From Trade to Regional Integration: The Checkered History of Kiswahili in Uganda

  • Isabella SoiEmail author
Living reference work entry


Unlike in other Eastern African countries, notably Kenya and Tanzania, Kiswahili did not become an official language or lingua franca in Uganda until very recently. Using both secondary sources and archival material, this chapter aims to explore the reasons behind this (partial) marginalization, analyzing the history of the language in Uganda since it arrived there in the mid-1800s. It explores why, after a period of great popularity, Kiswahili began to be neglected and lost its currency among the Buganda elite.

Kiswahili arrived from the east coast with Arab traders and spread thanks in part to the increase in the number of practicing Muslims in the kingdom of Buganda. In the late 1800s, during the so-called religious wars and the consequent marginalization of the Muslim community, Kiswahili suffered the same fate. A few decades later, it became one of Uganda’s main languages thanks to Muslim president Idi Amin Dada. The president’s army was notorious for the violence they used in their dealings with the population, and since Kiswahili was the language of the army, it started being considered as the language of violence – a language used by soldiers (and Muslims). After the end of the Amin regime, Kiswahili fell into decline once again, and it has only been with the new National Resistance Movement language policy and the resurgence of the East African Community in the late 1990s that it has regained a (partially) central role in Ugandan life.

The proposal that it be made the official language of the East African Community has fueled the debate on the use of Kiswahili and its role in Ugandan society, and for many it remains a symbol of the country’s turbulent past. This chapter argues that its history and connections with the Muslim community and to an even greater extent, with the army, have sealed the language’s fate, leading to the current tensions and resistance to the East African Community’s choice. Despite being marginalized and not widely spoken, Kiswahili remains a controversial topic and a powerful symbol in Ugandan society.


East Africa Marginalized language Muslim East African Community Uganda Trade Integration Kiswahili 


The choice of one or more official languages for any given state is an important one for various reasons and may have consequences that are often not anticipated in the debate surrounding the initial selection. Many African states had to face the problem of a choice of language at the time of independence, when political, cultural, and national rationales squared up against the practical problems related to it. Notwithstanding the idea that languages establish boundaries between different peoples, they can often defy them and become an arena in which the terms on which a state is formed are a matter for active debate, especially if one considers the essential role languages play in negotiations among different actors (Leonardi 2013). In the case of the newly independent African states, the first – and most common – question regarding language was what language should be chosen to replace or stand alongside the former colonial language in an official capacity for them to be truly independent. In the case of Uganda, this question still needs to be properly answered five decades after independence. In a society that is highly fragmented both linguistically and ethnically such as Uganda, where no language is spoken by more than 16% of the population (Bernsten 1998), finding a language that was spoken at least by a relative majority and did not pose a political challenge proved to be a major, complicated task. Ethnic and linguistic fragmentation was further complicated by the political role played by Buganda, a kingdom in the territory of Uganda, in today’s Central Uganda and its relations with the rest of the country, both during colonial times and after independence.

While generally speaking there can be no doubt that language is a tool for communication, it also has a clear political role. Language policy can be viewed as an instrument for controlling power through the control of knowledge and access to information, if one considers that if information and knowledge are presented in a language that is not spoken by everyone, it is easier for the elite to retain social, economic and political power. The same can also be said for official languages: some believe that retaining English as an official language is undemocratic (Mpuga 2003). Language can also be a useful tool for telling the story of people and places. It also helps the creation of identity and the evolution of a state because it is an important element of nationalism, as the works of Eugen Weber (1976) have established in the case of France and its “modernization” in the 1800s. Language and culture are fundamental to national identity and integration. Language as an identity issue is complicated where different languages are spoken in a given state and identify different peoples who are often recognized as minorities. The debate on minority languages and political participation is a lively one throughout the world and proves the relevance of the issue in a wide number of different contexts (Williams 2008).

