The Historical Struggle for Kiswahili Acceptance in Uganda

Efforts to promote Kiswahili in Uganda have faced resistance, particularly from certain tribes and regions, despite its integration into school curricula. Critics link this resistance to Kiswahili’s association with past turmoil and its use by criminals during political unrest in the 1970s and 80s.

Professor Ruth Gimbo Mukama, an authority on African Languages at Kabale University, acknowledges this history but challenges the notion of blaming the language itself. She points out that while Kiswahili was stigmatized, similar associations weren’t made with Luganda, despite some criminals speaking it.

Historical records reveal that Kiswahili was already present in Buganda before European arrival, introduced by Arabs and Swahili traders. Despite this, the language faced opposition, especially from Christian missionaries who saw it as linked to Islam.

Efforts to adopt Kiswahili as a medium of instruction in schools faced significant pushback, particularly from religious groups advocating for Luganda instead. This opposition persisted through the colonial era and even intensified with fears of closer ties to East Africa.

Ultimately, a language policy enacted in 1952 removed Kiswahili from Uganda’s education system, long before the troubled periods of Obote and Amin. Professor Mukama emphasizes that this policy, rather than political turmoil, sealed Kiswahili’s fate in Uganda.

Despite its setbacks, the struggle for Kiswahili acceptance reflects broader linguistic and cultural tensions in Uganda, highlighting the complex interplay between indigenous languages and external influences.

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