Two dear and precious loves of my heart underwent major transitions this week. Umfundisi Professor James David Rubadiri, my teacher, friend, colleague and model African, went to join the ancestors in the Hereafter.
Then Kiswahili took another decisive step towards becoming a truly African continental language with South Africa’s official announcement that it will be taught in that country’s schools, starting in 2020.
Now, here starts my dilemma. Which of the two momentous events should I first share with you, between the sorrow of losing patriarch Rubadiri and my leaping joy at Kiswahili’s bright prospects?
But on second thoughts, there should really be no conflict between my mourning Rubadiri and celebrating Kiswahili.
KISWAHILI IN SOUTH AFRICA
Indeed, I am sure the dear departed Mzee would be the first to tell me so, as he had quite a close affinity to the language and its speakers.
Did I tell you once that the Prof could easily have been a Tanzanian but for the erratic colonial boundaries drawn over the waters of Lake Malawi/Nyasa?
I remember Mwalimu Rubadiri once taking me with him on a visit to Oscar Kambona, the former Tanzanian Foreign Minister. I do not remember much about the conversation between the two elders.
It was about complex international and African affairs, and I was a young and carefree man then. But what I recall from that encounter is the palpable and relaxed closeness between the elderly statesmen.
Rubadiri used to take me (and maybe his other young charges) on such tours around Nairobi and other East African cities, in his gently disguised efforts to educate me on the African realities that informed his life and the lives of his contemporaries.
Once, for example, he took me to visit Joe Kariuki, somewhere in the Adam’s Arcade suburb. Kariuki, a Makerere and Cambridge contemporary of Rubadiri, also had several other similarities with him.
He was an African independence activist, a former diplomat and an impressively polished lyrical poet. When Rubadiri took me to meet him, I had just written with excited eloquence about his poems. Getting me to meet him was a treat for me, from my teacher, Joseph’s friend.
But let us get back to Rubadiri, Kiswahili and South Africa. Apart from the long spell he spent at the University of Botswana in Gaborone, I believe that Rubadiri had quite a lot of other significant links with southern Africa.
I remember him telling me in conversation of his times at Fort Hare, Mandela’s alma mater. But we will leave that for later, if you have not already heard it from his biographers.
The point is that, if you factor in the visiting stint he spent, together with Okot p’Bitek, at Ibadan University, Rubadiri lived and worked in every region of Black Africa; central, east and south. That is the African after my own heart.
But I think that professionally, culturally and socially, East Africa can justifiably claim to have been Rubadiri’s “home” for most of his life. As such, he was a Mswahili, and I often heard him speak Kiswahili, especially during the many years that he lived in Nairobi.
This is why I think that he would have encouraged me to celebrate South Africa’s bold decision to teach Kiswahili to its citizens. At a deep and personal level, Rubadiri understood better than most of us that the best way to feel at home among people is to speak their language.
In Kampala, his impeccable Luganda made him easily pass for a native, and praises of his English seemed to be almost superfluous, since it sounded entirely natural.
On the front of Pan-African identity and solidarity, to which our fallen Mwalimu wholeheartedly subscribed, I dare to presume that he supported the long-standing proposition that Kiswahili should be accepted as the continent’s lingua franca.
Incidentally, this move did not start with firebrand Julius Malema, only the other day. Those of you who were following African affairs may remember Mozambican President Joachim Chissano addressing an African Union plenary in Kiswahili in 2004.
This followed a resolution, since then fully implemented, that Kiswahili should be an official working language of the AU, alongside English, French and Arabic.
But even 27 years before that, in 1977, I had heard and seen the legendary Wole Soyinka propose that Kiswahili should be the continental language of African identity.
This was in Lagos, Nigeria, at the FESTAC77 Colloquium on African Arts and Culture, where I, too, presented that oft-mentioned paper on oracy and orature.
So, moves like the AU and Chissano’s taking Kiswahili to the seat of African Unity and the South African government’s decision to teach it in schools are only bold steps in implementing an intention that Africa has had for a considerably long time.
Such moves are, indeed, a tremendous challenge to the rest of Africa, including some of us in East Africa, to show the will and the ability to act decisively on the promotion of Kiswahili.
It is, for example, puzzling and disturbing that, nearly three years after the establishment of the East African Kiswahili Commission, neither Uganda nor Kenya has formed a National Kiswahili Council that would enable these countries to benefit from the services of the commission. What are we waiting for?
As for South Africa, I have only praise and admiration for their courageous decision. We know that language is a very sensitive issue in the country.
People have even died for it, as happened in the 1976 protests, when the apartheid dictatorship tried to impose Afrikaans on the people. Even today, the South African National Anthem is sung in at least three of the republic’s many languages, to symbolise linguistic equity.
It is a truly magnanimous panAfricanist gesture that they should take on Kiswahili.
I can already anticipate the joy of singing “Mungu Ibariki Afrika” alongside “Nkosi Sikeleli i’Afrika” in the not-too-distant future. “And why not?” as Mwalimu Rubadiri would ask.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and Literature. [email protected]