Kiswahili is a Bantu language that is mainly spoken along the East African coast, where it was created thanks to the encounter between speakers of Arabic and African Bantu languages (Nurse and Spear 1985). It then spread from the coastal area between what are now Somalia and Mozambique into the interior of the continent, mainly through traders. If we trace the historical trajectory of Kiswahili, we see how a language issue can contribute towards telling us the story of the places where it develops – in this case, the colonial history of Africa in general, and Kiswahili in East Africa and Uganda in particular. As in many other African contexts, the debate on linguistic minorities in the Ugandan case is closely linked to ethnic, religious, and regional identities. All these different forms of identity, which frequently overlap, have had a part in complicating the national question over the past 50 years. Many different theories have been put forward over time to explain ethnic conflicts and competitiveness, from instrumentalist to constructivist theories, and to seek to contribute to the wider debate on state development and conflict and the influence of ethnicity in politics and the economy (Chandra 2012; Nugent 2002; Ranger 1983, 1989, 1993; Spear 2003; Willis 1992). Within the general debate on ethnicity in Africa, one of the best cases for constructivism may be found in middlemen and military minorities, as Kiswahili speakers were often seen in Uganda, and it provides an interesting case for comparisons between Kiswahili and Hausa. As with the Hausa troops in West Africa, military minorities in East Africa were usually selected because they were not indigenous. Given their role in the colonial state, they had an interest in appropriating certain stereotypes for themselves (Nubians, for example, who became both outsiders and insiders, both Sudanese and Ugandans). The story of Kiswahili in Uganda therefore shows us that language functions as both a medium (e.g., in the marketplace and the army) and a symbol (determining who are citizens and who are foreigners and their relationships) of power relations. As in other African cases, there are many ambiguities that characterize the life and history of Swahili in Uganda and illustrate the different values associated with language at the intersection of livelihoods and belonging. In West Africa, Hausa is one of the languages of trade (as it was in precolonial times), but during the colonial period many people also become Hausa through trade and the army, as was the case in Uganda with the Swahili. Thus in Ghana, for example, Hausa continued to be seen as the language of “aliens,” especially in the context of the expulsion of aliens in 1969. Although indigenous languages were dominant in the marketplace, Hausa retained many of its historical associations with trading minorities, especially in Accra. Unlike Kiswahili, however, even though Hausa is widely used in West Africa, there is no possibility of its becoming a language for the Economic Community Of West African States.

As for Kiswahili, its fate in Uganda in the past few decades has hinged on its historical role (as reported by Kokole, Uganda is in a way a Swahili word, meaning the land of the “Ganda,” as classical Kiswahili normally uses the prefix “U” to refer to the “land” or “home” of others – Kokole 1985, p. 443) in the army and to some extent in religion, if we consider its close ties to Islam (Coleman 1971, p. 24). The language also depended on the strong regional imbalance and on tensions between Buganda and the colonial State – and more generally between Buganda and (any) central government, whether colonial or post-colonial. In fact, Buganda has always been too powerful to accept a competitor, and that is how Kiswahili was seen from a linguistic viewpoint. This situation persisted until recently, when the National Resistance Movement came to power. The NRM government proved to be able to stay longer in power than previous ones and less controversial from a regional standpoint in that it is not identified with only the Northern region, as those of Milton Obote and Idi Amin Dada had been. The support of Kiswahili by the National Resistance Movement government has a role in Ugandan aspirations to be a leader in the region. Because Kiswahili is not an ethnic language, if one takes the socio-linguistic characteristics of Uganda, its history, and the relations between the center and peripheries into consideration, it would be a good option as Uganda’s lingua franca. However, as we will see in this paper, Kiswahili has had a problematic relationship with many Ugandans due to history and politics.

