KiSwahili galvanises UCT’s commitment to multilingualism

20 May 2024 | Story Niémah Davids. Photo iStock. Read time 7 min.
To preserve indigenous African languages, UCT announced in 2022 that KiSwahili would be taught as an elective course in the School of Languages and Literatures in the Faculty of Humanities.
To preserve indigenous African languages, UCT announced in 2022 that KiSwahili would be taught as an elective course in the School of Languages and Literatures in the Faculty of Humanities.

Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan author and academic, once said: “Language, any language, has a dual character: it is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture.”

In realising this and to preserve indigenous African languages, the University of Cape Town (UCT) announced in 2022 that KiSwahili would be taught as an elective course in the School of Languages and Literatures in the Faculty of Humanities. It’s been 12 months, and it’s safe to say that students are loving it. This Africa Month, as the continent celebrates the 61st anniversary of the formation of the Organisation of African Unity, it would be remiss not to celebrate the introduction of KiSwahili at UCT – a significant step towards further diversifying the university’s African languages offering. The roll-out was made possible by a collaboration between UCT and the Institute of KiSwahili Studies at the University of Dar es Salaam (UDSM). 

“It was important to introduce this course … to add a major transnational African language as a dynamic and meaningful complement to the rich pedagogical offering at our school, spanning from national to international languages,” said Associate Professor Markus Arnold, the director of UCT’s School of Languages and Literatures.

Commitment to multilingualism

Introducing KiSwahili at UCT has been a proud moment for the school because it demonstrates the university’s commitment to multilingualism. Importantly, Associate Professor Arnold said, it also resonates with the Africa-focus and transformative agenda of UCT’s Vision 2030 and offers a unique opportunity for students to build connections with academics from east Africa, which, in turn, opens professional avenues in the southern and eastern African region. And students have embraced the course and the new cultural experience that comes with it. The linguistic market in east African countries, mainly in Tanzania, where KiSwahili is the national language and medium of instruction, have added to its appeal.


“Their enthusiasm stems from a multitude of opportunities associated with the KiSwahili language.”

“Their enthusiasm stems from the multitude of opportunities associated with the KiSwahili language, especially given its status as the official language of the African Union and the working language within the Southern African Development Community (SADC),” Arnold said. “It also holds official language status in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, which means its widespread use widens the scope for fluent speakers to compete in various sectors.”

The course in a nutshell

The course is housed in the school’s African Languages and Literatures section headed by Dr Rethabile Possa-Mogoera. It gives students access to a diverse learning experience, including both oral (listening and speaking) and written (reading and writing) competencies. It takes students from zero knowledge of the language to a good, basic competency. They gain foundational insight and an understanding into the language structure and learn important cultural and social elements associated with KiSwahili-speaking countries. A course of this kind also helps to improve students’ general communication, as well as their cognitive, intellectual and intercultural skills, which benefit their overall university learning experience.

As with other beginner-language courses at the school, Arnold emphasised that students encounter an intense but exciting programme that offers a steep learning curve. And while the course is conducted face to face, it encourages a blended learning approach via Amathuba – UCT’s digital learning platform. To enable this learning methodology, materials are regularly uploaded by Dr Eliza Mahenge, the Tanzanian course lecturer, as well as her teaching team, to facilitate student interaction.

“At the end of this communication course, students are expected to have gained basic pronunciation and vocabulary, and should be able to greet, self-introduce and talk about various activities in the past, present and future tense,” said Arnold.

Learning opportunity

Teaching KiSwahili at UCT has also sprouted a unique partnership between the institution and UDSM. To assist with its introduction, Dr Mahenge from UDSM’s Institute of KiSwahili Studies has been seconded to UCT to kickstart the course as a beginner and communication elective, with the prospect of developing it into a major over the next few years. This, he added, will be the fruit of a collaborative effort involving a variety of stakeholders, including the school, the faculty, both universities, and many other collaborators across campus.

In addition, since witnessing its success and the appetite among students, UDSM has created a master’s scholarship programme aimed at non-Tanzanian students from UCT. The scholarship covers tuition, accommodation, research costs and a limited subsistence allowance for an 18-month study period. Alongside the development of KiSwahili, the school has been tasked with finding suitable candidates to support them for this study-abroad project.

“This will be a fantastic learning opportunity for our students, and we are thrilled that UCT’s initial collaboration with UDSM has opened these wonderful doors of learning. We have heard with gratitude the commitment of our Tanzanian colleagues during the official launch of KiSwahili in October 2023. This certainly is the start of something great and we are excited for what’s to come as we continue to work with UDSM to consolidate and develop this important transnational African language,” Arnold said.

A meaningful addendum

While introducing the language carries great benefits for students and the university, it’s been rewarding on a much broader, national level as well. It contributes towards raising much-needed awareness about the need to invest in Africa and sends a positive message within the South African higher education landscape: to add value to important cultural and linguistic realities underrepresented in academia today.


“KiSwahili is an exciting and meaningful addendum to South Africa’s exceptionally rich multilingual landscape.”

“KiSwahili is an exciting and meaningful addendum to South Africa’s exceptionally rich multilingual landscape, and it will further shift our gaze towards the south, but with a transnational and truly inclusive perspective,” Arnold said.

“With its international and continental outreach, UCT is a perfect testing ground for this, timely opening up to this major linguistic and cultural transnational African reality.”

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