In Summary
  • A heartening trend is the growing belief in the promotion and teaching of Kiswahili and our other home languages or mother tongues.
  • But every significant profession depends on competence in the languages of the community in which one operates.

A movingly dignified memorial service was held on Friday last week for Prof John Samuel Mbiti, the internationally revered philosopher and theologian.

It was at the All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi and it was presided over by Archbishop Jackson ole Sapit of the Anglican Church of Kenya.

My friend Prof Kivutha Kibwana, the governor of Makueni, led the distinguished congregation in paying glowing tribute to Prof Mbiti.

I was to learn at the occasion that Governor Kibwana actually holds a master’s degree in theology, in addition to his legal qualifications.

Being a good governor in Kenya is a tough job and probably needs divine intervention. But I did not get the opportunity to ask Prof Kibwana if his theological studies had something to do with this. I know, however, that he is a seriously spiritual man.


Anyway, a serious disappointment for me at the service was that, as far as I could see, there was not a single official representative of Makerere University or of the Church of Uganda. Prof Mbiti served these two institutions with dedication and distinction for the better part of a decade.

If I had noted the shortcoming earlier, I might have high-handedly claimed to be representing Makerere. You know how passionate I am about our East Africanness, and John Mbiti was a true East African.

But I particularly enjoyed a joke cracked by one of the officiating ministers at the service. He said that he had wanted us to sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” in Kikamba but there were too few of us who knew the words in the lingo! He should have dared us. I am sure we would have given a convincing rendering of “Yesu ni Munyanya Wakwa”.

But the language joke sharply reminded me of a concern that I have had about language education as new pedagogical systems begin to take effect in practically all of East African countries.

A heartening trend is the growing belief in the promotion and teaching of Kiswahili and our other home languages or mother tongues. I am an avowed and ardent advocate of Kiswahili, but I also write and publish in Luganda, my home language.


Indeed, I see no contradiction in my approach of both Kiswahili and mother tongue. In any case, Kiswahili is a home language to growing numbers of East Africans. But there is an error that dampens my joy at the respect and recognition accorded our indigenous languages.

This is the apparent assumption among some of our thinkers and policymakers that the learning and studying of Kiswahili and our other languages should stop or be made optional at certain levels of education. This is wrong and wasteful, on two main grounds.

The first is the simple fact that, for any normal human being, language learning is a continuous and lifelong activity. You can learn something new in and about a language any day, whether it is a word, a phrase, an idiom or a proverb.

As I keep pointing out to my Kiswahili students, ujuzi wa lugha hauna kilele (knowledge of a language has no summit). In other words, language is so rich and wide that no one can convincingly say that they have reached a point where they cannot or need not learn anymore.

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