Historical Background: The Kingdom of Buganda and the Role of British Colonialism

The development and spread of a language are not natural processes: they need the will and effort of different institutions and subjects. This is particularly true and evident in the case of Kiswahili in Uganda. Together with English, Kiswahili has been one of the two official languages of Uganda since 2005, and it shares the language arena with many other indigenous languages. Although it is related to other Bantu languages, it is not widespread as a lingua franca because of its long association with the violence perpetuated by the army and police (Beckerleg 2009, p. 300; Kawoya 1985). Historically speaking, trade and Christianity (which was brought to Uganda by the Europeans in the mid-1800s) were fundamental for the spread of Kiswahili in the Great Lakes Region of Africa, but cultural and political identities then became crucial to determining its fate. In the case of Tanzania, the strategies adopted by different organizations and groups such as missionaries, traders, and colonial and postindependence politicians made it possible for Kiswahili to become both the official and the national language of the country (Kiango 2005). Uganda has been following a similar path since 1992 thanks to the policies of the National Resistance Movement, but before that time the history of Kiswahili in the country was not so straightforward. We will analyze the path it has taken in the pages that follow.

Kiswahili reached what is now Uganda in the mid-1800s, when trade in slaves and ivory, among other things, opened the Great Lakes Region of Africa up to the rest of the world. It was at this time that the first (recorded) traders from the eastern coast of Africa were arriving in the court of Buganda. They belonged to the Swahili people, who spoke Kiswahili and professed Islam. These two elements – a written language and a new religion that were part of a fascinating culture – were brought to Buganda’s royal court together with new technologies, such as firearms, and attracted the interest of the Kabaka (King) of Buganda, Suna II (Soi 2011a). According to Posnansky (1975, p. 218), “Islamic traders from the coast, who had settled in the Tabora region by 1825, were already trading in Koki in southern Buganda sometime before 1832, reached the Kabaka’s court by 1844, and penetrated into Busoga from the east by 1853,” which dates the arrival of Kiswahili before that of the Europeans, but not as early as was the case in other East African regions.

In addition to this clear historical background and its links to trade, Kiswahili also settled in Uganda as the language of the army, thanks to colonial troops (KAR – The King’s African Rifles) and its affinity with and similarity to Arabic, which was the language spoken by the former Sudanese troops who arrived in (pre)colonial times. In the late 1870s and early 1880s, a number of Sudanese troops arrived in modern-day Uganda and settled there (Hansen 1991). These troops, who were later hired by Frederick Lugard to reinforce soldiers of the Imperial British East Africa Company (Soi 2007), were referred to as Nubians or Nubi. This title, which was created during colonial times, helped cause confusion regarding the troops’ origins and identity (Hansen 1991; Kokole 1985) due to the ambiguity and potential misunderstandings caused by the reference to the different Sudanese regions of Nubia and the Nubi Mountains. The confusion between Nubi and Nubians also added to the creation of misapprehensions and tensions with other groups in Uganda – another example of how colonialism and borders contributed towards shaping the formation of identity in Africa (Kokole 1985; Leopold 2006). In addition, the Southern Sudanese soldiers who moved into Uganda used the southern version of Arabic (Leonardi 2013, p. 356) known as Kinubi. According to Kokole (1985, p. 445), the Sudanese soldiers who mutinied against Emin Pasha, then-Governor of Equatorial Nile, “were of various tribes in Sudan (now Southern Sudan) under the Command of Fadl el Mula (notice Muslim names) a 6 ft 4 in. tall Lugbara and Selim Bey a giant Makaraka” and created the first nucleus and the origins of the armed forces of modern Uganda until the 1970s. According to Mutonya and Parsons (2004, p. 113), Kinubi the simplified Sudanese form of Arabic became the language of the Ugandan 4 KAR “before switching to a Swahili type of KiKAR [a version of military Kiswahili used in the KAR] that was closer to Standard Swahili in the 1930s. Conversely, Nyasaland’s 1 KAR and 2 KAR used ChiNyanja [and not KiKAR] as their language of command.” This use of different languages among different battalions of the KAR, and particularly, in the Ugandan case, the switch from Kinubi to Kiswahili, contributed to the confusion between Nubi, Nubians, and Swahili despite their Sudanese origin (Scully 1974). The confusion provoked by this dual use of Kinubi and Kiswahili in the army was also facilitated by another common feature underlined by Holger Hansen: their shared urban culture (Hansen 1991).

