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Who is an Mswahili? Am I?

This semester I am again studying in the Swahili department at St John’s University where we work. All the lectures are in Swahili so it’s a brilliant exercise for me in listening comprehension, which is appropriate because this time I’m doing a third year course ‘Theory and Traditions of Oral Literature’.

I missed the first lecture because of a room and time change and when I turned up for the second lecture, they were up to discussing the question of who an Mswahili is. Adding an ‘m’ on the beginning of a word makes it a person i.e. Mtanzania is a Tanzanian, so Mswahili is kind of like Swahilian or a Swahili person. I guess the obvious answer is that an Mswahili is someone who speaks Swahili… but think again!

Swahili is the common language in East Africa, but for many it’s not their first language. To complicate matters, there’s a people group called ‘the Swahilis’ who are of Arabic descent and live on the coast. Some people think that these guys are the only true ‘Waswahili’ (that’s the plural of Mswahili). But Swahili is the official language of Tanzania; how can you say the majority of people using it are not true Waswahili? After all, even if Swahili is not their first language, it may be their most common or most used language. These days with lots of intermarriage between tribes, it’s also growing as a first language.

So a second school of thought says that an Mswahili is just anyone who speaks Swahili. ‘So what about Tamie here?’ asks the lecturer, ‘She knows Swahili. [How kind of her!] Is she an Mswahili?’ I’m used to everyone staring at me by now — there is no way to fade into the background when you’ve got lily white skin in a room of black people! A heated discussion ensued. ‘Sure she might speak Swahili but what about culture?’ someone says. ‘Being an Mswahili is also about cultural identity because language conveys culture.’

But then, someone else notes that there are umpteen different cultures in the room because everyone comes from different cultures; it’s not just the white girl who’s from a different culture. The point of Swahili, after all, is to unite people from different places, tribes and cultures to make one language. It was a fascinating discussion, and in the end, the conclusion was that an Mswahili is every person who uses Swahili to communicate – even me!

Categories: Tanzania Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

4 replies

  1. Interesting post. Kiswahili is also an official language in Kenya, and I hear they are really, working to teach it in Uganda and Rwanda. To the best of my knowledge its the only African language that has really transcended its ethnic roots the way some European languages like English, and Spanish have. Anyway let me leave you another ‘listening comprehension’ test. It’s a music video by the Kenyan pop group Sauti Sol. Enjoy

    1. Oh, this is fun! Thanks for linking to it.

      And for your comments about Swahili’s transcendence. Uganda’s an interesting one — we’ve met a couple of Ugandans here to whom we started speaking Swahili, not realising their nationality and they were completely befuddled! On the other hand, their English was superb.

      I’m interested in your views on Swahili and English as a Kenyan too. We find Tanzanians very proud of Swahili (and that they speak ‘the best’ Swahili!) but they often feel held back in other ways by their level of English, in contrast to many Kenyans. I gather a major reason for the difference is that primary school in Kenya is in English but in Tanzania primary is in Swahili and only secondary onwards in English (though primary schools teach English as a subject, and there are ‘English medium’ schools, but it sounds like many of those still mix in a fair bit of Swahili.) How do you feel about the two languages?

      1. In Kenya English is the medium for all subjects except Kiswahili. Oftentimes in Kenya you get this weird situation where a person isn’t …err quite fluent in either English or Kiswahili, so they mix and mash, the result is a slang called Sheng, which mixes in all sorts of languages.

        Its a little like pidgin, but with a different set of languages for loan words

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