Over the past couple of years my eight year old daughter’s school reports for Kiswahili have been disappointing:
‘I would encourage her to use the vacation to practise speaking Swahili to become more confident and fluent.’
‘It would be helpful if your daughter was encouraged to speak Kiswahili outside school hours.’ Etc..
In fact, my husband and I do speak Swahili (or Kiswahili to use its correct name). The reason I learned the language when we moved to East Africa was because:
1) I had absolutely nothing else to do at the time – literally!
2) It irritated me that my husband knew some words and phrases and I didn’t. It meant that he was having conversations that I couldn’t understand, so I quickly had to do something about that.
3) I spent one year working in an office in Dar es Salaam surrounded by Swahili speakers and enjoyed eavesdropping their telephone conversations and general banter.
Purists, or rather Zanzibaris would say that the Kiswahili language was born in Zanzibar and it is only the Zanzibaris who can speak it properly. That said, in Dar es Salaam (only an hour and a half ferry ride from Zanzibar) the language is spoken equally beautifully with adjectives and verbs agreeing etc. Julius Nyerere, former President Post Independence (ruling from 1963-1985), insisted that Tanzanians abandon tribal languages and adopt Swahili as their first and only language, this way tribal divisions would be broken down and the people united. He also did other things like banned the existence of tribal leaders and made sure Government officials worked away from the area where they grew up. Many criticised his methods, largely because learning to speak English was left out of the schools curriculum, leaving Tanzanians behind developmentally. However, After Kenya descended into chaos following the recent December 2007 election, where its people were fighting brutally along tribal lines, one can see the wisdom of Nyerere’s actions. Tribalism is indeed a dangerous beast.
In Kenya, Swahili is often considered a third language after tribal languages and English. We are a long way from Zanzibar here in Nairobi so the Swahili spoken here is described as ‘slang’ but even so, the fact that almost everyone here speaks three languages is highly impressive! When we moved to Kenya I was determined to keep my Swahili up so use it often, around the shops and at home. When I open my mouth I have often been greeted by a blank expression or have had my Swahili questions answered very deliberately in English, undeterred and perhaps a little tactless, I am still pressing on. When people finally tumble to the fact that I am speaking Swahili I think they say to themselves,
‘Oh, I see, she’s speaking Swahili.’ Followed by, ‘Well that’s nice; at least she is making an effort.’
One of the many things we liked about my eldest daughter’s school was that they teach all students Kiswahili. Therefore, in the summer holidays when my husband and I suggested allocating one day a week where we speak only Swahili at home my daughter responded with a groan:
‘The thing is Mummy, I’m just not really interested in learning Swahili.’
I found it hard to bite my tongue.
‘But Darling!’ I said, ‘you spoke Swahili pretty fluently at two years old, what happened? It’s so important to learn the language spoken around you, then you can practise! Plus, it will stand you in good stead for learning other languages in the future…etc etc…and…don’t you know.. and.. and.’
We did have one breakthrough recently. When doing Kiswahili homework last week we found that she knew her numbers already because she was knows a song: ‘moja, mbili, tatu’ that Gladys, who works in our house, had taught her. (well done Gladys!).
This term my daughter begins French lessons in parallel with the Kiswahili and heavens alive, at just the perfect time my daughter has miraculously found a French friend! What a coup! (my French is terrible). I heard them together on Saturday on the trampoline chanting,
‘un, deux, trios, quatre, cinq’
And I must admit it warmed the cockles of my heart, but no doubt this enthusiasm will be short-lived. We may never get further than numbers.