In order to look at the role of trade and the army in spreading and shaping the fate of Kiswahili in Uganda, it is important to focus more closely on the years of the colonial administration. The negative attitude of many Ugandans towards Kiswahili has its origins in the early days of colonialism, when Christian missionaries associated Kiswahili with Islam and sought to diminish its role in the Ugandan Protectorate. In addition, the Baganda (the inhabitants of Buganda, who spoke Luganda) wanted to retain the special status of their language in the Protectorate, and so worked to discourage development and use of Kiswahili. Another element, according to Bernsten (1998, p. 101), was the Bagandas’ fear that if “Kiswahili became prominent in Buganda, European settlers might be encouraged to come into the country, as they had in Kenya.” British colonialism and the administration of Uganda thus had a dual role in the language issue: as regards both their language policy and their relations with the Buganda. We will now focus on these two elements.

British Colonialism

Despite the fact that the British arrived in what is now Uganda as early as the 1860s, a formal British Protectorate was not created over the country until 1894, when the Imperial British East Africa Company led by Frederick Lugard handed over the administration of the region to the government in London. A few years later, in 1900, the British administration signed the Buganda Agreement, ratifying its position and relationship with Buganda and formally recognizing the special position of the African kingdom in the region and the Protectorate. Despite this special relationship and the active role of the Baganda in shaping and administering the Protectorate, their language, Luganda, never attained a dominant linguistic position. The history of Kiswahili during the Protectorate was heavily influenced by the triangular relationship among the Protectorate administration, the Christian missions (particularly Anglican missions), and the Buganda. According to Bernsten (1998, p. 100), when the Europeans settled in Buganda, Kiswahili was the official language of the Protectorate from 1900 to 1912 and was the official lingua franca for the military thereafter. In fact, Kiswahili was considered as a potential lingua franca by the British authorities for the whole of East and Central Africa (Roehl 1930). Kiswahili’s status in East Africa depended on the characteristics of the colonial State and administration, the presence of large numbers of European settlers, and relations with the local authorities (Whiteley 1956). This also influenced its use and spread in Uganda, but its privileged status was questioned due to the socio-linguistic characteristics of the core of the Protectorate, which was Buganda and its neighboring kingdoms, all of whom had a powerful linguistic identity that was difficult to reconcile with Kiswahili. Another important factor was the attitude of missionaries towards local languages, which were essential to their evangelizing mission. Owing to these two elements, Luganda also began to be used by British administrators to communicate with the Protectorate’s subjects, and from this moment on, the competition between Kiswahili and Luganda became official.

A few years later, the British strategy changed once again: the initial policy of favoring Buganda and its Luganda language as a lingua franca across the entire Ugandan Protectorate, which was supported by the missionaries, changed in 1928, when the government of the Protectorate suggested using Kiswahili as the lingua franca. This was strenuously opposed by European religious representatives, but in vain. In 1932, the Joint Secretary to the Advisory Committee on Education in the Colonies, Sir Hanns Vischer, wrote that:

…the crux of the matter in my opinion seems to be that the various Missions have always looked on Luganda as the only language for the whole of the Protectorate which some years ago fitted well into the general policy of the Government, while on the other hand this policy has since been changed and the Governor looks on Luganda as the vernacular of the Buganda only and wishes to make Swahili the lingua franca for the whole territory.” (Vischer 1932, n.p.)

According to Assibi Apatewon Amidu, referring to Wilfred Howell Whiteley’s 1969 work, Swahili, The Rise of a National Language, however, in 1927, Governor Sir W. F. Gowers proposed that Kiswahili be adopted “as the lingua franca for most of the Protectorate except Buganda along lines similar to those proposed in Tanganyika and Kenya,” even though “an attempt was made to introduce Kiswahili as the official lingua franca outside of Buganda and Bunyoro in Uganda in 1927”.

