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Uganda adopts Kiswahili as a compulsory and examinable school subject

Kiswahili is steadily growing into the transcontinental language for Africa, bringing the aspiration for continental cooperation and unity closer each year. Uganda is the latest country to completely commit to the language by making it compulsory and examinable in its primary and secondary schools.



Kiswahili has high penetration in East and Central Africa and moderate penetration in Southern Africa. It is used in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), South Sudan, Somalia, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, and Comoros.

Furthermore, it is one of the top 10 most spoken languages in the world, and the official language of the African Union (AU) and East African Community (EAC). And is the Southern Africa Development Community’s (SADC) 4th working language.

This past week Uganda’s Cabinet approved the recommendation made during the 21st East African Community Summit to make Kiswahili an official language and has further directed that it become compulsory in both primary and secondary schools. It will also initiate training programmes for Parliament, Cabinet, and the media.

This adjustment fulfils Article137 (2) of the East African Community treaty to develop Kiswahili as lingua franca (a bridge or trade language). A common language would support deeper regional integration and joint sustainable growth and development.


In the past, resistance to the language in Uganda stems from a violent past. Although trade was a predominant vessel for its transmission, Kiswahili was also largely used as a military language throughout the colonial era. The British King’s African Rifles (KAR) were Britain’s main military arm, and German colonial forces relied on it for their territorial operations. To accommodate the varied African and European sociolinguistic groups, they communicated in a simplified version of Kiswahili known as KiKAR (with Ki- used as a prefix for all languages referenced in Swahili). It, therefore, became synonymous with war, oppression, death, and destruction. The limited Kiswahili Ugandans of a certain generation know is a series of tyrannical commands and phrases.

A teacher helps a participant during a lesson.Photo credit. Public Domain

Then after independence, the state’s military was still principally composed of former KAR soldiers, most notable of them Lieutenant Idi Amin Dada. During the Kagera War, a cross-border conflict between Tanzania and Uganda that ousted Idi Amin, the atrocities committed by the Tanzanian military in the earlier stages enshrined Kiswahili as a blighted language.

This complicated history is the reason for Ugandans conflicting views on integrating Kiswahili into the curriculum and as a mass mode of communication.

The idea was presented for the first time in 1992 as a consideration for education review. Then in 2000, the Ministry of Education introduced the language into the primary school curriculum. But the implementation did not take and instruction in schools remained at a minimum. Again in 2016, it was announced that effective 2018 Kiswahili would be compulsory from primary to university, but this also did not go as expected due to the lack of a regulatory framework and necessary resources, according to Business Focus.

The government resorted to setting up the Uganda National Kiswahili Council in 2019 to guide the introduction. It is anticipated that the increased enrolment of Kiswahili teachers in training colleges and trained expert trainers in preparation for a phased introduction of the language will make this recent commitment possible.

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