“Excuse me, I don’t speak Swahili!”

One of the most noticeable challenges any foreigner would encounter just after settling into their host country is culture shock and soon they realize that this eventually burdens their communication with the locals. For a country like Kenya where Swahili is the official language besides English, people freely speak their native language with pride and nationalism as it is the only lingua that unites the country’s more than 40 tribes. Swahili is also the official language of the East African Community made up of five countries namely Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Burundi.

It is also a major language beyond the Great Lakes region – all the way up to some parts of central, north-eastern and southern Africa. You’ll discover different versions of this Bantu language in the D.R.Congo, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, Mozambique, Comoros, Zambia, and Zanzibar. Estimates put the number of native Swahili speakers at more than 100 million people.

Though it’s constitutionally recognized as a national language for Uganda, fewer than 30% of the population speak it and this is due to the obscured exposure of Swahili knowledge in the rural areas where indigenous languages are dominant. This explains my little understanding of Swahili as unlike our East African counterparts, in Uganda Swahili wasn’t a compulsory language subject for teaching and learning until mid-2016 when the country’s National Curriculum Development Centre made it compulsory from the primary to the secondary education levels, putting it on the same leverage as English.

During my school days in Uganda, Swahili was an optional lingua subject and b’se of its limited coverage, it was uncommon to find any student learning it as a course. Popular language courses were Luganda, French, and English which were and are still more popular among the academic circles. There is a sizable Ugandan population who speak Swahili and they mostly live near the border with countries where the language is native such as the areas along the eastern border with Kenya, the southern border with Tanzania and the northern border with South Sudan. Other Ugandans learned Swahili during their long stays in either Kenya or Tanzania as students or expats.

One root cause for the negative perception of Swahili among the conservative Ugandans was the brutality of security forces who were always associated with the language and could often be heard speaking it while violently breaking up public gatherings such as political rallies. Since ordinary Ugandans couldn’t understand the soldiers/policemen’s communication amongst themselves, they came to detest the language and anyone who was known for speaking it, including government officials. Additionally, since the colonial times, Swahili has been the major language of instruction in security agencies like the Prisons, Army, and Police so generally Ugandans think that speaking it is an expression of brutality. Amazingly, more northerners are superb at speaking Swahili than people from other regions b’se of previous regimes of Apollo Milton Obote, Idi Amin, and Tito Lutwa Okello, which massively recruited security personnel from their respective northern tribes.

Uganda’s dark past was characterized by brutal dictatorships that terrorized political opponents which further tarnished the oppressed people’s attitude towards the Swahili language as it was the official form of communication by the above-mentioned regimes. The oppressed ethnicities mostly the non-Nilotics came to detest it as the language of the oppressors. That is why you’ll find very few Swahili speakers in the western, central and southern parts of Uganda.

So that is my case, indifferent to the majority of Ugandans who hesitate to learn this language but many are now starting to realize the benefits of studying it b’se of the improved exposure as Uganda integrates politically, socially and economically with the rest of East Africa. Borders have been opened up and more Ugandans are constantly dealing with their counterparts like me who is studying here in Nairobi, Kenya. In the same way, thousands of Kenyans and Tanzanians are moving to live in Uganda and such opportunities have inspired Ugandan authorities to make Swahili a compulsory subject in schools.

Personally, I have found a hard time getting along with Kenya’s general mode of communication. Outside of lecture rooms and high-ranking offices, Swahili dominates all the methods of communication – verbal and non-verbal. All mass media (posters, signboards, TV and radio stations) propagate their messages in Swahili, the same on streets, shops, restaurants, and all public places. A good relief to me has been the fact that most communication patterns in modern Nairobi are dual-lingual where English is used alongside Swahili. An example is a billboard, or signpost where the first sentence is in Swahili and next one is the translation in English and this has been invaluable for me to easily understand the message being put across.

Like the topic of this article relates, I have to personally tell almost everyone I interact with that I am not a Swahili speaker. Though many are astounded when they hear that I am from Uganda where Swahili is a national language, still, I have to reveal to them the circumstances as to why the majority of us do not speak Swahili. “Excuse me, but I don’t speak Swahili!” I exclaim. They reply with a confused look, “Ohhh, sorry but where are you from?”, “Uganda”, I respond. This mostly happens at the restaurant, in a Matatu, at a public park, or a supermarket and thank goodness, almost everyone here has a basic knowledge of English so when they find out that I don’t speak Swahili, they easily switch to English and the conversation goes on.

Well, am not that kind of guy who easily conforms to a strange culture and that’s b’se of my conservative upbringing and the above-disclosed circumstances that made me reluctant to learn Swahili. It’s over a year now as a foreign resident in Kenya but my Swahili is still terrible due to my unwillingness to learn it but I have often found myself in dramatic scenarios where people would stop me for directions, or me inquiring for advice and all I do is to pretend that understand them and I simply nod my head in agreement or just fake it by playing along by repeatedly saying “Ohh, sawa sawa (okay, okay)”. I admit that in such scenarios I am the loser because if one gives me directions in Swahili without myself admitting that I don’t speak Swahili, probably I’d end up taking a wrong direction.

For now, I decided to keep a low profile and narrow my social interactions to avoid embarrassing myself anymore. Sometimes I ask myself, ‘for how long shall I keep telling everyone that “Mimi sijui Kiswahili” (I don’t know Swahili)?’ Well, I have no idea but at least am doing something about it and I can proudly say that my knowledge of Swahili is something like 10% which is still, of course, unpleasant but am learning pole pole (slowly slowly). This narrative video by Julian Mwine explains in a more factual context why the majority of Ugandans do not speak Swahili.

Thanks for reading…


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