In the 1920s, in an attempt to strike a balance and find agreement among their policies, the missionaries and the Buganda, the government of the British Protectorate suggested the use of Kiswahili as a lingua franca outside Buganda, in the Eastern and Northern Regions of the Protectorate, the so-called “mixed language areas” (“Language” 1932). Initially the Christian missions, particularly the Anglican Church Missionary Society of London, opposed this idea too, because of the customary close association between Kiswahili and Islam, but after a few years the missions’ policy changed, and the decision was taken to use Kiswahili in missionary schools, in particular “in the Bush Schools” (“Governor” 1934). In line with the British policy of using people from the northern region in the army (they were considered to be more “martial”), Kiswahili was retained as the language of the army, as all the officers were British and a lingua franca was needed to communicate with the troops. Kiswahili also played a second role as a tool of the divide et impera policies, and so it was the most appropriate choice for the UK “on the assumption they [the soldiers] were generally less likely to identify with local communities speaking different languages” (Mutonya and Parsons 2004, p. 124). This is how the links between the Nubi and Kiswahili began, and they were supported by Ugandans of Kakwa origin in particular, and West Nile origin in general, who moved south in search of jobs (usually in the army or police) and economic opportunities, who learned and used additional languages on their way. Many of these northerners joined the King’s African Rifles or the police. Thus, the “lumpen militariat,” to use Ali Mazrui’s words, used a Ugandan variety of Kiswahili that differed slightly from the classic version spoken in Tanzania or Eastern Kenya but could be still assimilated with Kiswahili (Kokole 1985, p. 430), thereby creating the psychological link between language and army, and therefore between language and violence.

Independent Uganda and the East African Community

British rule over Uganda officially ended on 9 October 1962, and the Republic of Uganda was created as a formally independent state. Just before independence, the general elections that would shape the composition of the Ugandan parliament and politics were held. At the time of independence, there were three main political parties: the Democratic Party, the Kabaka Yekka, and the Uganda People’s Congress. Apart from the leader of the Uganda’s People Congress, Milton Obote (an alumnus of Makerere University), one of the main figures on the political scene at the time of independence in 1962, was the Kabaka (King) of Buganda (leader of Kabaka Yekka, the monarchist political party dominated by Baganda, confirming the central role of Buganda in Ugandan politics) Mutesa II, even though he was not a representative of the majority of Ugandans. The main political roles – President of the Republic and Prime Minister – were assigned to the leaders of the winning political parties at those first elections, Kabaka Mutesa, and Milton Obote, respectively, representing the difficult and imbalanced situation of the country and in some ways standing as a metaphor for the linguistic state of affairs in Uganda: Luganda vs. English, with other languages, including Kiswahili, being marginalized. One of the many problems faced by the newly independent country was Uganda’s language policy. The choice of which African languages to use, both in broadcasting and as an official language, ones that would not cost too much in economic and political terms, was particularly problematic. In view of the political situation, one possibility was Luganda, but this was too challenging, given the tensions between Buganda and the other regions of Uganda. Another option was Kiswahili, which was considered to be cheaper in both terms: because it was not an ethnic language, it was undoubtedly less problematic politically, according to the logic that using a language that was not ethnically identifiable would make no one happy but would not make anyone unhappy either (Nsibambi 1971). Although the debate continued over the years, the problem was never really broached officially, and English, the language of the European colonizer, remained the only official language of Uganda. It was the only language that was not identifiable with any of the ethnic groups living in Uganda.

