How we can tap into Kiswahili’s multi-faceted potential in the digital era

Abdullswamad Sheriff, Mombasa County Governor (center) and Peninah Malonza, Cabinet Secretary for Tourism, Wildlife, and Heritage, interact with other participants during the commemoration of World Kiswahili Language Day in Mombasa on July 7, 2023. PHOTO/Hiram Omondi.
  • Swahili, also known as Kiswahili, traces its roots back to the Bantu language family, specifically from the southeastern African region.
  • It is one of the official languages of the African Union and the Southern African Development Communities.
  • Through digital platforms, the richness of Swahili can be shared and celebrated far and wide, fostering a sense of belonging and pride among Swahili speakers.

World Kiswahili Language Day is a celebration held annually on the “saba saba”, July 7, following endorsement by the United Nations in 2021 that saw the creation of a Directorate of the Global Communications at the United Nations. 

It’s the first African language to be celebrated on a global scale in honor of the rich and fascinating linguistics.

On this day, people from diverse backgrounds come together to acknowledge the significance and influence of Swahili in various aspects of life.

In Kenya, the celebrations were held in Mombasa County at Fort Jesus, with Peninah Malonza, Cabinet Secretary for Tourism, Wildlife, and Heritage, and Abdullswamad Sheriff, Mombasa County Governor, gracing the day’s proceeding. 

Tracing the Bantu tongue

It was a time to celebrate its cultural contributions, historic relevance, linguistics uniqueness, and its role as a bridge between communities.

Swahili, also known as Kiswahili, traces its roots back to the Bantu language family, specifically from the southeastern African region.

Historically, Swahili was developed as a lingua franca, serving as a communication tool for trade and cultural exchange along the East African coast. 

Gov. Sherrif giving his remarks. PHOTO/Hiram Omondi.

Over time, it assimilated words and influences from Arabic, Persian, Portuguese, and other African languages. 

Today, Kiswahili stands as one of Africa’s major languages, spoken by over 100 million people, not only in East Africa but also by diaspora communities globally.

As we celebrate the International Day of Swahili, this year’s theme, Unleashing Kiswahili’s potential in a Digital Era, highlights the significant role that technology and digital platforms play in the advancement and preservation of the Swahili language.

With the rapid digitization of various aspects of our lives, it is crucial to explore how Swahili can harness the power of technology to reach wider audiences, promote linguistic diversity, and empower its speakers in the digital age.

Technology and Kiswahili

“Kiswahili, just like any other language, needs a push in the technological world and it is quite obvious that technology can play a major role in pushing for the language,” Prof. Pacifique Malonga, Kiswahili Commissioner for Rwanda and a Lecturer, African Union Academy of Languages, commented in an interview with Scholar Media Africa.

The digital era presents numerous opportunities for the growth and development of Swahili. 

Prof. Pacifique Malonga, Kiswahili Commissioner for Rwanda. PHOTO/Courtesy.

One of the remarkable advantages of digital platforms is their ability to transcend geographical boundaries and connect people from diverse backgrounds.

Through social media networks, online messaging platforms, and dedicated language apps, Kiswahili is now accessible to a global audience like never before. 

These platforms facilitate communication and provide a space for sharing cultural expressions, vernacular art, and literary works in Swahili, allowing for increased visibility and appreciation of the language.

There has been a growing proliferation of Swahili language content online in recent years. 

Websites, blogs, and podcasts have emerged, catering to the interests of Swahili speakers and learners alike. 

These digital platforms serve as virtual gateways to Swahili literature, poetry, music and news, nurturing a sense of belonging and pride among Swahili-speaking communities around the world. 

Moreover, digital technology has made it easier to create and disseminate Swahili language learning resources, thereby promoting language acquisition and proficiency.

In the education sphere, the integration of digital tools and resources has revolutionized language instruction. 

E-learning platforms, online language courses, and language-learning apps offer innovative and interactive methods of teaching Swahili.

“Technology has a lot of power and at the same time, it’s crucial and cannot be avoided in teaching and speaking Swahili in the society and even at institutional level. 

Corona pandemic not only opened the world for online classes but enhanced the spread of Swahili using different digital platforms that to date the world is still exhausting,” Dr. James Ontieri, Senior Lecturer of Kiswahili, Rongo University, told Scholar Media

This blend of technology and language learning not only make the process more engaging but also accommodate different learning styles and preferences. 

The intersection

Additionally, the availability of online translation tools and language dictionaries helps bridge the gap between Swahili and other languages, facilitating cross-cultural communication and understanding.

Dr. James Ontieri, Senior Lecturer of Kiswahili, Rongo University. PHOTO/Courtesy.

Furthermore, the digital era presents an opportunity to document and preserve endangered Swahili dialects that might otherwise fade away. 

Through multimedia platforms, audio recordings, and video archives, efforts can be made to record and showcase various Swahili dialects, ensuring their perpetuation for future generations.

This preservation of linguistic diversity is crucial, as it enriches the cultural fabric of Swahili-speaking communities to a sense of cultural heritage.

However, the digital era also brings certain challenges that need to be addressed. 

