Tanzania is having her Kiswahili cake. Can she eat it too?

My most recent continental travel was to Tanzania, where I spent 9 nights between Arusha and Dar es Salaam. 

I have concluded – with this being the second country visit in the last 2 years – there will never be enough time given the rich history and culture of this largest East African Community member.

From the look of things, there will be a few more trips to the nation of Julius Nyerere and I am looking forward to the opportunity.

Table of Contents

A small digression

As a Black person coming from South Africa, my African travels always remind me how much this continent offers, and it is on so many levels that you can literally choose what works for you. 

In my personal view, the trouble with many of us down south is that we get caught up in what WE ARE TOLD does not work up north and never explore anything else beyond that point.

Sad but true.

My top 6 list of things that caught my interest about Tanzania

Local cuisine does not disappoint.

What is a meal in Eastern and Southern parts of Africa without ugali?

Patience of drivers on the clocked Dar roads is remarkable.

This is not Lagos where aggressive driving and crazy hooting are accepted norms, ok?

High approval ratings for President Magufuli point to a working service delivery formula.

I was happy that my trusted snap qualitative street survey was validated by this one.

You will not go wrong with M-Pesa, but cash is still king.

You may have booked Uber and selected card payment, and the driver may still try and talk you into paying cash; and my hobby horse

Data is VERY cheap. I used prepaid Vodacom Tanzania data during my stay, and I was mostly happy with the 4G speeds in Dar specifically.

However, I cannot make sense of the reason for the HUGE price discrepancies between ZA and TZ by the same company.

To help you get the picture, see the screen grab I took of the Vodacom prepaid data packages.

eNitiate | Tanzania | Vodacom Prepaid Data Packages in 2017

1 Tanzanian Shilling = 0,0059 South African Rand.

Thus, in Tanzania 2 Gigs of Vodacom data will cost you a whopping TSH.8000 (or only R47.13)!

Compare that to the price of the same Vodacom 2 gigs in South Africa.

The one thing that made the most impression ever since I started traveling to East Africa in 2011 has been this region’s lingua franca.

The rest of this post is about this subject.

First official language in Tanzania

With 120 local languages spoken by the 55 million Tanzanians, the first official language is not English, French or any other foreign language as found in many parts of the continent.

This language is called Kiswahili – and it is truly African. 

Coming across Tanzanians who could not communicate (effectively) in English – the second official language of the country – became one of my common experiences.

I have always been an advocate of strong footprint of indigenous languages as a form of preservation of culture and heritage.

Knowing how important a language is at serving as the glue that binds a nation together, I am not surprised that Tanzania is not plagued by internal strives and conflicts that have become a common occurrence in many parts of Africa. 

Ironically, even that has its prize.

Here is the #ScratchingMyHead moment.

Are Tanzania's economic growth prospects being held back by the choice of first official language that is not an "international" business language?

I want to relate two examples to make the point.

  • I had to cancel one of my Julius Nyerere International Airport Uber trips due to the communication breakdown with the driver.
  • I wanted to buy 2 gigs of Vodacom data at a store in Kigamboni – a district of Dar es Salaam.
    The numerous attempts to explain this in English failed as the bewildered store owner did not understand what I was saying.
    In frustration, I ended up buying M-Pesa instead.

As a tourist – the title I use grudgingly when it comes to traveling within Africa, the two experiences above left me exasperated.

But are the two examples above too small an issue in the greater scheme of things for this East African nation whose economy grew by average 7% in 2016?

Have a look at the 3 2016 tourism and travel charts in the image slide below and make up your mind.

As you do, take note of the tourism sector’s contribution to the country’s GDP and employment.

Tanzania | Contribution of Travel and Tourism to GDP | Sep 2017
Tanzania | Contribution to Travel & Tourism | Sep 2017-2
Tanzania | Contribution to Travel & Tourism | Sep 2017-3

Snap survey

I grappled with the business language issue, and I posed it in my chats with some of the locals (and yes, there are Tanzanians who are highly proficient in the Queen’s language), a Tanzanian Foreign Affairs official (thanks to a chance event) and an Indian expat.

As expected, my limited sample and random profiles offer divergent views and I could not reach any conclusive finding.

This left me none the wiser, and it is compounded by my position on the key role of indigenous languages.

New era?

One thing worth saying as a general statement is that Africans – me included – have done a terrible job of positioning their indigenous languages for business.

Can Tanzania change this by ensuring that Kiswahili becomes a language of business?

How is this going to work for Bra Willy “the foreign tourist” who selects Airbnb for accommodation, walks the streets and wants to play a game of pool with the locals?

I know what you are thinking… that I must learn to speak Kiswahili, right? After all, it is the 3rd most spoken language on the continent after Arabic and English.


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