Idi Amin Dada’s Regime: The Role of Violence

Fewer than 9 years after the date of independence, the regime of Milton Obote (who had become President of Uganda in 1966 after barring Mutesa from power and forcing him into exile) was overthrown by a military coup d’état led by the army chief Idi Amin Dada, who was from the northern region of Kakwa and a Swahili speaker. Initially, both Ugandan and international actors reacted enthusiastically to Amin’s move; they were tired of the previous regime and appreciated the virtually bloodless coup. With the new President, Uganda took a new path, and one of the key pledges was to decolonize the country. From a linguistic standpoint, Amin’s government sought to pursue the target of proposing Kiswahili (an African language) as the official language of Uganda (Mpuga 2003), although it proved impossible to implement the decision and exclude English. The other way of promoting the decolonization plan was through the economy, but in this case, initial optimism had to give way to the reality of Amin’s regime: in 1972, in his attempt to Ugandize the country’s economy, he expelled almost the whole Asian community, leaving only 1000 Asians in Uganda (out of the more than 50,000 that had made up the Asian community). This move caused considerable tensions with some of Uganda’s traditional allies, such as Great Britain (many of those who were expelled had British or other Commonwealth passports), but it proved particularly harmful for the Ugandan economy, and destructive for the already strained Ugandan social fabric and the position of Kiswahili speakers. When Amin expelled the Asians, many of their businesses were redistributed to Ugandans, particularly Nubi soldiers, which fueled the feelings of distrust towards them because they were associated with violence and an unmerited economic position that had been secured thanks to their closeness to the President (Leopold 2006, p. 193). Another turning point in the exposure of Idi Amin’s modus operandi was reached in 1976, the year of the Entebbe raid, the Makerere incident (Soi 2011b), and rising tensions with Uganda’s neighbors, particularly Kenya. All these episodes had harsh international and economic consequences and were decisive in shaping Amin’s fate. The final 3 years of the regime were characterized by rising violence inflicted by the President and his army, particularly in the eastern region. A very peculiar situation developed close to the border with Kenya: this was historically the region where many Kiswahili speakers, who were in some way allies of Amin, lived, but it was also the region where trade, and particularly magendo (smuggling), flourished. The Nubi people occupied a dual position in the army and trade (Leopold 2006). Kiswahili was therefore confirmed as the language of the army, the police, and trade, but it was also widely associated with violence and unlawful practices, magendo, and kondo (robbery) (The Monitor 2003). Hence, the negative attitude towards Kiswahili in Uganda is the result of its “bad history” in the country (Jjingo 2011, p. 80), which also confirms Mukama’s argument that this “bad history” is the product of the army’s behavior over the course of many years, particularly during Amin’s regime (Mukama 1989).

The National Resistance Movement/National Resistance Army: A Turning Point in Ugandan Language Policy and the Resurgence of the East African Community

In 1979, after Idi Amin Dada had been overthrown, a long period of insecurity began. The following 7 years saw various governments and presidents ruling Uganda, among whom was Milton Obote, who returned to Uganda from Tanzania in 1980 (Pirouet 1995, p. 297) after Amin had been removed from power and forced to leave the country. After contested elections in 1980 (won by Obote), Yoweri Museveni (who had fought to overthrow Amin) returned to the bush to continue his struggle, this time against the Obote II (Obote’s second term). The fighting and instability continued until January 1986, when Yoweri Museveni and his National Resistance Army/Movement conquered Kampala, ending the war and installing a regime that still governs Uganda today. Over the years, the National Resistance Movement government has changed the balance of power in Uganda quite radically, with the southern and western regions supporting the central government, while in the central-northern region (which was not involved in the government for the first time), the population resisted it (both Milton Obote and Idi Amin Dada were from the central-northern region, while Yoweri Museveni is from the southern region). These changes were also reflected in two policy shifts: Ugandan regional and linguistic politics.

With the National Resistance Movement in power, after defeating the Ugandan Army, the debate on Uganda’s language policy was revitalized, giving Kiswahili a new life. In the mid-1980s, the National Resistance Army (which made up the backbone of the reformed Ugandan Army at the time) adopted Kiswahili as its language (Mukuthuria 2006, p. 158) to facilitate communications among its members. The National Resistance Army was a multiethnic group, as the Ugandan army had been before the 1980s. The big difference was that despite being multiethnic, the Ugandan army was mainly uni-regional (from the northern region), and its use of Kiswahili:

created a sentimental attachment to Kiswahili as a virtually northern lingua franca. In the cultural divide between the mainly Nilotic northern Uganda and the mainly Bantu southern Uganda, the northerners paradoxically espoused Kiswahili almost as their own language. (Mazrui and Mazrui 1993, p. 282)

