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The rise and fall of Kiswahili in Uganda

The ambassador of Tanzania to Uganda launches Kiswahili Club at Mbarara University of Science and Technology in 2022

The ambassador of Tanzania to Uganda launches Kiswahili Club at Mbarara University of Science and Technology in 2022

Last week, the Parliament’s Committee on East African Affairs made a significant appearance in parliament, advocating for the allocation of Shs 3.2 billion.

This funding is specifically aimed at facilitating the integration of Kiswahili language activities within Uganda. Noeline Kisembo, representing Kibaale district as a woman representative, highlighted a notable gap in the implementation process.

She pointed out that while there have been concerted efforts to incorporate Kiswahili into key Ugandan institutions, including the judiciary and cabinet, these initiatives have been hindered by lack of funding. The total funding needed for these Kiswahili integration activities amounts to Shs 3.25 billion.

Despite the government’s push for Kiswahili adoption, the process has encountered significant resistance from the Ugandan populace. This opposition has contributed to the stagnation in the adoption of Kiswahili, suggesting a disconnect between government initiatives and public sentiment.

The committee’s appeal for funding in parliament is a critical step towards overcoming these challenges and advancing the integration of Kiswahili in Uganda, aligning with broader East African Community goals. However, this effort also underscores the need for addressing the underlying resistance among citizens to ensure the successful implementation of Kiswahili language activities.

For years, ongoing efforts have been made to promote the Kiswahili language in Uganda, including its incorporation into school curricula to encourage its usage. However, these initiatives have encountered resistance, particularly among certain tribes and regions of the country.

In recent years, some individuals, including writers, have associated the resistance to Kiswahili with its historical use by rogue armed officers and criminals who communicated in the language while terrorizing Ugandans, especially during the turbulent political periods of the 1970s and 80s.

Phrases like “Panda Gari” (board the vehicle), “Kitambuliso yako iko wapi?” (where is your identity card?), “Funguwa Mulango” (Open the door), and “towa pesa” (bring money) remain deeply ingrained in the memories of those who experienced those difficult times.


Professor Ruth Gimbo Mukama of Kabale University’s department of African Languages acknowledges the validity in claims that the stigmatization of Kiswahili in Uganda is partly due to abuse by thugs and hooligans during the turbulent periods of the 1970s and 1980s.

Professor Mukama, a Fulbright scholar who started teaching Kiswahili at Makerere University in 1979 and is considered a pioneer in the language’s instruction at higher education levels, however, challenges the notion that Kiswahili itself is responsible for the actions of these individuals.

She highlights that in Western Uganda, burglars who spoke Luganda while committing crimes did not result in Luganda facing similar vilification. Mukama believes that blaming the language is a misplaced argument, as the responsibility lies with the individuals, not the language they speak.

Furthermore, this linguist and Kiswahili advocate points out that the negative perception of Kiswahili during the 1970s and 1980s often overshadows the fact that resistance to teaching and promoting Kiswahili had already existed for 32 years, from 1925 to 1957. This resistance was due to the competition for dominance between Christian missionaries and Muslims.

According to the professor, historical records show that Kiswahili was already prevalent in Buganda prior to the arrival of Europeans, introduced by Arab and Swahili traders. In Buganda, a considerable number of people were proficient in Kiswahili, with historical documents indicating that Arabs and Swahilis introduced both Islam and Kiswahili to some Baganda during the reign of Kakaba Ssuuna II (1832-1856).

During Kabaka Mutesa I’s era, many prominent chiefs, including Mutesa himself, were fluent in Kiswahili. The Baganda people’s continuous interactions with Arab and Swahili traders led to the gradual integration of many Swahili words into their language, which are still in use today. Notably, a significant portion of the vocabulary currently used by the Baganda is derived from Kiswahili, a fact that might come as a surprise to some.

Mukama, who largely taught herself Swahili while at the University of York in England, observed that Kiswahili became associated with the Muslim community amid religious tensions in Buganda.

“With three religious groups competing for dominance, language emerged as a powerful tool for one religion to gain an edge over the others. Even though many Christian missionaries were proficient in Kiswahili, they chose not to use it in their schools when introducing Western education,” she pointed out.

Viera Vilhanova, a renowned Slovak historian specializing in Africa, noted in her work that Kiswahili was the official language of the Uganda Protectorate from 1900 to 1912. She pointed out that the Anglican Church Missionary Society and the Catholic White Fathers initially adopted it as a medium of instruction.

In her paper titled “Swahili and the dilemma of Ugandan language policy,” she explains, “...the position of Swahili in Uganda was, from the outset, seen as jeopardized by the church due to its association with Islam, deemed a rival and ‘inferior’ religion. Consequently, both missions soon advocated for local languages, arguing that the Christian message would only be properly understood if taught in the mother tongue.”

Historical records from the 1920s show that, as the colonial government sought to formalize education primarily managed by missionaries, there were efforts to introduce Swahili as the language of instruction in schools. This move, however, met strong resistance from Catholics and Protestants, who associated Kiswahili with Islam.

