Swahili, an African language strongly influenced by Arabic words, has been spoken widely in East Africa for centuries, also inspiring the popular “Hakuna Matata” ditty from Walt Disney’s animated musical drama The Lion King.
Now Tanzania has announced plans to make Swahili the primary language of the courts and justice system, according to a government notice on February 5.
“In a nutshell, the proposed amendments substitute English with Swahili as the language of the law, courts and records in the administration of justice in Tanzania,” it said. English would only be used in limited circumstances for “technical and sensitive laws that govern tax and investment matters, amongst others”.
While a number of lawyers have voiced public support for the plan, others seem less sure about the practical ramifications of a wholesale, rapid switchover.
Angelista Nashon, managing partner at AfriCorp Attorneys in Dar es Salaam, notes that the majority of Tanzanians speak Swahili and she believes the plan is both meritorious and practical.
“However, the strategies for implementation are somewhat ambitious. I believe that by going slowly, by emphasising the usage of Swahili from primary school, all the way to secondary school, could be a start. That way, we will breed many Swahili speakers into different professions. Presently it is clear that there are mixed feelings about a drastic shift to using Swahili in professional settings, especially those that have traditionally used English.”
Nashon, a corporate and civil litigation attorney who studied at the University of Southampton and University of Dar es Salaam, said her perception was that several members of the legal profession felt that a sudden and drastic shift was difficult or impractical.
She noted that Tanzanian lawyers are still trained in English, while legal rulings have for many years also been drafted in English, especially the higher courts.
“Changing all that at the pace that is being pushed may prove difficult. Very few lawyers can draft proper legal documents in Swahili. So, although this move is a good thing it must be approached in phases. A proper and realistic strategy must be set, and assessments made as we go along.”
Bernard Otieno, founding partner of Rafiki Attorneys & Co Advocates in Geita province, also supports the use of Swahili as a matter of national prestige.
But because English remains a lingua franca of the world, the move to entrench Swahili as the primary language of law and justice system could have “shortfalls”.
Otieno, a graduate of the Open University of Tanzania, Law School of Tanzania and University of Iringa, believes the standard of written and spoken English has declined significantly over recent decades in his country. This created several difficulties for legal practitioners working or studying overseas, including himself, when he studied for his LL.M recently at the American University Washington College of Law.
He is sceptical that a change in language alone will enhance legal knowledge among the general populace. Otieno also worries that a rapid change-over may further erode English language skills in the legal community and possibly isolate Tanzanian lawyers from the international community.
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