Taking on Kiswahili as the National Resistance Army’s lingua franca contributed towards changing this identification of Kiswahili as a northern language. The benefits of Kiswahili as a lingua franca, in Uganda as in East Africa and Africa in general, because it was not an ethnic language – in comparison with Hausa, which is widely spoken, but mainly by Hausa people (Mazrui and Mazrui 1993, p. 282) – began to be re-affirmed. The use of “local languages, Kiswahili and English” was emphasized in 1992 in the Ugandan Government’s White Paper on education (Mugane 2003, p. 79). This new path for Kiswahili was confirmed by Amendment Act 2005, to the 1995 Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, which stated as follows: “Official language: (1) The official language of Uganda is English. (2) Swahili shall be the second official language in Uganda to be used in such circumstances as Parliament may by law prescribe.” This happened despite the resistance of the Baganda, who still preferred to see Luganda elevated as the language of Uganda (Mazrui and Mazrui 1993, p. 282).

This change in language policy was not only motivated by practical communication reasons; it also seems to have been especially grounded in Uganda’s international political needs. The National Resistance Movement government has always supported the idea of the rebirth of the East African Community (with Kenya and Tanzania, where Kiswahili is widely spoken), and the use of Kiswahili was an essential means to that end. The new East African Community was re-established in 2000, with the aim of “establishing a Customs Union, Common Market, Monetary Union, and ultimately a political federation” (Drummond et al. 2015: Foreword), and as an essential element of this, Kiswahili is recognized in Article 137 of the Treaty for the Establishment of the East African Community as the lingua franca of the community, while English is the official language. Despite official policies and the importance of the language for Ugandan regional politics and trade, however, Kiswahili has still not been completely accepted by all Ugandans, which confirms that implementing state policies, with particular regard to language, needs time and widespread, integrated strategies – in education, radio broadcasting, television, newspapers, and so on – if people are to follow what governments want. However, young generations of Ugandans are tending to study and use Kiswahili more often as a tool for accessing various job positions over the whole of East Africa, proving that National Resistance Movement’s linguistic strategy is beginning to yield results (The Daily Monitor 2014). Another area that may alter Kiswahili’s future in Uganda is art: indeed, besides the positive influence of commerce and East African Community, music also supports the Kiswahili cause, and the use of Kiswahili in the lyrics of contemporary music – mainly hip-hop – is likely to become one of the most useful tools for supporting the East African language (Buwembo 2003).


The trajectory of Kiswahili in Uganda confirms the importance of the language issue in the formation of a state on the one hand, and some of the most common patterns in Ugandan history, such as the special status of the kingdom of Buganda in the region and the violence that has characterized most of its life as an independent country, on the other. Over the years, the language issue has seemed to be too much of a hot potato to be properly addressed at a central political level. Since colonial times, different governments have worried about altering the balance of power between various ethnic or social groups, which might spark further violence. As we have seen in this paper, history matters when it comes to state development: it has shown how colonialism shaped the new state, building on existing political tensions and power relations both within the kingdom of Buganda and between Buganda and its competing neighboring kingdoms. But it is not history alone that matters when it comes to language and national identity: feelings and perceptions matter as well, considering the powerful link between language and identity and the symbolism certain languages bring with them – such as Kiswahili in the Ugandan case. Despite the importance of history, however, particularly when it has a powerful influence on the trajectory of a given country and its national identity, this entry has shown that an enduring and unambiguous government stance can make a powerful contribution towards changing people’s attitudes to a symbol of a difficult past. Indeed, an analysis of recent political choices and priorities demonstrates how government efforts to show positive opportunities associated with the use of Kiswahili can earn a payback in the spread and acceptance of a language that was once seen as a symbol of past violence and foreign supremacy. The added value of Kiswahili as a regional language that can make a real contribution towards building a successful East African Community as a source of wealth and stability in the region is clear and seems to be on the way to gaining widespread acceptance in Uganda as well; however, the most promising indication of this popular acceptance is probably the use of Kiswahili for writing lyrics, particularly in the context of music produced and “consumed” by the younger generation. This is indicative of the fact that for the first time in decades, the Ugandan trajectory of Kiswahili seems to be looking more to the future than to the past.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Università degli Studi di CagliariCagliariItaly

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