How Swahili became the most spoken language in Africa

Satellite image of Africa.Credit: public domain

Once an ambiguous island dialect of the Bantu language of Africa, Swahili has evolved into Africa’s most internationally recognized language. Equivalent to one of the few languages ​​in the world with over 200 million users.

Over the 2,000 years of Swahili’s growth and adaptation, the creators of this story: immigrants from inland Africa, immigrants from Asia, Arab and European occupiers, European and Indian settlers, colonial rulers, and more. Individuals from various postcolonial countries have adapted using Swahili. Make it their own purpose. They took it wherever they went west.

Africa’s Swahili-speaking area now stretches one-third of the continent from south to north, bordering the opposite coast, including central Africa.


Swahili’s historic land lies on the Indian Ocean coast of East Africa. A 2,500-kilometer chain of coastal towns from Mogadishu in Somalia to Sofala in Mozambique, and offshore islands to Comoros and Seychelles.

This coastal area has long served as an international crossroads for trade and human movement. People from all disciplines and scattered regions such as Indonesia, Persia, the African Great Lakes, the United States and Europe met each other. Hunter-gatherers, herders and farmers were mixed with merchants and city dwellers.

Africans dedicated to their ancestors and the spirit of their land met Muslims, Hindus, Portuguese Catholics and Anglican Church. Workers (slaves, porters, among workers), soldiers, rulers, and diplomats have been mixed since ancient times. Anyone who went to the coast of East Africa could choose to be Swahili, and many did.

African unity

The roles of Swahili enthusiasts and supporters include prominent intellectuals, freedom fighters, Civil rights activist, Political leader, Academic Professionals Association, Entertainers, Medical Professionals. Not to mention the usual professional writers, poets and artists.

Above all, he is a Nobel laureate. Wole Soyinka.. Nigerian writers, poets and playwrights have repeatedly called for the use of Swahili as a transcontinental railroad since the 1960s. language For Africa. The African Union (AU), “United States of Africa” ​​fostered the same feeling of unity of the continent in July 2004 and adopted Swahili as the official language.As Joakin Chisano (President Mozambique at the time) Putting this move on the table, he addressed at AU. Perfect Swahili He studied in Tanzania and was educated during exile from the Portuguese colonies.

The African Union did not Recruitment Coincidentally, Swahili as the international language of Africa. Swahili has a much longer history of building bridges between people across the African continent to the Diaspora.

The sense of unity, the claim that Africa as a whole is one, never disappears.The language is Elemental Expressing everyone’s sense of belonging and what is in their hearts. The AU decision was particularly impressive given that the populations of member states speak estimates. 2000 languages (Approximately one-third of all human languages), dozens of them have more than a million speakers.

How did Swahili become so important in so many groups with their own diverse linguistic history and traditions?

Liberation language

Swahili served as a means of international political cooperation for decades before the independence of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania in the early 1960s. This allowed freedom fighters across the region to convey a common desire, despite their very different native languages.

For some Africans, the rise of Swahili was a sign of true cultural and personal independence from the colonized Europeans and the language of their rule and command. The Government of Tanzania, which is unique among the independent countries of Africa, uses Swahili for all public enterprises, and most impressively, for basic education. Certainly, the Swahili word uhuru (freedom) born from this struggle for independence is Global Lexicon Of political empowerment.

The best political offices in East Africa began using and promoting Swahili shortly after independence.President Julius Nyerere Tanzania (1962–85) and Jomo Kenyatta Kenya (1964–78) promoted Swahili as an integral part of the region’s political and economic interests, security and liberation.The political power of language was demonstrated less happily by the Ugandan dictator. Idi Amin (1971–79), he used Swahili for his army and secret police operations during terrorism.

Under Nyerere, Tanzania has become one of two African countries that have declared Africa’s native language as the official means of communication for the country (the other is Amharic Ethiopia).Nyerere Personal translation William Shakespeare’s two plays to Swahili show Swahili’s ability to withstand the expressiveness of great literary works.

Overtones of socialism

Nyerere even made Swahili the referent of Tanzanian citizenship. The label then gained the overtones of socialism by praising the country’s common men and women. It was in stark contrast to Europeans and Western-minded elite Africans, who immediately and suspiciously surprised wealth.

Eventually, the term expanded further to cover the poor of all races, both African and non-African. For example, in my own experience as a lecturer at Stanford University in the 1990s, some Kenyan and Tanzania students referred to the poor white areas of East Palo Alto, California as “Swahili lands.” In contrast to Azungni, “Muzung (white) land”.

Nyerere thought it was an honor to be called Swahili. His influence has given the term a socio-political implication that it is poor but valuable and even noble. This in turn helped to build the popular identity of Pan-African, independent of the government controlled by the elite of 50 African nation-states.

At that time, I realized that the Swahili label had been used for over a thousand years as a conceptual gathering point for cross-border solidarity of communities, competitive towns, and inhabitants with many backgrounds. It was.

Kwanzaa and Ujamaa

1966, (activists and writers) Maurana Ron Karenga He associated the Black Freedom Movement with Swahili, chose Swahili as the official language, and created the celebration of Kwanzaa. The term Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili word ku-anza, which means “begin” or “first.” This holiday was intended to celebrate Matundaya Kwanza’s “First Fruit”. According to Karenga, Kwanzaa symbolizes the festival of harvest in ancient Africa.

Celebrities adopted Swahili names and were encouraged to discuss each other in honor of Swahili.Based on Nyerere’s principle Ujamaa (Unification of Mutual Contribution), Kwanzaa celebrates seven principles or pillars. Unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collaboration and responsibility (ujima), co-operative economics (ujamaa), shared purpose (nia), personal creativity (kuumba), faith (imani).

Nyerere has also become an icon of “community brotherhood and sisterhood” under the Swahili Ujamaa slogan.The word has been very appealing, among Australian Aborigines and African Americans, and In the world From London to Papua New Guinea. Not to mention the ongoing celebrations on many US university campuses in the form of dormitories named Ujammer House.


Today, Swahili is the most widely recognized African language outside the continent. The global presence of Swahili on radio broadcasts and the Internet is not comparable between sub-Saharan African languages.

Swahili is regularly broadcast in Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Swaziland and Tanzania. In the international scene, other African languages ​​cannot be heard so often or extensively from news stations around the world.

At least go back Trader horn (1931), Swahili words and speeches were heard in hundreds of films and television series, including: Star Trek, From africaDisney The Lion KingWhen Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.. The Lion King is characterized by several Swahili words, most notably the names of characters such as Simba (Lion), Rafiki (Friends), and Pumbaa (Vague). The Swahili phrase repeated Asantesana (thank you) and, of course, the benign philosophy known as Hakuna Matata throughout the film.

Swahili lacks the number of speakers, wealth, and political power associated with universal languages ​​such as Mandarin, English, and Spanish. However, Swahili seems to be the only language boasting over 100 million speakers with more second language speakers than the native language.

By immersing themselves in the issues of maritime culture at the main commercial gateway, the people finally designated as Swahili (Swahili people) created 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 more established as the next generation of Swahili second language speakers lost the language of their ancestors and became a sincere Swahili.

The key to understanding this story is to take a deeper look at the Swahili people’s reaction to the challenge. The way they made their luck and dealt with their misfortunes. And most importantly, how to hone your skills in balancing conflict and resistance with adaptation and innovation when interacting with arrivals from other language backgrounds.

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How Swahili became the most spoken language in Africa

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