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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 July, 2004, 21:38 GMT 22:38 UK
Swahili baffles African leaders
AU summit
Few African leaders could understand the Swahili
A summit of African leaders was thrown into confusion when Mozambique's president addressed the meeting in an African language - Swahili.

Officials scrambled around looking for interpreters and President Joaquim Chissano offered to translate himself.

The African Union uses Arabic, French, English and Portuguese in its summits.

Mr Chissano said he made his farewell address as AU chairman in Swahili to further the AU pledge to promote African identity and languages.

Swahili is spoken by around 100 million people in East Africa and there are moves to add it to the list of official languages.

But Mr Chissano is not a native Swahili-speaker.

Reuters news agency reports that most African leaders and ambassadors were baffled, unable to understand what he was saying.

I don't think all of Africa must be expected to speak Swahili
Kajaw, Boston
After his speech, Sudan's ambassador to Ethiopia announced that Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo had been elected as the next AU chairman, noting that his speech would be in "another African language" - Arabic.

Do you think more African languages should be given official status at African Union summits or should they stick to Arabic, English, French and Portuguese?

Would this help to promote African identity or, with the hundreds of different African languages, would it become a bureaucratic nightmare?

Which languages should be given official status?


This debate is now closed. Thank you for your e-mails. Read selection of your comments:

How can we as a people ever feel proud of who we are when we cannot be proud of our own language?
Mutsawashe, USA (Zimbabwean)

It's about time! That's all I can say. When you go to Germany everything at the airport is in their language you will be lucky to find an English translation... now when Africans are together we still speak in our master's language why? Why aren't we pushing our languages into the forefront? How can we as a people ever feel proud of who we are when we cannot be proud of our own language? In my opinion there should be Swahili classes in Africa just there are French classes. We are so concerned about accommodating everyone else that we forget to include ourselves! Thank you President Chissano!
Mutsawashe, USA (Zimbabwean)

The number of official languages used by international organizations should be kept as low as possible and never be increased. The cost associated with adding another official language are tremendous and the benefits are nil, if not negative.
Simon Oosterman, Lilongwe, Malawi

President Chissano's act, while laudable, remain nothing more than a mere publicity stunt. Language is not the most pertinent issue for Africans at the moment! Poverty, corruption, Aids, and war mongering need more attention than mere rhetoric.
Muhammed, Lagos, Nigeria

About time too! Even if Swahili is not Chissano's language, at least he had the courage to make his point in a very effective way. Meles Zenawi should have spoken in Amharic and not English, but I guess one step at a time.
Cifora Monier, Abidjan, Cote D'Ivoire

Yebo, there should be no problem with African languages being used in conferences. Translation for others who are not conversant should be at the touch of a button. It is about time we used what is ours, at least languages don't cost that much, financially and otherwise!
Kalonde, Lusaka, Zambia

I think the Leaders are the ones again forgetting their priority.
Mesfin A, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

As long as we can recognise the thin, fine line between language and ethnicity, I would say internationalise the African language(s).
Caroline, Nairobi, Kenya

If they wake up now there is still hope for Africa
Ezeoke Tochukwu, Germany/Nigeria

If they wake up now there is still hope for Africa. It is a good and new development in using African's various languages in such gathering. Let the leaders set the example, and the common man will follow. It is time we do away with European languages and go back to our roots. This will create more jobs for translators of various African languages. European language should be learnt at will not by force.
Ezeoke Tochukwu, Germany/Nigeria

Bravo to President Chissano. AU should consider making at least four African languages official, that is, one from each side of Africa (east, west, south and north).
Fatoumata, Guinea Conakry

It is possible to speak African languages in such venues. Sadly though, many of our languages are not written and many African leaders are not fluent in their own languages. The Ethiopian president should have set an example by speaking his language instead of English. It has to be said though that the stunt by Mr Chissano was not necessary. They could have provided the necessary translators so no one goes out scrambling for interpreters. I don't think all of Africa must be expected to speak Swahili.
Kajaw, Boston, USA (Gambian)

Well done. I hope the African leaders are starting to understand their culture values rather than using some foreign cultural values. In my opinion I congratulate Mr Chissano of a brilliant and courageous attitude to introduce Swahili in the summit. If other countries use their native languages at their summits, why can't Africa? So I strongly recommend the use of Swahili and it should be taken as important means of communication all over the continent. And some other languages too.
Ohisa, Sudan