Ensuring the authenticity and accuracy of Swahili language online content is essential, as misinformation can easily spread. 

Collaborations between Swahili language experts, content creators, and technology companies are necessary to develop AI-driven language tools that are tailored to Swahili’s unique linguistic features and cultural nuances. 

Safeguarding Swahili’s integrity in the digital space is crucial to maintaining the language’s identity and credibility.

“Ni vizuri kuwa na utaratibu ambao utatumika katika kubuni ata kama ni maneno ambayo inatumika, hitilayi ambayo katika sehemu muhimu sanasana mitandao, kwa sababu tunapowasiliana yale maneno yasije yakatumiwa tu kiholela bali kuwe na utaratibu maalum. 

Vyombo vya teknolojia sanasana vinawezaleta watalaam mbalimbali kubuni utaratibu katika mawasiliano haya, la sivyo huenda maneno yakatumiwa bila hawa wataalam kuyaelekea,” says Dr. Ontieri.

Swahili is among the ten world’s most-spoken languages with wide audiences in Sub–Saharan Africa. 

It is one of the official languages of the African Union and the Southern African Development Communities.

A cultural, historic granary

Swahili is more than just a language; it represents a cultural identity. 

Peninah Malonza, Cabinet Secretary for Tourism, Wildlife, and Heritage, delivers her remarks during the commemoration. PHOTO/Hiram Omondi.

It serves as a vessel to preserve and communicate the rich heritage and traditions of the Swahili people. 

Through its unique expressions, proverbs, and poetry, Swahili encapsulates the storytelling nature of African cultures, preserving ancient wisdom and customs.

Swahili music and dance, such as taarab and ngoma, further exemplify the rhythmic and melodic traditions associated with this language.

Swahili’s significance extends beyond cultural preservation. It plays a vital role in fostering unity and inclusivity among diverse ethnic and linguistic groups across East Africa. 

Swahili acts as a common language, enabling effective intellectual communication and understanding. 

Its versatility has made it an official language in several countries, including Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, further strengthening its cultural importance.

A linguistic treasure

Kiswahili’s linguistic uniqueness lies in its structure, rhythm, and vocabulary. 

It is a language rich in harmonious syllables, harmonic sounds, and its delightfully poetic nature. 

Ample use of Swahili proverbs and metaphors lends an artful layer to communication. 

Additionally, Swahili exhibits a simplified grammar system, making it accessible to learners from various language backgrounds. This accessibility has contributed to its popularity as a second language choice for many within and outside East Africa.

Influence beyond borders

Kiswahili’s influence reaches far beyond the borders of East Africa, making it a significant language internationally. 

Due to historical trade relationships, it has incorporated numerous loanwords from Arabic, Portuguese, English, and other languages. 

As a global lingua franca, it serves as a means of communication between tourists, businesspeople, and international organizations in the region. 

Participants enjoy cultural artefacts during the occasion. PHOTO/Hiram Omondi.

This further contributes to Swahili’s role in cultural exchange and diplomacy.

“Kiswahili kimetuunganisha na hivi sasa tunawezakuwa na mikutano mitandaoni; wale wako Marekani, wale wanaofundisha Kiswahili pale, pengine Ujerumani, Korea, yaani watu wote. 

Ukija Afrika mashariki ni hafifu watu kuunganika kueneza Kiswahili kupitia ata kwa vyama vya kikanda kama Chama cha Kiswahili cha Afrika Mashariki. 

Vyama vya Kiswahili vya mataifa mbalimbali kama Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda wana chama chao, ikawa vyama vyote vinaeza kuja Pamoja kupitia kwa mitandao,” Dr. Onieri says.

Moreover, with the increasing focus on African cultural appreciation and the popularity of Afrobeat music, Swahili has found its way onto the global stage. 

Several artists have gained international recognition, contributing to the growing popularity and awareness of Swahili music.

“Unleashing Kiswahili’s potential in a Digital Era” reinforces technology’s profound impact on the promotion, accessibility and preservation of the Swahili language and culture. 

A light moment during the event. Beyond speaking the language, Kiswahili also connects people through culture and diversity. PHOTO/Hiram Omondi.

Through digital platforms, the richness of Swahili can be shared and celebrated far and wide, fostering a sense of belonging and pride among Swahili speakers.

However, it is equally important to navigate the challenges that come with the digital Era, ensuring the authenticity and integrity of Swahili language content in the virtual world. 

With a concerted effort and collaboration, Swahili is poised to flourish and make a mark in the digital landscape.

The International Day of Swahili is an important reminder of the language’s cultural prominence, historical and contemporary significance, and its unique ability to unify communities. 

Kiswahili’s fascinating origins, cultural richness, linguistic charm, and global impact make it a language worth celebrating. 

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Whenever we commemorate this day, let us embrace the spirit of Kiswahili as a symbol of unity, cultural exchange, and pride, not only for East Africa, but for the world at large.

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Ms. Loise is a Communication Specialist with a bachelor's degree in Publishing and Media Science from Moi University, Kenya. She is a dedicated web developer and a climate change and environment writer. She also owns diverse skills in social media marketing. Her contact: loiselenser@gmail.com

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