With more than 200 million speakers, Swahili, which originated in East Africa, is one of the world’s 10 most widely spoken languages and, as Priya Sippy writes, there is a renewed push for it to become the continent’s lingua franca.
This is not part of a rousing speech by a pan-African idealist but rather the sentence is uttered quietly and calmly by Ghanaian Swahili student Annabel Naa Odarley Lankai.
But her words echo declarations by the continent’s visionaries down the decades.
Africa should «have something that is of us and for us», the 23-year-old adds.
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.
But Ms Lankai’s classroom at the University of Ghana in the capital, Accra, is some 4,500km west of Swahili’s birthplace – coastal Kenya and Tanzania.
It was then formalized 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.
At its recent heads of state meeting, the African Union adopted Swahili as an official working language.
It is also the official language of the East African Community, which DR Congo is poised to join.
In 2019, Swahili became the only African language to be recognized by the Southern African Development Community. The idea of Swahili as a pan-African language was pushed in the 1960s by Tanzania’s first President Julius Nyerere, who used Swahili to unify his nation after independence.
Despite this post-colonial vision and the current boosted status of Swahili, there has to be a dose of realism.
European languages are still dominant throughout the continent – and it will take a big effort to shift that.
Currently, English is the official or second language in 27 out of the 54 countries in Africa, and French is the official language in 21 of them.
«English is still the language of power,» says Chege Githiora, a linguistics professor in Kenya, in recognition of the political and economic reality.
He advocates what he calls «fluent multilingualism» where people are comfortable speaking more than one trans-national language.
But whereas Swahili has an appeal in east, central, and southern Africa, it has more competition in the west and the north.