Interestingly, the Roman Catholics, especially the White Fathers, were initially reluctant to adopt English as a medium of instruction. Fr. Waliggo discusses this in History of an African Priest, highlighting Henry Streicher’s (known locally as Munsennyere Sitenseera) resistance to English language instruction in the seminary’s early days.

Caesar Jjingo, a Kiswahili lecturer at Makerere University, and Marianna Visser, in their 2017 paper, re-examined the Phelps-Stokes Report of 1925. This report suggested the adoption of Kiswahili as the instructional language for middle grades, promoting it as a unifying communication tool across diverse ethnic groups and societies in East Africa.

Following this recommendation, Sir W. F. Gowers, the governor of Uganda at the time, issued a policy statement in 1927 declaring Kiswahili the language of instruction in schools within regions where Luganda was previously used.

“...other advocates for using Kiswahili as the language of instruction in Ugandan schools, including Hussey, the Director of Education, saw Kiswahili as a vital tool for bridging communication gaps across ethnic groups within the East African region. They also believed that Kiswahili literature could be accessible to those who hadn’t learned English or hadn’t received formal education,” the paper partly states.

In his prominent work History and Development of Education in Uganda, Professor John Cristome Ssekamwa observed that schools in Buganda, Busoga, Tororo, and Bugisu had been using Luganda since 1912 before Governor Gowers’ initiative to introduce Kiswahili. Professor Ssekamwa identified two primary reasons for the resistance to adopting Kiswahili.

Firstly, Kiswahili was linked with the Islamic faith, whereas Luganda was seen as more culturally embedded and specific to certain Ugandan ethnic groups. Secondly, Kiswahili’s lack of direct ties to any Ugandan ethnic group further hindered its acceptance as an instructional medium.

Traditional authorities in Ankole, Buganda, Bunyoro, Tooro and Busoga, aligned with the missionaries, were open to teaching Kiswahili as a subject but opposed its use as a teaching medium. In 1929, notable figures like Kabaka Sir Daudi Chwa II and the Omukama of Tooro objected to Kiswahili’s role in instruction.

From a political perspective, Professor A.B.K. Kasozi highlighted that the traditional rulers and their chiefs’ resistance to Kiswahili stemmed from apprehensions about the Closer Union of East Africa, which they viewed unfavorably. In 1931, Christian missionaries, going to great lengths, composed a nine-point opposition paper against using Kiswahili for instruction and government affairs in Uganda.

Signatories of this document included influential figures like Bishop J.W. Campling of the Mill Hill Mission in the Upper Nile, Bishop A.L. Kitching of the C.M.S. in Teso, and Bishop H. Streicher of the White Fathers of Lubaga. These missionary groups, having substantial sway in Uganda’s educational sector, consistently opposed introducing Kiswahili into the system, advocating instead for the promotion of Luganda.


Luganda was favoured for educational and religious purposes, including prayers. However, as resistance from religious leaders intensified in the early 1930s, the push to promote Kiswahili in schools started to diminish. Facing considerable opposition, Kiswahili was confined to a few schools, primarily in regions where students from diverse linguistic backgrounds lacked a common indigenous language.

“By 1937, even the Government Kampala Teacher Training School at Nyanjeeradde near Makerere, which had been established to train Kiswahili teachers for national level instruction, closed,” Ssekamwa noted in his book.

The promotion of Kiswahili, previously challenged by Governor Gowers, suffered a setback with the appointment of Philip Mitchell as the new governor, who showed little interest in the language’s advancement.

The De La Warr Commission’s recommendations in 1938 further undermined Kiswahili, suggesting that English should be the language of instruction from primary school levels. This led to the 1952 language policy that effectively removed Kiswahili from Uganda’s education system.

Professor Mukama underscores that this policy was the definitive factor that sealed Kiswahili’s fate before Uganda’s independence. She observed that this occurred before the tumultuous eras of the Obote and Amin regimes, which are often mistakenly thought to be the primary reasons for resistance against Kiswahili.


+3 #1 Lysol 2024-04-11 03:13
Pure and simple. Blame it on tribalism. Uganda is a deeply divided country, based on tribes, even though we always tend to deny it.

Swahili like Luganda can be easily be learned on the streets of downtown Kampala. There are some tribes who think that their languages are superior to others.

If you find yourself among them, they would prefer you speak their languages instead of English, which is the official language of the country. Otherwise they backbite you and mock you without knowing.
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0 #2 kabayekka 2024-04-11 14:45
Of course many citizens of this British Protectorate were easily killed by rogue military regimes of Obote I and II and Amin under the communication of Swahili African language.

Now that the African leadership of these days want more control of people and state power, they would rather use the English language as official state language and criminalise many African languages.

These African military regimes have even failed to translate important state constitutions in various languages that matter to African communities as specified in human rights laws!
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0 #3 kabayekka 2024-04-11 15:06
It is indeed great that modern social media technology is proving to these greedy for power African rulers that human speech in any form of languages is a gift to humans from God.

God never gave the rest of the animal life or any other life such a gift. It pays to improve on your own speech and language as a human standard communication medium before you try to embark on thousands of other human languages.
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