Lost in translation: Swahili keeps the outrageous below the radar?

A language barrier?

A language barrier?

Tanzania is going through interesting times at the moment, even more so than usual. The political scene is hot, messy and ugly – the rise of Chadema as a meaningful opposition and the forthcoming retirement of President Kikwete in two years time is a fiery combination. Geopolitical shifts are apparently being fought out in Tanzania as fiercely as anywhere – with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit being swiftly followed by no less a figure than Barack Obama. And it’s all being powered by gas, with Tanzania having the dubious honour of joining the club of energy rich nations.

The media is doing a pretty decent job (in trying circumstances) of chronicling all of this, not least The East African‘s excellent pair of Tanzanian columnists – Jenerali Ulimwengu and Elsie Eyakuze. This week, they both addressed the recent blunt statement of the Prime Minister, Mizengo Pinda, that those who cause trouble to the government will be beaten: “watapigwa tu”. (JU and EE).

These developments are undoubtedly interesting, and the columns well-argued, but it was a tangential paragraph in Jenerali’s piece that caught my attention:

“The Kiswahili medium has created for us Tanzanians an enclave in which we can evolve without too much world attention, especially since we ceased being opinion leaders in African and world affairs. It is thus that a lot of what is said and done that is outrageous stays below the radar, except in annual reports of rights organisations.”

It’s an interesting idea – that Tanzania’s use of Swahili has the effect of making Tanzanian politics less visible, less accessible to outside observers. But is it true?

The first question is whether Tanzania really is an enclave that doesn’t get the same amount of world attention as comparable countries – say Kenya and Uganda. I think this is probably the case. I remember speaking to a Nairobi-based journalist for a major British newspaper a few years ago, when he was writing a story about the proposed trans-Serengeti highway. He was completely unaware of big political matters in Tanzania – he didn’t even know who Lowassa was, though this was just a few months after he had been forced to resign as Prime Minister. And even the BBC Africa service seems to overlook some pretty big Tanzanian stories.

The second question is whether this blind-spot is the result of Tanzania’s use of Swahili. This is even harder to judge, but it is plausible. I have often noticed that English and Swahili newspapers will cover the same stories very differently, even within the same media house. The Swahili papers put much more detail in, particularly on controversial subjects. And for the hottest political content, you have to go to the more outspoken Swahili papers like Raia Mwema and Tanzania Daima (neither of which have English-language sister-papers), or online to the Swahili-dominated JamiiForums.com and blogosphere. Elsie and Jenerali are rare exceptions by writing what they do in English.

If that British journalist wanted a quick answer to a question on Tanzanian politics, he would struggle – his sources would be inaccessible in Swahili or shallow, cautious and conservative in English. So on a day to day basis he ignores Tanzania and gives his attention to Kenya and Uganda instead. Only when an unignorably big story breaks does he engage with Tanzanian politics, and finds himself immediately playing catch-up. And personally, I understood almost nothing of Tanzanian politics before I could read the Swahili papers.

But I’m not entirely convinced. Perhaps Tanzania get’s less attention because hot political stories don’t fit into the dominant western narrative on Tanzania, and so don’t get told. The perception of Tanzania as relatively-stable, relatively-peaceful, relatively-well-governed is hard to shake, whether or not it reflects reality now any more than it did back in 1967 when Ali Mazrui coined the term Tanzaphilia (ludicrous paywall). There are all sorts of reasons why the donor-darling image is equally persistent. Tanzanian stories that find their way into the western media are those that fit the narrative – generally something related to wildlife conservation or good news development stories. 

More likely it’s a bit of both: pre-conceived narratives and language barriers both getting in the way of detailed reporting, and both making the other problem even harder to overcome.

Either way, the wider world seems largely unaware of the developing political tensions in Tanzania. And it would do well to learn.

3 thoughts on “Lost in translation: Swahili keeps the outrageous below the radar?

  1. Pingback: Changing headlines in HabariLeo, but why? | mtega

  2. Moses Gasana

    Mtega, what was said by our Prime Minister about Police taking tough and rugged stance towards opposition should have been reported widely in international media.The rising political tension is as if nobody from western sphere knows about it even diplomatic missions here.I can attribute that partly as u said to our use of swahili in giving detailed reporting in media.Deep analysis of local politics can only be found in swahili papers.

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