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 


  1. “Governor”. (1934). Letter from the Governor to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, 24 January 1934; CO 536/181/4 – Education adoption of use of Swahili in Mission Schools in Uganda, The National Archive, London.Google Scholar
  2. “Language”. (1932). Language proposed adoption of Swahili as dominant language in Uganda for administrative and educational purposes, Jan 7, 1932–Sept 22, 1932, CO 536/170/1, The National Archive, London.Google Scholar
  3. Beckerleg, S. (2009). From ocean to lakes: Cultural transformations of Yemenis in Kenya and Uganda. African and Asian Studies, 8, 288–308.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bernsten, J. (1998). Runyakitara: Uganda’s ‘new’ language. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 19(2), 93–107.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Buwembo, J. (2003, March 17). Uganda; Swahili taking root in Uganda through young musicians. The Sunday Vision/The East African.Google Scholar
  6. Chandra, K. (Ed.). (2012). Constructivist theories of ethnic politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Coleman, B. E. (1971). A history of Swahili. The Black Scholar, 2(6), PAN-AFRICANISM I (February), 13–25.Google Scholar
  8. Drummond, P., Wajid, S. K., & Williams, O. (2015). The East African community: Quest for regional integration. Washington, DC: International Monetary Fund.Google Scholar
  9. Hansen, H. B. (1991). Pre-colonial immigrants and colonial servants. The Nubians in Uganda revisited. African Affairs, 90(361), 559–580.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Jjingo, C. (2011). Language policy and the promotion of Kiswahili in Uganda. MA dissertation, University of Dar es Salaam.Google Scholar
  11. Kawoya, V. F. K. (1985). Kiswahili in Uganda. In J. Maw & D. Parkin (Eds.), Swahili language and society (pp. 35–45). Vienna: Beitrage zur Afrikanistik.Google Scholar
  12. Kiango, J. G. (2005). Tanzania’s historical contribution to the recognition and promotion of Swahili. Africa & Asia, 5, 157–166.Google Scholar
  13. Kokole, O. H. (1985). The ‘Nubians’ of East Africa: Muslim club or African “tribe”? The view from within. Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs Journal, 6(2), 420–448.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Leonardi, C. (2013). South Sudanese Arabic and the negotiation of the local state c. 1840–2011. The Journal of African History, 54, 351–372.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Leopold, M. (2006). Legacies of slavery in north-west Uganda: The story of the ‘one-elevens’. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 76(2), 180–199.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Mazrui, A. M., & Mazrui, A. A. (1993). Dominant languages in a plural society: English and Kiswahili in post-colonial East Africa. International Political Science Review/Revue internationale de science politique, 14(3), 275–292.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Mpuga, D. (2003). The official language issue a look at the Uganda experience. A paper presented at the African language research project summer Conference Ocean City, Maryland. Dunes Manor Hotel and Conference Center, Ocean City, July 1–3.Google Scholar
  18. Mugane, J. M. (2003). The linguistic typology and representation of African languages. Trenton: Africa World Press.Google Scholar
  19. Mukama, R. G. (1989). The linguistic dimension of ethnic conflict. In K. Rupesinghe (Ed.), Conflict resolution in Uganda (pp. 178–206). London: James Currey.Google Scholar
  20. Mukuthuria, M. (2006). Kiswhili and its expanding roles of development in East African cooperation: A case of Uganda. Nordic Journal of African Studies, 15(2), 154–165.Google Scholar
  21. Mutonya, M., & Parsons, T. H. (2004). KiKAR: A Swahili variety in Kenya’s colonial army. Journal of Language and Linguistics, 25(2), 111–125.Google Scholar
  22. Nsibambi, A. (1971). Language policy in Uganda: An investigation into costs and politics. African Affairs, 70(278), 62–71.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Nugent, P. (2002). Smugglers, secessionists and loyal citizens on the Ghana-Togo frontier: The lie of the borderlands since 1914. Athens/Oxford: Ohio University Press/James Currey.Google Scholar
  24. Nurse, D., & Spear, T. (1985). The Swahili: Reconstructing the history and language of an African Society, 800–1500. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Pirouet, L. (1995). Historical dictionary of Uganda. Metuchen: Scarecrow Press.Google Scholar
  26. Posnansky, M. (1975). Connections between the lacustrine peoples and the coast. In N. Chittick & R. Rotberg (Eds.), East Africa and the orient. London: Africana Publishing House.Google Scholar
  27. Ranger, T. (1983). The invention of tradition in Colonial Africa. In E. Hobsbawm & T. Ranger (Eds.), The invention of tradition (pp. 211–262). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Ranger, T. (1989). Missionaries, migrants and the Manyika: The invention of ethnicity in Zimbabwe. In L. Vail (Ed.), The creation of tribalism in Southern Africa. London: James Currey.Google Scholar
  29. Ranger, T. (1993). The invention of tradition revisited: The case of Colonial Africa. In T. Ranger & O. Vaughan (Eds.), Legitimacy and the state in twentieth-century Africa (pp. 62–111). London: Macmillan. Reprinted 1993. Hampshire: Gregg Revivals.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Roehl, K. (1930). The linguistic situation in East Africa. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 3(2), 191–202.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Scully, R. T. K. (1974). Two accounts of the Chetambe war of 1895. The International Journal of African Historical Studies, 7(3), 480–492.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Soi, I. (2007). Una politica condizionata. Ribelli e rifugiati in Uganda. Roma: Aracne editrice.Google Scholar
  33. Soi, I. (2011a). Muslims in Buganda. From the royal court to Kampala. In F. Petrucci & I. Soi (Eds.), Cities and minorities in Africa (pp. 97–112). Roma: Aracne editrice.Google Scholar
  34. Soi, I. (2011b). Partecipare alla politica: gli studenti di Makerere tra Obote e Amin. In P. Manduchi (Ed.), Voci del dissenso. Movimenti studenteschi, opposizione politica e processi di democratizzazione in Asia e in Africa (pp. 233–248). Bologna: Casa editrice Emil di Odoya srl.Google Scholar
  35. Spear, T. (2003). Neo-traditionalism and the limits of invention in British Colonial Africa. Journal of African History, 44(1), 3–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. The Daily Monitor. (2014, May 14). Enforce Kiswahili as a national language. Daily Monitor, Kampala.Google Scholar
  37. The Monitor. (2003, August 5). Time to tackle national language. The Monitor, Kampala.Google Scholar
  38. Vischer, S. H. (1932). Letter from Sir Hanns Vischer dated 7 March 1932, CO 536/170/1 – Language proposed adoption of Swahili as dominant language in Uganda for administrative and educational purposes. London: The National Archives.Google Scholar
  39. Weber, E. (1976). Peasants into Frenchmen: The modernization of rural France, 1870–1914. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  40. Whiteley, W. H. (1956). The changing position of Swahili in East Africa. Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 26(4), 343–353.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Whiteley, W. H. (1969). Swahili, the rise of a national language. London: Methuen and Co.Google Scholar
  42. Williams, C. H. (2008). Linguistic minorities in democratic context. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Willis, J. (1992). The makings of a tribe: Bondei identities and history. Journal of African History, 33, 191–208.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Università degli Studi di CagliariCagliariItaly

Personalised recommendations