The International Day of Kiswahili, celebrated on July 7th each year, honors the significance of Kiswahili as a language of diplomacy, cultural diversity, and global communication. Recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), this day serves as a platform to appreciate the rich heritage and influence of Kiswahili.
“Kiswahili is one of the most widely used languages of the African family, and the most widely spoken in sub-Saharan Africa. It is among the 10 most widely spoken languages in the world, with more than 200 million speakers,” stated the November 2021 UN resolution.
Kiswahili, with over 200 million speakers, is among the ten most widely spoken languages worldwide. UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay highlighted the language’s versatility, describing it as a window into diverse cultures, ideas, and education. Kiswahili’s many variants offer a unique perspective through which to view the world.
“Kiswahili is more than a means of communication adding that it is a window to diverse cultures, ideas, forms of understanding education.” She said.
The roots of Kiswahili’s significance can be traced back to its adoption as a unifying language during independence struggles. In 1954, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, the First President of the United Republic of Tanzania, urged the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) to embrace Kiswahili as a means of unity. Inspired by this vision, Kenya’s founding president, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, also integrated Kiswahili into his official speeches, further solidifying its importance in the region.
Kiswahili’s influence extends beyond communication. It acts as a language of transmission, particularly through community radio stations, which played a vital role in people’s lives, especially during the pandemic. Additionally, Kiswahili serves as a language of diplomacy, advancing Africa’s agenda on the global stage as an official language of the African Union.
To mark the International Kiswahili Day, celebrations took place in Mombasa County, Kenya, showcasing the rich Swahili culture. The Cabinet Secretary for Tourism, Peninah Malonza, emphasised the need to capitalise on Swahili culture to diversify tourism products. She urged industry players to find innovative ways to engage with the growing interest in Kiswahili language and culture.
In Uganda, the second East African Kiswahili Language Day was hosted from July 6th to 7th, 2023. Under the theme “Kiswahili and Multilingualism: Achieving more together,” the event aimed to raise awareness about the East African Community and foster discussions on developing and promoting Kiswahili for regional integration and sustainable development. The First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for East African Community Affairs, Rebecca Kadaga, called on legislators to embrace and participate in the event.
“This year’s theme demonstrates that as Kiswahili grows and spreads across the world, it will continue encountering other languages which stand to achieve more together than they can gain alone,” Kadaga said.
“The event is intended to bring together East Africans to discuss ways and means of developing and promoting Kiswahili for regional integration and sustainable development,” added Kadaga.
During parliamentary discussions, there were calls to adopt Kiswahili lessons for Members of Parliament (MPs) and dedicate a specific day of the week for parliamentary proceedings in Kiswahili. This initiative aims to promote the use of local languages and support the expansion of Kiswahili’s use throughout the country. It also aligns with the Pan African Parliament’s efforts to promote the use of languages spoken across Africa.
The International Day of Kiswahili serves as a reminder of the language’s global impact. Kiswahili is not just a means of communication; it embodies a rich cultural heritage that has transcended geographical boundaries. Its widespread usage and influence have positioned Kiswahili as an indispensable tool for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and facilitating regional integration.
The recognition of Kiswahili as an international language by the United Nations underscores the importance of multilingualism in fostering international understanding, tolerance, and dialogue.
“Having a language recognized by the UN is a big thing! Kiswahili is the first African Language to have this honour. Kenya’s permanent representative to UNESCO France Amb. Phyllis Kandie played a major role. Kenya and Tanzania have been very instrumental in making this a reality” says Prof. Iribe Mwangi, Department of Linguistics, Languages and Literature, University of Nairobi.
The celebration of Kiswahili on a global scale allows for the appreciation of its diverse cultural expressions, including food, music, and fashion.
As the world commemorates the International Day of Kiswahili, it is an opportunity to reflect on the language’s profound impact and its ability to bridge communities. Kiswahili continues to play a crucial role in promoting unity, peace, and enhanced multiculturalism, making it an invaluable asset in today’s interconnected world.