Africa, arise and shine! Shake off the dust! You can be better off! Although AU faces many challenges, it shall really push for Swahili as one of its official languages. And the next step shall be to introduce Swahili in the primary school curriculum of every nation of Africa. God, please hear the cry of your first love, Africa!
Luc Nounagnon, Cotonou, Benin

As a person of African origin born in the Caribbean, I am very proud of President Joaquim Chissano for his wisdom. Certainly the continent and its Diaspora must take his speaking Swahili as a valuable lesson of pride. African people worldwide must be proud to speak in the many beautiful languages of the continent.
C Fiddler, USA

With Microsoft producing a Swahili version of its products and by this speech by president Chissano, Africa for the first time, is a step closer to producing a globally acknowledged language. One that in future can be used in conducting world affairs and international trade.... Finally a language for Africans by Africans.
Harry Mwangi, Kenya

Usage and promotion of African languages is not the problem affecting Africans
Tananagui, Sweden

Usage and promotion of African languages is not the problem affecting Africans. The English, Portuguese or other western languages is not what makes Africa to remain repressed, poor and backward. Should the promotion of their language lead to change of mentality for the betterment of their people? Fine let them go ahead. Are the African leaders embarrassed in the summit because African culture and language comes with embarrassment? Well, I don't - maybe before the next summit preparations should give room for the availability of interpreters.
Tananagui, Sweden

Who cares what language you speak - what really matters is, what are you doing to better the lives of your people? The crisis facing Africa is not an identity issue; it is lack of accountability and leadership!
M Selassie, USA/Ethiopia

They went to Ethiopia in order to enjoy and misuse their powers. They never solved a simple problem. Africa is destroyed by war, Aids and hunger. The leaders are not elected by people and they are oppressive leaders.
Semere, Lund, Sweden

I think Africans now should give way for Africans by relying on themselves, not every thing imported. Look to our market today you will be ashamed to be an African. All used and non important things are imported to Africa from the West - even old underwear. I think Africans should start now to be themselves and not always rely on others. That's a brave move by an African leader from Mozambique to remind others what they should do. He deserves an award.
Samuel, Bamako, Mali

Arabic is an African language. Arabic culture and language has been part of Africa for at least 1,300 years. Why do the western media only count sub-Saharan Africa as true Africa? The reality is that sub-Saharan Africa is just as multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic as Europe or Asia and shouldn't be pigeonholed in the manner it usually is.
Ahmed, UK

If Africans cannot give prominence to their own languages, who can or will for that matter? Holding on to languages of former colonial masters is only a sign mental slavery!
Kobby, Ghana/USA

Of course they should make African languages official in such events. None of these existing languages spoken in AU conference are African languages. What were they thinking when they proposed these languages to be spoken. I am disappointed to learn this. I now personally think, AU is another foreign organization not helpful to the African cause or ideas and therefore, it should be forgotten for good if it continues with those languages in organization.
Samwel Bahati, Bugoma

I support such proud behaviour
Amayas, Algeria

I support such proud behaviour from an African. We Africans should use our own languages alongside with other languages. Arabic, French, English and Portuguese are all imported languages (of the colonizers). In North Africa we, at least 30 million Amazighs speak Tamazight, but instead we're made to speak Arabic. I strongly support for the use of our African languages alongside with the imported languages. Long life to Africa with its African identity.
Amayas, Algeria (in Europe)

As the part of the AU's desire to promote African identity and languages, they should not stick to Arabic, English, French and Portuguese because these languages are not African. As Africans, we should be proud of our local languages and should use them during African meetings.
PA Kemo Jarju, Sohm, The Gambia

Since Africa's culture and identity can be reflected in its languages it will be a wise move to make one of it official.
Anita, USA

I was most proud when Mozambique's president spoke in Swahili. I think it definitely needs to be made an official language! Africa has had to speak European languages since colonial times, and it is due time for a change for the better that will inspire pride in identity.
K, Boca, USA

Ordinarily, it would have been ideal to have as many African languages as can be admitted to be used in the official programmes of the AU. However, it is left to be seen how that will actually promote the aims of the union when the very things that the union was set up to achieve, from its days as OAU, are still far from been sighted, much less accomplished. Besides, the conflicts that have severely hindered development on the continent have arisen and festered among people in various communities who ironically understand or even speak the same language! This shows the problem as being not that of language spoken but of pettiness, greed and negative dominance of the societies in various forms by their constituents and controllers, be they citizens or outsiders. God help us.
Deji Adeniyi, Lagos, Nigeria




SEE ALSO:
Prince William learns Swahili
30 May 03 |  Africa
Profile: African Union
06 Jul 04 |  Country profiles


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