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Kiswahili: Bayreuth gears us up for the first big ‘Saba Saba’

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“Mother’s breast is sweet, even if it is a dog’s” (titi la mama litamu, hata likiwa la mbwa). Do you remember this opening line to Shaaban Robert’s iconic poem, ‘Kiswahili’? It is balanced by the reiterative refrain (kibwagizo), “Mother’s breast is sweet, none other slakes the thirst” (titile mamalitamu, linguine halishi hamu).

Kiswahili and other African languages are rarely out of the news these days, with a number of exciting developments. You may have heard, for example, that a clutch of African languages, including Bambara, Lingala and Luganda, my first language, have been added to the Google AI translation platform. This means that when you encounter a text in one of these languages and you want to know what it says in another language, you can feed it into the computer and get help with its translation.

It is not quite as simple as it sounds, though, because language systems have infinite subtle differences of structure, syntax, vocabulary, semantic and socio-historical associations even in seemingly plain utterances. How, for example, do you translate common greetings, like “Je, hujambo” (Kiswahili) or “Kopa ng’o” (Acholi Luo), into English?

My late friend, Prof Eckhard Breittinger of Bayreuth University, pointed out to me that it was relatively easy to translate across European languages (English, German, French, Italian or Spanish), for three main reasons. First, they were close in structure and, secondly, they had been in touch with one another for many centuries. Thirdly, their systems had been intensively studied and their expressive patterns were easily recognizable to translators, whether human or machine.

When, however, it comes to languages from other lands and climes, the problem becomes a little more complicated. Indeed, with some of those newly-introduced languages, the machine may turn out such a convoluted and funny jumble of expressions that you can only have a good laugh at the wonders of artificial intelligence. Still, it is all a fascinating experiment, and one is impressed with the “learning” capacities of our cyber technologies.

Back to my mention of Bayreuth University, however, one of their forthcoming scholarly events set me thinking language, and specifically Kiswahili, again. This famous institution in the heart of Germany’s Bavaria region is convening a three-day Swahili Colloquium between 27th and 29th May, and they have kindly invited me to give one of the keynote addresses there. This reminded me of how seriously the Germans, and many other people out there, take our continent and its cultures.

This is, in fact, the 34th edition of this Kiswahili Colloquium at Bayreuth, meaning that it has been running every year since 1987. I last attended it in 2009, when I was doing a teaching stint there, at the recommendation of Said Ahmed Mohamed. Prof Mohamed was a faculty member at Bayreuth for many years, until his retirement a few years ago. I believe he was instrumental in the setting up of BIGSAS (the Bayreuth International Graduate School of African Studies).

My friends, Dr Magdaline Wafula and Dr Samuel Ndogo, both of Moi University, were in those days young doctoral scholars there. But they are only two of a whole host of Kenyan and other African scholars who have benefited and continue to benefit from the excellent facilities of this premier university. When it comes to African Studies, Bayreuth, and a few other German universities, would compete very favourably with the best on our own continent.

Colonial involvement

Germany’s colonial involvement in Africa might have been short and in many ways unfortunate, Maji Maji and all that. But the Germans today are turning their contacts with the continent into a kind of friendly “soft power”, mainly through cultural and educational enterprises. When it comes to Kiswahili, which their great grandparents first encountered during their occupation of Tanganyika, their interest has been unflagging. I noted, for example, that many of the best of our Kiswahili and linguistic practitioners have direct links and residences in Germany.

Ebrahim Hussein and, more recently, Wanjohi wa Makhoka did their doctorates in Berlin. Abdilatif Abdalla and, I believe, Sheikh Said Karama held residences in Leipzig. From Uganda, the eminent lexicographer, Kibuuka Kiingii, who taught with me at KU for several years, and Makerere’s Prof Manuel Muranga, a specialist in Onomastics (naming processes), are also German products. Muranga actually studied at Bayreuth. Raila Odinga, too, though not a linguist or literato, studied in Germany.

Anyway, back to the Bayreuth Colloquium, which will focus on the celebrated Tanzanian writer, Shaaban Robert, it reminded me that we are just about a month and a half away from “Saba Saba”, the 7th of July. The United Nations has chosen this date as the Kiswahili International Day. We celebrate it for the first time this year. I will try to persuade the Bayreuth audience (hadhira in Kiswahili) that to recognise their Colloquium as one of the events leading up to the celebrations of the initial Kiswahili International Day.

What are you doing in preparation for the Saba Saba? How are you going to celebrate the day of this glorious language, without which “communication breaks down”, as Wallah bin Wallah (Malenga wa Ziwa Kuu) puts it? I would very much love to see all the stakeholders (wadau), individuals, churches, companies, private and public organisations, contribute actively to promoting our international language. I know my colleagues at Taifa Leo and Swahili Hub will lead us in this at NMG.

 Professor Magoha, his ministry, the KICD and all of us walimu are big stakeholders in the lingo. We cannot afford to sit back and just watch the day roll by without our contributions. The seven weeks remaining to the day are ample time to plan and implement activities that will highlight Kiswahili on its special day. At the Swahili Colloquium, we are going to translate some of Shaaban Robert’s poetry into other African languages and read the texts side by side. Will that not be “cute”?

If you let me know of your ideas, I will publicise them.



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