There is an old east African joke that Kiswahili was born in Zanzibar, grew up in mainland Tanzania, fell sick in Kenya, died in Uganda, and was buried in Democratic Republic of Congo.
The joke’s origin is unknown, but whoever came up with it chose to kill Kiswahili, the language of the Swahili people, in Uganda because it’s the only one of the countries mentioned where Africa’s most spoken language isn’t a lingua franca. That’s changing, amid a national push to embrace it. “We need it for Uganda to be on equal footing with our sister states,” says Charles Nuwagaba, professor of economics at Makerere University in Kampala, the capital.
After years of trying to incorporate Kiswahili into the school curriculum, Uganda has finally decided to make it mandatory. Lack of government commitment, a shortage of teachers and materials, and opposition from sections of the public have in the past hindered the introduction of the language into classrooms. But now the government is more committed, and opposition is waning.
“We want every Ugandan schoolchild to have a working knowledge of Kiswahili,” says Angella Kyagaba, a senior curriculum specialist at the government-run National Curriculum Development Centre.
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