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Godwin Siundu

February 12th, 2020

Why publishing in Kiswahili can transform knowledge production on eastern Africa

7 comments | 46 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Godwin Siundu

February 12th, 2020

Why publishing in Kiswahili can transform knowledge production on eastern Africa

7 comments | 46 shares

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

Africa’s contribution to academic knowledge production on its own region has long been suppressed by the infrastructures of international publishing, which supports and excludes particular languages. By publishing in both English and Kiswahili, a new literary and cultural journal focused on eastern Africa aims to foster dialogue between previously siloed schools of thought, raising the quality of conversations with voices from the region.

This post is part of the blog and podcast series Citing Africa which explores the global construction and imbalances of knowledge production.

In 2014, Taylor and Francis published the inaugural issue of the journal of Eastern African Literary and Cultural Studies (EALCS) in an attempt to connect the intellectual dialogues taking place in the region with their variants elsewhere. Until then, no single journal published in the region had attracted the attention of such a publisher with global networks of circulation and a reputation for rigorous editorial standards. For Tom Odhiambo and I, the founding editors of EALCS, this publication was a momentous occasion.

The significance of that moment was recently replicated when the journal, in pursuit of one of its objectives, published a double issue of full length essays in Kiswahili and English, themed Trends in East African Swahili Literatures. This was a first for any journal that we know of. When we founded the journal, Odhiambo and I saw Eastern African Literary and Cultural Studies as our contribution in enabling scholars in eastern Africa to plug in the then vibrant literary and cultural studies debates taking place along the North-South and South-South paradigms, debates that were beyond the reach of scholars based in eastern Africa owing to institutional and financial barriers that hinder their access to more established libraries and other knowledge economies.

Publishing in Swahili to reach East African scholars

We also felt that the wider world of literary and cultural knowledge production was poorer because the existing infrastructures of journal publishing with a global reach did not provide for publication in Kiswahili. That is why we set out in the introduction to the inaugural issue the challenge of regularly publishing at least one of the four annual issues in Kiswahili, the regional lingua franca that is spoken in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, the Great Lakes region and parts of Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique and Indian Ocean islands such as Mayotte, Seychelles and Comoros. We did not know, then, that some South African institutions of higher learning would soon adopt Kiswahili as one of the teaching subjects, or that the African Union would embrace Kiswahili as one of its working languages, alongside English, French, Portuguese and Arabic. Nor did we know that Rwanda would undertake to use Kiswahili as its official language.

These developments mean that Kiswahili’s spread and influence, hitherto underrated, is steadily on the rise. We therefore see the current Kiswahili-English bilingual issue of EALCS as a significant step towards facilitating theoretical conversations involving academics versed in Kiswahili across the world, but also as an occasion for dialogue between Kiswahili and English, indisputably the most important languages in eastern Africa. For EALCS, publishing a bilingual Kiswahili-English issue is an innovative way of acknowledging the importance of Kiswahili in the region while reaching a wider Anglophone readership with the same debates.

As Ken Walibora, the Guest Editor to the Special Issue notes in his Utangulizi [Introduction], the novelty of bilingual publishing was for us an opportunity to expose the rest of the world to a long tradition of intellection – much of which took place in Kiswahili and indigenous African languages – in eastern Africa. Few people know that Kiswahili has long been the language of deep philosophies of the people of eastern Africa, or that it was the language of the earliest artists whose works are considered classics, including the poetry of Utenzi wa Mwana Kupona, the prose of Shaaban Robert, the drama of Ebrahim Hussein and the musical jewels of Siti Binti Saad, in no discernible order.

The entire editorial collective of EALCS – Lynda Spencer, Tina Steiner, Dina Ligaga and I – therefore thinks the inaugural bilingual issue of the journal primarily invites scholars from the rest of the world to peep into the epistemological chambers that are fortified within the walls of Kiswahili language, within which are the joys of artistic thought and creativity of Kiswahili public and organic intellectuals, such as Robert, Hussein and Bin Saad.

Addressing historical privileges

The bilingual issue also establishes symbolic linguistic parity to remedy the discursive language inequalities that have existed for long, thanks to the power advantages that traditionally favoured the English language. While the English language has been extensively customised by its (eastern) African users as to render it an African language like Kiswahili, the historical privileges that English drew from colonialist back-up still manifest themselves in perceptional inequality that, we hope, our bilingual issue somewhat addresses. The colonial instrumentalisation of English in engendering notions of civilisation and sophistication led to the rampant embrace of cultural values of Englishness in East Africa, leaving only Tanzania during the era of Julius Nyerere to challenge the hegemonic ambitions of the English language in East Africa. Admittedly, language inequalities, monumental in proportion, derive from many other factors. They include African governments’ perennial underfunding of higher education sectors and their adverse attitude towards the professoriate in and disciplines of humanities and social sciences generally.

The most tragic outcome of this dynamic was the more recent plunge in, and trivialisation of, (eastern) Africa’s contribution to world knowledge, primarily because the idea of knowledge is conceptualised and measured in virtually all other languages, except those widely spoken in the region, including Kiswahili. Allegedly, as recently as 2015, the whole of Africa generated only 1.1% of global scientific knowledge. It is unlikely that the knowledge thus measured included all dissertations, books and journals, sonic and visual recordings of intellectual properties in Kiswahili, Acholi, Kinyarwanda or Lubukusu, which remain alive and well nonetheless.

This only means that the struggle for cultural freedoms, as Ngugi puts it, has enlisted and relied on the tenacious adaptability of languages such as Kiswahili, whose adhesive spread across different spatial-temporal zones has unified different people and imbued them with enviable pride. Therefore, we see the publication of EALCS in Kiswahili and English as a symbolic way of establishing linguistic egalitarianism between the two languages that are now the most important instruments in attaining regional federation, economic empowerment and the restoration of Africanist ethos and cultural pride in (eastern) Africa.

Nowadays, Kiswahili is not just one of the working languages of the African Union and the East African Community, headquartered in Addis Ababa and Arusha, respectively; it is also used by the African Development Bank in Abidjan to create and document the latest fiscal information on the continent. Kiswahili is also the language of the musical genre of Taarab that is performed along the Indian Ocean coastlines; it is in elegant Kiswahili that Ali Kiba and Naseeb Abdul Juma, aka Diamond Platinumz from Dar es Salaam package and market Bongo Flava, the musical generic novelty that the region’s youth have used to speak back to American hip hop.

The publication of the Kiswahili issue is a moment to point at the ways different types of knowledge can and should influence thought in the domains of politics, economics and culture, as some of the contributors to the bilingual issue of EALCS demonstrate. The editors hope that this is only the beginning; that this inaugural issue will set a trend for other journals in the future to publish in Kiswahili. In this regard, the editorial collective seeks to continue with bilingual publishing in order to bring more scholars of Kiswahili literatures and cultures in conversations that, hopefully, will simultaneously create and archive a knowledge system derived from eastern Africa, and expose it to the rest of the world for the good of all humanity.

About the author

Godwin Siundu

Godwin Siundu

Godwin Siundu is a founding co-editor of Eastern African Literary and Cultural Studies, which has been running since 2014. He is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Literature, University of Nairobi in Kenya, and Research Associate at English Department, Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

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