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Book Excerpt: Swahili in German East Africa

Morgan J Robinson's 2022 book explores how Swahili was standardised and eventually became a pan-African language

By Morgan J Robinson
Published: Saturday 12 August 2023

Representative photo from iStockNames such as Carl Peters, Otto von Bismarck, Hermann Wissmann, and Julius von Soden are among the central characters in the historiography of German colonialism in East Africa. Peters forced the hand of a reluctant Chancellor Bismarck, who hosted the future colonial powers in Berlin in 1884–85. Wissman then took over the “effective occupation” of the territory that would become German East Africa, sparking and then suppressing the Bushiri uprising in 1888–89. The Maji Maji war of 1905–7, overseen by von Soden, represented another major historical and historiographic marker of the period, after which the colonial administration of the territory became more concerted. And while German colonial rule was relatively short lived, it was nonetheless dramatically consequential for many residents of eastern Africa. There were periods of violence, famine, and epidemic disease, all accompanied by shifts in the social, political, and economic balances of power across the region. In terms of language, the German colonial administration utilized Swahili, and thus conveyed a certain prestige to it, but the German colonial state never created an official apparatus for or policy of standardization. Thus, for the history of Standard Swahili, the consequences of German colonial rule were ambiguous. German administration brought Swahili speakers to places they had never been before and infused the language with a new element of power. At the same time, colonial language policy vacillated between the promotion of German and Swahili, dividing the linguistic attention of administrators, teachers, students, and colonial subjects alike. While German academics were among the most influential Swahili scholars in Europe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the constant tug-of-war between Berlin, Dar es Salaam, and the individual interests of mission societies and local communities precluded official linguistic consensus.

In the 1890s, as Germany began to build its administrative infrastructure in East Africa, it inherited two existing networks: the akida system of the Zanzibari sultanate and the network of missionary societies (German and non-German) that dotted the region. German colonial rule grew from coastal centers where Swahili was the well-established lingua franca. Using Swahili-speaking akidas from these centers of power as intermediaries meant that, as administrative control expanded into the interior, the language (both spoken and written) followed along. In contrast, the network of missionary societies at first exerted a linguistic counterforce to the wholesale adoption of Swahili as the language of German administration. Many of these organizations (particularly those of Protestant denominations) insisted that local vernacular languages were the only way to effectively preach the gospel and insisted on using these rather than Swahili (let alone German) in their schools. This only began to change in the 1910s when the administration offered grants-in-aid to mission schools that met certain qualifications, including language of instruction. These grants were meant at first to encourage the teaching of German, though policymakers eventually agreed to extend support to Swahili-medium schools as well—after which point many mission societies began to concede to that language.

In Berlin, meanwhile, some politicians were intent that German be used throughout the colony and East Africans taught the language as quickly as possible. This insistence was partially born of the belief in German cultural superiority and the concomitant desire to construct a culturally contiguous colonial empire. It was also partially driven by the perceived association of Swahili with Islam: some German lawmakers feared that support for the former would only encourage the spread of the latter. Indeed, through the turn of the twentieth century the government endowed a “Fund for the Spread of the German Language,” which subsidized institutions throughout Germany’s colonial empire, including the aforementioned funding for mission schools.

While a German-language colony might have been held up as the ideal in Berlin, officials both at home and abroad agreed that the most important goals were efficiency of administration and to prevent the encroachment of the English language on German territory—both of which tipped the scales in favor of Swahili. Alongside pragmatism and nationalist rivalry, overt racism underpinned some of the arguments in favor of Swahili, including those who saw Africans as unworthy of using German, and others who sought to deny colonial subjects the power that came with mastery of the metropolitan language. Officials in Dar es Salaam thus faced the conundrum of how to balance the pressures coming from the Reichstag with the intransigence of some missionary societies, all the while carrying out administrative tasks as efficiently as possible—a combination of interests that most often found suitable compromise with Swahili. This state of affairs encouraged a modicum of language training for colonial officers: the Berlin Seminar for Oriental Languages began offering Swahili classes in 1888, for example.

Besides the akida system, German promotion of Swahili can be traced most easily in its colonial education policy. The government school at Tanga was established in 1892, where the medium of instruction was Swahili (German was taught as a subject). Swahili speakers from Tanga and other government schools like those at Bagamoyo and Dar es Salaam went on to staff the upland schools built after 1905. Meanwhile, in 1904, Paul Blank, headmaster at Tanga, launched a monthly Swahili-language newspaper: Kiongozi (“The Leader” or “The Guide”). Much like Msimulizi, the newspaper was compiled at the school using news collected by waletaji habari who were scattered over an ever-widening swathe of German East Africa. Students at Tanga did the printing, and by 1908 the print shop had a staff of fifty, producing some two thousand copies per issue. The contents of Kiongozi were largely didactic, proffering advice and analysis on topics ranging from agricultural production and medicine to poetry and local and world news.

As Fabian Krautwald has demonstrated, a newspaper like Kiongozi represented neither a totally free press nor a simple mouthpiece of government propaganda. Despite contemporary insistence as to the light touch of censorship, the oversight of German teachers was constant and, one must imagine, palpable for the East African student workers. Yet participation in the production of the newspaper served as a central marker of identity for these government-educated, Swahili-writing colonial subjects. As Krautwald asserts, “The bearer of news’ [waletaji habari] command of Latin script allowed them to access a privileged universe of knowledge. The socialization in government schools cast a long shadow. In the 1940s, the remaining German-educated teachers at Tanga still formed a group apart. The longevity of this community partly resulted from having been connected through Kiongozi’s audience.” And while the reliance of the German administration on this community of East African students, teachers, and writers uncovers certain frailties of colonial power, it is undeniable that Kiongozi echoed the government’s linear notion of progress, dividing German East Africa between agents of that progress and “washenzi.”

What did this tangle of interests, motivations, and policy decisions mean for the process of standardization in the early twentieth century? First, and most unambiguously, came the official insistence on Latin rather than Arabic script. Beyond this official decision, however, the German administration did not take a stand on standardization qua policy; Derek Peterson has described German colonial attempts to codify Swahili orthography and spelling as “desultory.” Even Marcia Wright, in her emphasis on the “local roots” of German colonial policy, admitted “the question may legitimately be raised to what degree the Germans and others overestimated the infectiousness of Swahili as a lingua franca.” And despite occasional nationalistic protestations to the contrary, Swahili-medium schools in German East Africa initially relied on the orthography and texts of Steere and the Universities’ Mission, even after German officials began producing school primers of their own.

Under German colonial rule, then, Swahili became the default language of governance on the ground with little official thought given to its present or future shape and long-term status. For the duration of the German colonial period in East Africa, the linguistic question was never settled: Was Swahili a “stop-gap until German could take over” or did it represent the linguistic future of the region? Ultimately, as Ann Brumfit has argued: “No official sanction for Swahili ever came from Berlin. . . . Adaptations had to be made on an ad-hoc and unofficial basis.” Therefore, while Swahili was central to German colonial administration, the effect of that administration on the process of standardization was equivocal at best.

Excerpted with permission from A Language for the World: The Standardization of Swahili by Morgan J Robinson Copyright @2022 by Ohio University Press

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