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