How Swahili is becoming a global language

World Kiswahili Language Day. (Courtesy)

Early this week, the United Nations General Assembly member states proclaimed July 7 as the World Kiswahili Language Day. This follows as resolution tabled by Kenya and Tanzania on behalf of the African Group.

The proclamation is part of efforts by the global body to promote multilingualism within the United Nations. Kiswahili is among the 10 most widely spoken languages in the world, with hundreds of million speakers.

“The resolution recognized the role played by Kiswahili language in promoting peace, unity, socio-economic development and cultural diversity, as well as creating awareness and fostering dialogues among peoples,” says a message posted on Kenya’s permanent Mission to the United Nations.

In East Africa alone, the language is spoken by more than 150 people in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is the only African language used at the Directorate of Global Communications at the United Nations.  

Lately, some organizations have created complete websites in Swahili, a rare move considering the challenges of translating complex material in Swahili. These include news, religious and non-governmental organizations.

“For 77 years Jehovah’s Witnesses in this region have been active about the making Bible’s message available in Swahili, a language not just spoken here in East Africa but across 13 countries in the larger Eastern, Central and Southern Africa,” says Victor Karoki, spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses in East Africa. “Today we have over 100,000 copies of The Watchtower and Awake published for each issue. These same articles are on our website, the world’s widely translated website, now in more than 1,000 languages.” 

While the first edition of The Watchtower magazine in Swahili was published in January 1964, the earliest translation works by the group into Swahili can be traced back to 1947. In 2003, the group released a complete Swahili Bible in Swahili.

Apart from conducting their Christian gatherings in Swahili in Kenya, Tanzania and DRC, the Witnesses have groups using the language in the United Kingdom, United States, and Australia.

Starting this month, over 50 of their annual regional conventions will be conducted purely in Swahili, complete with a dramatic presentation in the same language.

“In Kenya we expect over 15 Swahili conventions in different cities and towns, over 20 in Tanzania and over 20 in DRC all conducted in Swahili. All these conventions have practical benefits to our daily living and are free to attend”, adds Victor. 

Kenya, through the Ministry of Gender, Culture, Arts and Heritage will spearhead the third round of celebrations in Nairobi.


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