English? Swahili? The education policy that best serves Tanzania's children

5 March 2023

A good problem to have: Tanzania has to juggle two languages that dominate regionally and globally.

School children learning Swahili in Dodoma, Tanzania


Brian Luedke, Producer

Since history and nationalistic ideas play a major role in the debate concerning linguistic education policy, one must review certain objective facts regarding Tanzanian history.

Before Swahili acquired its 20th century reputation as a language of African liberation and sovereignty, for many centuries it represented slavery and Bantu subjugation by Arab warlords.

The word “Swahili” itself derives from the Arabic word for “coastal,” ساحلي, denoting the eastern Slave Coast of the continent.  Approximately 40% of Swahili vocabulary derives from Arabic, a language that comes from Southwest Asia, not Africa. The oldest surviving Swahili document was written in the Arabic script in 1711.

Schoolboys in Dodoma, the capital city of Tanzania 

The Arab trade in African slaves preceded the European trans-Atlantic slave trade by approximately 1,000 years.  The Arabs’ Indian Ocean slave trade almost certainly would have continued into the 20th century if it had not been suppressed by the British Navy, which used force to end the export of Africans to the Middle East as well as to the Americas.

Slavery existed throughout the world until relatively recently.  Rather than being a controversial practice that was courageously opposed on philosophical grounds, in reality there is no evidence of any such opposition until abolitionist ideology emerged in England.  Even slaves who rebelled and won their freedom usually imposed forced labor on others at the first opportunity. American blacks who arrived in Liberia behaved in a brutal and oppressive manner on indigenous tribes, while Haitian warlords also imposed forced labor on former slaves.

H.M.S. Daphne, in 1868, loaded with former African slaves that the British Navy had liberated, having taken them from the Swahili-Arab Sultan of Zanzibar, Majid bin Said.  His father was the sultan of Oman in the Arabian penninsula. 

The Slave Fortress of the Swahili-Arab sultan of Zanzibar.  For hundreds of years, Arab strongmen had exported black Africans to the Middle East and other trading partners.  Men were usually castrated by their Arab masters and did not reproduce in their destination countries.  Women were typically used as sex slaves or domestic servants.

The above objective facts are substantiated by thousands of primary sources, but they may be considered taboo only because of myths and ideologies that emerged in subsequent eras.

Given these indisputable points, Swahili hardly represents African sovereignty and freedom any more than any other language, at least from a historical or nationalistic perspective.  But from a pragmatic angle, due to Swahili’s widespread use, the language surely should be celebrated and promoted.

In all cases, this author prefers concrete solutions that will help families and societies face future obstacles, not diatribes based on ethnic pride or resentments.

Since Swahili dominates East Africa, while English dominates the entire world, of course it makes sense to continue to balance both languages in education.  

Tanzania’s situation is hardly unique. India, for example, has to juggle English, one leading national language (Hindi), and about five other widespread national languages.  Should leaders prioritize learners accessing basic knowledge through their mother tongue, or promoting familiarity with a global language that will foster substantial international opportunities?

Tanzania’s future leaders in economics, military affairs, and science need to be able to communicate effectively with stakeholders from East Africa and from the rest of the planet.  Even within Africa, nearly all of the largest countries — South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, and Ghana — use English in much of their official business.

Likewise, as Africa’s largest quasi-indigenous language, Swahili dominates a vast area.  The African Union has designated Swahili as an official language.  (However, as a minor test of this status, this author just now clicked on the “Swahili” link on the AU site.  The link does not function; the site remained in English.)

Tanzanians should be proud of their history and embrace both of their famous languages.  History is messy and never lives up to nationalistic fantasies.  

Leaders should continue to be realistic and allow children to seize the advantages of both languages.  At least schools don’t have to cater to three or four different languages like they do in some countries.

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