had coexisted since ancient times. Anyone moving to the East African coast could choose to become Swahili, and many did.

African unity

Swahili enthusiasts and advocates include notable intellectuals, freedom fighters, civil rights activists, political leaders, learned professional societies, entertainers and health activists. Not to mention the usual professional writers, poets and artists.

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Nobel laureate has been at the forefront wole soyinka, The Nigerian writer, poet and playwright has repeatedly called for the use of Swahili as a transcontinental language for Africa since the 1960s. African Union (AU), “United States of Africa” ​​fostered a similar spirit of continental unity and adopted Swahili as its official language in July 2004. As Joaquim Chisano (Then President of Mozambique) tabled the proposal, he addressed the au innocent swahili He learned in Tanzania, where he was educated during his exile from the Portuguese colony.

African Union did not adopt Incidentally, Swahili is the international language of Africa. The Swahili have a very long history of building bridges between peoples across the continent of Africa and in the diaspora.

The sense of unity, the insistence that the whole of Africa is one, simply will not disappear. languages ​​are Original For everyone’s sense of belonging, to express what is in one’s heart. The AU’s decision was particularly shocking because the population of its member states speaks approx. two thousand languages (nearly a third of all human languages), several dozen of them with over a million speakers.

How did Swahili, with its diverse linguistic history and traditions, achieve such a prominent position among so many groups?

a liberating language

During the decades leading up to the independence of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in the early 1960s, Swahili served as an international instrument of political cooperation. This enabled freedom fighters across the region to communicate their common aspirations, even though their native languages ​​differ widely.

The rise of Swahili, for some Africans, was a symbol of true cultural and personal independence from the colonial Europeans and the languages ​​under their control and command. Uniquely among the independent nations of Africa, the government of Tanzania uses Swahili for all official occupations and, most effectively, in basic education. Indeed, the Swahili word uhuru (freedom), which emerged from this freedom struggle, became part of global vocabulary of political empowerment.

The highest political offices in East Africa began using and promoting Swahili soon after independence. Presidents Julius Nyerere of Tanzania (1962–85) and jomo kenyata Kenya’s (1964–78) promoted Swahili as an integral part of the region’s political and economic interests, security and liberation. The political power of the language was less joyfully demonstrated by the Ugandan dictator Idi Amina (1971–79), who used Swahili for his army and secret police operations during his reign of terror.

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Under Nyerere, Tanzania became one of only two African countries to ever declare a native Afrikaans language as the country’s official mode of communication (the other being Ethiopia, with Amharic). nyerre personally translated Two of William Shakespeare’s plays are in Swahili to demonstrate Swahili’s ability to bear the expressive weight of great literary works.

socialist voice

Nyerere also made the word Swahili to denote Tanzanian citizenship. Later, the label took on a socialist form in praise of the common men and women of the nation. This contrasted sharply with European and Western-oriented elite Africans increasingly – and by implication – accumulated wealth.

Eventually, the term expanded to include the poor of all races, of both African and non-African ancestry. For example, in my own experience as a lecturer at Stanford University in the 1990s, many students from Kenya and Tanzania referred to the poor white neighborhood of East Palo Alto, California, as Uswahilini, “the land of Swahili”. Unlike Uzunguni, “Land of Mazungu (White Man)”.

Nyerere considered it prestigious to be called Swahili. Under his influence, the term became imbued with the socio-political connotations of poor, but worthy and even noble. This in turn helped create a pan-African popular identity independent of the elite-dominated national governments of the fifty-some nation-states of Africa.

Little did I realize then that the Swahili label has been used for more than a millennium as an ideological rallying point for solidarity among communities, competing towns, and residents from multiple backgrounds.

Kwanzaa and Ujama

In 1966, (activist and writer) Maulana Ron will The black independence movement combined with Swahili, choosing Swahili as its official language and creating the Kwanzaa festival. Period kwanzaa The Swahili word is derived from ku-anja, which means “to begin” or “the first”. The purpose of the holiday was to celebrate Matunda or Kwanzaa, “the first fruit”. According to Karenga, Kwanzaa symbolizes the celebration of the ancient African harvest.

A Kwanzaa festival in Denver, USA.
Andy Cross / The Denver Post via Getty Images

Celebrants were encouraged to adopt Swahili names and to address each other with Swahili honorifics. based on Nyerere’s principle Ujamaa (Unity in Mutual Contribution), Kwanzaa celebrates the seven principles or pillars. Unity (umoza), self-determination (kujichaguliya), collective action and responsibility (uzima), cooperative economics (uzama), shared purpose (niya), individual creativity (kumba) and trust (imani).

The Swahili word Nyerere also became a symbol of “community brotherhood and brotherhood” under the slogan Ujama. That term has gained such strong appeal that it has been used far and wide among Aboriginal Australians and African Americans and Worldwide From London to Papua New Guinea. Not to mention its ongoing celebration on several American college campuses in the form of a dormitory named Ujama House.


Today, Swahili is the Afrikaans language that is widely recognized outside the continent. Swahili’s global presence in radio broadcasts and on the Internet is not on par with sub-Saharan African languages.

Swahili is broadcast regularly in Burundi, DRC, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland and Tanzania. On the international scene, no other Afrikaans language can be heard from world news stations as often or as widely.

at least as far back merchant horn (1931), Swahili words and speeches have been heard in hundreds of films and television series, such as star trek, out of AfricaDisney’s king lionAnd Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, The Lion King featured a number of Swahili words, with the most familiar being the names of the characters, including simba (lion), rafiki (friend) and pumba (terrified). Swahili phrases such as asante sana (thank you very much) and, of course, that no problem philosophy known as hakuna matata, were repeated throughout the film.

Swahili lacks the number of speakers, wealth and political power associated with global languages ​​such as Mandarin, English or Spanish. But it appears that Swahili is the only language with over 100 million speakers, with more speakers of another language than native peoples.

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By immersing themselves in the affairs of a maritime culture at a major commercial gateway, the people who were eventually named the Vaswahi (Swahili people) carved a niche for themselves. They were so important in trade that newcomers had little choice but to speak Swahili as the language of trade and diplomacy. And the Swahili population became stronger as successive generations of second-language speakers of Swahili lost their ancestral languages ​​and became Swahili.

The key to understanding this story is to look deeply at the Swahili people’s response to the challenges. The way in which he made his fortune and dealt with misfortune. And, more importantly, how he honed his skills at balancing confrontation and resistance with adaptation and innovation as he interacted with those coming from other language backgrounds.

This is an edited quote from first chapter Of story of swahili from ohio university press

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