Swahili swerves into the internet age

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The World

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — Swahili, the language that blossomed hundreds of years ago on the trade winds of the Indian Ocean, splashed into the internet age this June with the launching of the Swahili version of Facebook.

It was only the latest boost for one of the world's most broadly spoken indigenous African languages. Swahili’s caretakers — academics, writers, researchers and politicians — have long dedicated themselves to keeping the language relevant in times of quickly changing technology.

Nowhere is better suited to lead Swahili into the electronic era than Tanzania, the most thoroughly Swahili-speaking country in the world. A steady stream of foreigners comes to Tanzania to study the language, called Kiswahili by its native speakers. In 2004, researchers at the University of Dar es Salaam helped launch Jambo OpenOffice, an open-source Swahili office suite for the Linux operating system. Swahili literature and newspapers in Tanzania are thriving.

In fact, Tanzania prides itself on its Swahili, even to the point of vanity. A local adage says that Swahili was born in Tanzania, got sick in Kenya — where a Swahili patois called Sheng is spoken — and died in Uganda. Since independence from the British in 1961, Tanzania painstakingly built its identity on the language, and it is the only country for which Swahili is both a national and official language.

While many Americans’ exposure to Swahili is limited to "The Lion King," Tanzania’s relationship with the language is more about heritage and history than Disney. (If someone greets you on the streets here with "hakuna matata," he’s probably trying to sell you something. The phrase, which the famous Disney movie made popular, means “no problem” in Swahili, but around here, it’s little more than a lure for tourists.) Swahili instructors do brisk business here, and sometimes export their services abroad.

Yet for all the innovation and seriousness surrounding Swahili in Tanzania, the national language is still negotiating its global role. While scholars develop Swahili words for new technology, colloquial speakers tend to use English derivatives. And although one may meet the occasional Chinese contractor who speaks Swahili, the high-rolling, Swahili-speaking foreign businessperson is unusual.

“Most businessmen who are coming here, they will be doing big business. And in doing big business, it means they meet people who are educated,” said Perpetual Katondo, a training coordinator at Kiswahili na Utamaduni (KIU), an institute that offers language courses in Dar es Salaam. She said English still dominates the elite business world.

“Most [KIU students] are development workers,” she added. “They need Kiswahili because they work with local people.”

Musa Twaha Kitonge, a KIU instructor who founded the Facebook group “Swahili and Culture — Tanzania,” which boasts more than 1,600 members, predicts that the number of Swahili speakers will continue to grow, but acknowledges that the integrity of the language is at stake. “The biggest challenge to Kiswahili is that there are many English words,” he said. “And most people who are educated mix Swahili and English.”

It seems the same economic forces that have kept Tanzania poor continue to put English in the driver’s seat in major international forums, business and technology. Swahili is essential for aid workers, and it is even a required language for many United Nations positions advertised in major cities like Dar es Salaam. But foreign mining company executives, high-paid consultants and international corporate employees can probably get by without it.

Its use as a language on Facebook is not necessarily a bellwether for Swahili’s health, either — the social networking site also offers its services in jokey “Pirate English” and Esperanto, the “universal” language invented in the late 19th century that never really caught on.

Luckily, Swahili has historically thrived on adaptation. It originally grew as a hybrid between Bantu dialects and Arabic. For centuries, Arab traders sailing on dhows used trade winds to travel to the East African coast where they did a lucrative business in ivory and slaves. Soon many settled along the coast and mixed with Africans.

The classic Swahili culture — encompassing not just the language, but also architecture, music, literature, style of dress and the Muslim religion — flourished on the East African coast from today’s southern Somalia to northern Mozambique and Madagascar. As a result, Swahili was a language both of transaction — most of its numbers are comprehensible to Arabic speakers — and of the more complex aspects of culture. Many abstract concepts also have an Arabic provenance. There’s the everyday greeting of habari, which means “news” and comes from the Arabic khabar, which has the same meaning. And in Arabic, atamana is to wish; in Kiswahili, tumaini is “hope.” Even the word “Swahili” comes from the Arabic word for coast, sahel.

If Swahili thrives in the 21st century — as many expect it to, with the growth of regional trading blocs like the East African Community (which brings together Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda) — it will need to draw on this cultural richness and ability to adapt, on its own terms.

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