I attended the 27th Swahili Colloquium at the University of Bayreuth, Bayreuth, Germany, from 08th – 09th June, this year. This was a two-day event followed immediately by another two-day symposium, ‘New Dynamics in Swahili Studies.’ I was surprised to learn that the Swahili conference had been held at the University of Bayreuth for the past 26 years.
The conference highlighted, to me, the significance of Kiswahili as a language of choice and use for millions of people in Kenya, Tanzania, Zanzibar, Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda, Congo, the DRC, Somalia, South Sudan, the Sudan, parts of Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe. You could add Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Comoros, and Seychelles here. In population terms these countries will potentially have more than 400 million people in the next 10 years.
But why the interest in Swahili studies, in Bayreuth, in Germany, in Europe? Why invest so many resources to study an African language? Purely for academic reasons one would say that Kiswahili is taught in schools so this could be a meeting of mere scholars of Kiswahili and that would be it. But think of the material value of Swahili studies if one wishes to understand the peoples and cultures along the littoral Coast of East Africa all the way into the Congo and Central Africa? What would be the value of an expert to his or her country on these societies and their language of trade and every day life?
The conference highlighted five issues for me, which should provide food for thought for Kenyan and regional scholars of Swahili. There were two Kenyan scholars at Bayreuth who have the status to influence policy on Swahili studies in Kenya. Kimani Njogu read a paper “Creative Non-Fiction in Kiswahili: Reading ‘Mbali na Nyumbani’ by Shafi Adam Shafi as ‘Memoir’”. Mark Kandagor, the Chair of Department of Kiswahili at Moi University, spoke on the ‘Role of Christian Missionaries in the Spread, Growth and Development of Kiswahili in Kenya.”
The first point to note is that I am speaking of Swahili studies here, and not Kiswahili. Swahili studies considers the language, the peoples, the cultures, the regions, the histories, it considers the totality of Swahili. It is concerned with how Swahili is connected local, regional and global peoples and cultures. Would we say we have Swahili studies in Kenya? I doubt.
From my personal observations, I think Kenyan Swahili scholarship is still merely dealing with Kiswahili language and the literature, with a few individuals researching the elements of Swahili beyond the two. What does this mean for Swahili studies in Kenya? How many Kenyan scholars are interested in how Kiswahili arrived in Lambwe Valley or what kind of Swahili dialect is spoken in Lokichogio? How many Kenyan teachers of Kiswahili are studying its literature in comparison to literatures in other languages such as Italian, German, Luganda or English? How much translation of books from Kiswahili to other languages and vice versa is going on in Kenya today?
The state of research in Swahili studies directly impacts the quantity and quality of outputs in it. Here we are talking about the competence of Swahili speakers from our high schools and universities and the quantity and quality of academic research and publications. Why is it that there are complaints every year about the poor performance of candidates KCPE and KCSE English language examinations yet we hear little about the performance in Kiswahili? And if the learners do pass Kiswahili well, how is it that they can’t speak it well after school? Actually how many Kenyans educated beyond high school use passable Kiswahili in every day conversation?
Actually those supposed poor performers in English speak it better than they do Kiswahili. What’s happening in those Kiswahili classes? Are pupils merely being prepared to pass the subject rather than use the language beyond school? Could this problem be affecting the graduate students as well? How much new theorization in Swahili studies is happening in our graduate seminar rooms? In what new critical terms are the
experiences of Kenyans today being spoken about in Kiswahili criticism? Where are the journals in which these scholarly works are published? How many journals of Swahili studies exist in Kenya? I heard at the conferences that for the past so many years till this year Kenyan scholars had ceded ground to Tanzanians to keep and run three Swahili journals!
On the subject of intra- and inter-regional value of Swahili studies the most burning point is standardization. What do we mean when we speak of standard Swahili? Are we speaking of KiUnguja or KiMvita or the Swahili that Kamusi Sanifu ya Kiswahili prescribes? Given the spread of Kiswahili it is difficult to see how one can standardize it and keep it undiluted for any given period of time. Undoubtedly there is need to have some common reference – the rules of grammar and syntax are worth establishing and keeping – but when the world has such variations as American English, Indian English, West Indies English, West African English, why would anyone want to have some orthodox, supposedly the correct, Kiswahili? Doesn’t the Kiswahili spoken in the DR Congo or Comoros qualify as Swahili alongside the one we are taught in school?
If one considers the potential population of Swahili speakers in Eastern Africa it becomes easy to see why the plurality of Swahili in the region is a good thing. These variations to Swahili enable trade, movement of people, socialization, travel of cultural material – think of music and stories/books, marriages, education etc. This is a desirable market for the trader, an audience for a writer, a (regional) constituency for an aspiring regional politician/civil servant and millions of pupils for a teacher. Regional integration in Eastern Africa is considerably possible if we start to look at the citizens through the lenses of Swahili.
What surprised me most at the conference was the sheer intellectual investment in Swahili studies by European scholars. I have no doubt that there are hundreds of East African scholars involved in Swahili studies. But it is shocking to know that Europeans have been studying and teaching Kiswahili in the Czech Republic, Italy, Germany or Britain for just about longer than the 50 years that Kenya has been a republic. Yet we are still debating whether to or not establish Swahili departments in our universities. Shouldn’t we be talking of at least two institutes of Swahili studies, one in Mombasa or Lamu, the other in Nairobi? Shouldn’t we be talking of at least one Distinguished Chair in Kiswahili studies in Kenya or establish one in each of the universities with a full department of Swahili studies?
There is a way, therefore, in which the future of Swahili studies appeared to be found in the strength, perseverance and dedication of these retiring professors of Swahili studies. Much of their talk revolved around innovation and the need to puncture boundaries set by disciplines. Several of the papers at the Symposium as well reflected the new dynamics or directions that Swahili studies are embracing elsewhere and we have but no option to adapt to in Kenya.
These approaches include researching and teaching with scholars in other disciplines such as religion, anthropology, literature in other languages; research in areas beyond Swahili language and literature such as the Fine Arts, performance arts, music (beyond Taarab), new consumer cultures; conversations with other scholars doing similar work across countries and regions; translation; engagement with policy makers; and the recognition and celebration of the land and culture of native Swahilis. These are lessons we Kenyans can learn, especially now when we are talking about revising our system of education. ^
— The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi and is a researcher with Native Intelligence.