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January 19, 2019

G-Spot: When Jomo Kenyatta was 'woke' and promoted Kiswahili use

Mzee Jomo kenyatta looks on as Dial Singh Sagoo draws his portrait / FILE
Mzee Jomo kenyatta looks on as Dial Singh Sagoo draws his portrait / FILE

The recent announcement that from 2020, South African schools will begin teaching the Swahili language in schools reminded me of Jomo Kenyatta’s campaign to bring Kiswahili into the limelight.

For all the bad press Mzee receives in certain corners these days, it’s easy to overlook one or two of the great things he did. One of these was his agitation for Kiswahili to become an official language of Kenya. For me, not always the old man’s greatest fan, it was what some might today refer to as a “woke” campaign.

The most memorable moment that stands out in my memory comes from a clip played seemingly ad infinitum in Jomo’s era. It aired during the Jomo documentaries that would flood VoK TV (now KBC) on national days, such as Kenyatta Day (now Mashujaa Day, in recognition of Kenya’s freedom fighters).

The clip showed the old man in his beaded cap speaking in English about colonialism. With a mischievous glint in his eye, he’d say something along the lines of it being shameful to address fellow Kenyans in English, “a foreign language and for that matter the language of colonialists” [this may not be an exact quote, but it was the gist of it]. Then he’d switched to Kiswahili for the rest of his address.

Throughout the post-Independence period of the 1960s (and the rest of his life), Kenyatta made a point of addressing public rallies in Kiswahili. However, it was in May 1970 when, according to the New York Times, the government issued orders establishing Kiswahili as the national language, as was the case in neighbouring Tanzania.

Apparently this programme was met with little enthusiasm by Kenyans, as the NYT reported: “Since Kenya gained independence in December 1963, English has become much more widely used. In Nairobi, it became almost an insult for a foreigner to address a Kenyan in Kiswahili, because knowledge of English had become regarded as the hallmark of education. 

“But toward the end of last year ( 1969 ), the governing council of the Kenya African National Union, the ruling party, decided: that the widespread use of English language smacked of neocolonialism, or at least was unAfrican. The alternative was: Kiswahili.” 

A few years later, Jomo battled to get Parliament to introduce Kiswahili as the language of debate alongside English. Curiously it was Attorney-General Charles Njonjo (the celebrated Anglophile) who introduced a Constitutional Amendment Bill in Parliament for debate on whether Kiswahili should become Kenya’s national language. 

When old Jomo came up against opposition from the likes of Jean Marie Seroney (today considered one of the more progressive MPs in Kenya’s history), he went all big man dictator and rammed it through (not so woke, but some might say the end justified the means). 

According to Ali Mazrui’s 1995 book, Swahili State and Society, the bill was eventually adopted and the constitution amended, making Kiswahili Kenya’s national language [and second official language, alongside English] in February 1975.

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