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Promoting Swahili as a Pan-African Language

With more than 200 million speakers, Swahili, which originated in East Africa, is one of the world’s 10 most widely spoken languages. In its heartland, Swahili and its dialects stretch from parts of Somalia down to Mozambique and across to the western parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Swahili, which takes around 40% of its vocabulary directly from Arabic, was initially spread by Arab traders along East Africa’s coast. It was then formalised under the German and British colonial regimes in the region in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, as a language of administration and education. And though it has been spoken about before as an alternative on the continent to English, French or Portuguese as a lingua franca, or as a commonly understood language, there is now a renewed impetus. In 2019, Swahili became the only African language to be recognised by the Southern African Development Community (SADC). Shortly after, it was introduced in classrooms across South Africa and Botswana. Most recently, Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa University announced it would start teaching Swahili. Some linguists predict that Swahili’s reach in Africa will continue to expand. If Swahili is to become truly pan-African it will take political will, an economic imperative and financial investment to reach all regions.