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Language and Nationalism in Tanzania

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Language policy lies at the heart of ‘Tanzanian exceptionalism’. Promotion of a shared national language, Swahili, by the nationalist party TANU during the independence struggle is celebrated as a first step in creating a national political culture, permanently distinguishing Tanzania’s politics from those of its neighbours. In education, the choice of post-colonial leaders to privilege Swahili as the medium of instruction at primary level and in adult education was similarly distinctive. The growing dominance of Swahili in the public sphere over the course of the post-independence decades thus serves to contribute to a nationalist historiography which stresses the growing unity of a Tanzanian nation under the leadership of Julius Nyerere.

This seminar will use debates from the 1950s and 1960s as a means of interrogating this narrative. Taking as a starting point a debate conducted in the pages of the newspaper Ngurumo in 1965, I will suggest that language debates functioned as a crucial site in which the place of the nation within global history and contemporary global networks was contested. Exploring the controversies around the Swahili language and perceptions of its past, its present and its future offers insights into continuing arguments over Swahili’s place in the Tanzanian education system.

This talk is part of the Education, Equality and Development (EED) Group Seminars series.

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