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Swahili the Language that hates to be penned down. Translation may help.
Thread poster: Mwananchi

Local time: 16:30
Member (2006)
English to Swahili
+ ...
Feb 3, 2006

For a language that has been in usage for over a thousand years Swahili surely is a language that hates to be penned down. Swahili has traditionally been written using either the Arabic or Latin scripts.

Arabic was the script used to write Swahili in the pre-colonial period circa 1000-1800. With the coming of colonialism the Latin script took over. The first widely used Swahili dictionary is from the mid 1800s prepared by Christian missionaries in the Latin script.

For its first recorded 1800 years the oldest surviving manuscript is from the 1600 or 1700s this is an Islamic religious text.

The reason for this deficiency of recorded content can be traced to its users namely the Bantu Africans and the Coastal Arabs. The Coastal Arabs had the Arabic, which they used to store important data and only used Swahili as a means of verbal communication with their African trading partners.

The African traders on the other hand did not have a script of their own so it was that a language that became the lingua franca of traders on the East Coast of Africa centuries ago has very little material to show for it.

Most recorded events of historical life on the Coast of East Africa are either Persian, Arabic, Indian or Chinese. Recently a descendant of Chinese, sailors from the 1300s was honoured and invited to China to take part in festivities commemorating that journey in which African wildlife such as Giraffe was first introduced to China.

Again had it not been for the Chinese, apart from the descendants they left behind little of that trip would have remained for posterity.

Thankfully in the colonial and post, colonial period more effort has been made to invest in Swahili dictionaries and the formal teaching of Swahili. The script used has also changed from Arabic in most part to Latin.

Today we have various Swahili, daily and weekly newspapers particularly in Kenya and Tanzania. American Universities have also taken to the language and Yale University has even undertaken a project called Kamusi that seeks to be a participatory online dictionary bringing together Swahili experts and learners for the expansion and wider development of the language.

However despite the wider usage of Swahili in the written form, Swahili still has some way to go before it can be treated as a literary language in the manner of English, French or Russian to name just a few.

If you walk into a Kenyan bookshop today you will undoubtedly come across a substantial amount of material written in Swahili but again this will not be material one would call literary material in the strict sense of the word as most of the Swahili materials are either dictionaries or school textbooks and other teaching and learning material.

Given that the youth of school going age make up most of the Kenyan population and Swahili has been a mandatory subject of study in government, sponsored schools for over two decades. Publishers are making tidy profits printing teaching materials but they cannot be said to be doing much for the linguistic or artistic development of the language.

Swahili is the language of politics and the language of trade in the greater East African region politicians and corporations marketing consumer goods know that they will get very little penetration if they do not use Swahili as their primary language of communication.

Yet despite most political statements being made in Swahili and Swahili being the language of political rallies, with the exception of radio and the 7 O’clock evening news virtually all serious political analysis of political statements and speeches are done in the local English dailies and English media.

The immediate former President of Kenya who had populist leanings confined virtually all his political speeches and statements to Swahili, yet most records of his Presidency including; “Moi: The making of an African Statesman”, by famed British Author; Andrew Morton and “Kenya African Nationalism” amongst others have no Swahili translation.

A variation of Swahili is fast catching up in popular media in Music, Films and Tv soap operas but Swahili, as a base for literature is still far off. Tanzania has a famed pre-independence author called Shaaban Roberts who though dying comparatively young authored several books, which greatly enhanced the literary pedigree of the Swahili language among them; “Wema hajazaliwa”, which means the beautiful ones have not yet been born, beauty in this case I believe being used to depict the integrity of the political class.

Kenya also has a number of famous authors among them David Mailu who recently authored a book by the name of “Broken Drum”, which is said to rival Russian writer’s Leo Tolstoy’s, War and Peace in length, a feat that has probably led to him being honoured by an Australian University with an honorary Doctorate.

Meja Mwangi whose books have been used as scripts for popular plays and films and Ngugi wa Thiongo currently a professor at an American, West Coast University. Sadly none of this writers use Swahili as their means of writing Mailu and Mwangi both use English while Ngugi writes in his vernacular Kikuyu language.

It appears for now the only way to build a Swahili literary culture will have to be through translation. By translating the works of the above named writers and other famed African writers, personalities and dignitaries together with famed English, Russian and Continental authors. It can be demonstrated that Swahili too can become a literary language and hopefully this will move more authors and readers to the language.

People with then begin to savour the audio beauty of the language in its visual form.

For more on Swahili please visit

[Edited at 2006-02-07 12:41]

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Swahili the Language that hates to be penned down. Translation may help.

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