YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Postscript : Stuck in Language Limbo : Tanzania's Julius Nyerere once envisioned a Swahili-speaking utopia. It hasn't worked out.


DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — In the heady days of the 1960s when African nationalism was the rage, the fledgling republic of Tanzania boldly set out to dismantle the vestiges of its British colonial past. Almost overnight, the nation's elementary schools, courts and government institutions were ordered to start using Swahili instead of English. Secondary schools and universities were told to follow suit by the year 2000--the government target date for complete "Swahilization" at all levels of society.

Swahili institutes sprang up around the country to encourage the development of the language. Tanzania's founding father Mwalimu (teacher) Julius Nyerere, the driving force behind the movement, even translated Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" and the "Merchant of Venice." Meanwhile, in the United States, many African-Americans also responded to the call, taking up Swahili studies during the Black Power movement of the 1960s.

But three decades later, Nyerere's romantic vision of a Swahili-speaking utopia has been grounded by political reality. And, in recent years, some within the government leadership have been pushing for a renewed emphasis on English, arguing that the Swahili policy has backfired.

"There's a real conservatism nowadays," said Mohamed Mwombwa, at the Institute for Kiswahili Research and Foreign Languages in Zanzibar. "The position of a lot of people is that you're not educated unless you speak English."

Slowly emerging from a socialist revolution that left an economy in ruins, Tanzania remains one of the poorest countries in the world. But after instituting a sweeping program of economic reform in the mid-1980s, the East African nation is anxious to compete on the international market.

Some argue that Swahilization has led to a marked decline in English language skills--a phenomenon that has put Tanzanians at a disadvantage.

"If you want to succeed in foreign trade, you have to be able to communicate," said a political scientist from Dar es Salaam. "The problem is, the Swahili policy isolated the country from everybody else."

Over the years, a tug of war has developed between those who favor reinstituting English as the nation's main official language and supporters of the Swahili policy. As a result, many of the Swahili reforms initiated in the early '70s have been abandoned, leaving Tanzanians trapped in language limbo.

Take the judicial system. Lower courts conduct their business in Swahili, yet the records of the proceedings are kept in English.

The public education system is perhaps the best example of how the stalemate has led to confusion.

Under Nyerere, the language of instruction in elementary classes was changed to Swahili with the idea that the high schools and universities would eventually follow. But today's opponents of Swahili have vigorously resisted attempts to extend the policy to the upper levels. Consequently, Tanzanian schoolchildren receive their elementary education in Swahili, studying English as a second language. But by junior high school, they must abruptly switch gears because the curriculum is in English.

The result, according to some teachers, is that students often fail to master either language. Others find themselves switching back and forth from English to Swahili in an effort to get their point across.

"We call it 'Kiswengli" said Festo Mpoyola, a member of the government-appointed National Kiswahili Council. "The students can't figure out what's going on and even the teachers have to mix the two languages because they can't speak English continuously."

Supporters of Kiswahili--which translates as Swahili in the language itself--blame a "colonial mentality" for impeding their efforts started in the 1960s.

"I see it as a psychological disease," said T. S. Sengo, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Kiswahili Research at the University of Dar es Salaam. "Why shouldn't Africans use African languages?"

Sengo touts the policy's successes. Most important, he said, the adoption of the African tongue has fostered a sense of national identity and helped to unify the country's 120 different tribes.

He and others maintain that the language policy has helped Tanzania avoid the tribal violence and civil strife that plagues neighboring countries.

"In places like Kenya, the first question someone usually asks you is what tribe you are from," said Joseph Mapunda, the former editor of the government newspaper, the Daily News. "Here, they ask you your name."

The majority of Tanzania's population of 24 million speak Swahili in addition to their own local vernacular. So, too, do another 75 million people throughout Kenya, Uganda, Zaire, Burundi, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Hundreds of years before the arrival of the first Europeans, Swahili was the language used by the coastal tribes that settled in eastern Tanzania. In the 1800s, Arab traders in pursuit of slaves began migrating down the coast, spreading the language during their forays to the interior.

Los Angeles Times Articles