Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

The Role of Kiswahili in the Integration of East Africa

Academic journal article Journal of Pan African Studies

The Role of Kiswahili in the Integration of East Africa

Article excerpt


Kiswahili, the subject of this paper, is assumed to have originated on the East African littoral. Most scholars have therefore argued that it is a Bantu language, although there have been claims to the contrary. Some researchers have claimed it is a mixed language of Arabic dialects and Africa languages, or Arabic dialect or even an Arabic creole (Mazrui & Mazrui 1988). As a Bantu language, it has spread to many parts of East Africa and the rest of Africa through informal and formal trade, governance, education and religion (Whiteley 1968). It now serves as a lingua franca of the East African geo-political area. It is used in Tanzania as both official and national language. In Kenya it is used as a national language and has been suggested in the evolving constitution as a twin-official language with English (Chiraghdin and Mnyampala 1977; Chimera 1998; Whiteley 1969).

The East African region has itself many other languages- being defined as heavily multi-lingual. Tanzania alone has 100 indigenous languages, Uganda having nearly as much as Tanzania and Kenya having more than 40 languages. The Various languages represent and express multi- faceted cultures with varying divides. The classification of languages is complicated by problems of drawing a dichotomy between a language and a dialect.

Although East Africa as a region has had some integration like political co-operation, economic linkages and cross cultural linkages, the role Kiswahili has played as a micro-cultural element in reinforcing the macro- elements cannot be overstated. Such linkages are like common colonial powers, geo- political cooperation and economic vestiges like Breweries, Coca Cola, Total and Bp Shell. The East African Regional Co-operation saw members of the East African countries move from one individual East African country to integrated members of one regional economic block.

Mazrui & Mazrui (1998) argue that Kiswahili and English are the most influential trans ethnic languages in East Africa. They proceed to argue that the two languages are used in many activities ranging from sacred to secular. Kiswahili is a symbol of identity and heritage to most East Africans. To a large extent, it symbolizes cultural liberation from the Western World (Ngugi 1993) and a means through which they can engage themselves in the processes of globalization with the outside world.

Border Links

One of the ways in which Kiswahili establishes and reinforces unity among the diverse ethnic groups of East Africa is through cross border trade. There is a high volume of trade between border groups in all the countries. This border trade is largely conducted in Kiswahili which is a language common to the communities of the region. The border trade is both formal and informal. Besides the trade, we have many similar linguistic groups that have an attachment to one another. However, they are separated by political boundaries. Kiswahili becomes a means of re-forging them as one. The language also helps minimize border conflicts in the East African region. It does so because the language repertoire common to all helps them to view themselves as a people belonging to one large divided but linguistically united region.


Music is another domain that offers a conduit of unity as expressed through the Kiswahili medium. The East African lyrics, melodies and tunes find expression in Kiswahili language. Most important of these is gospel music. Gospel music is sung by the East Africans and they provide market for it. For example, Tanzanian music is in most Ugandan and Kenyan stalls. Secular music is usually composed and sung using contemporary themes as experienced by the communities and is marketed across the region. Tanzanian and Ugandan music is often produced in Kenya.

Many Kenyans also produce their music which has ready market within and without the country. Kiswahili is a great facilitator of this music. …

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