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FOCUS - Africa N. 3 - 20/02/2015

 The question of the language in an ongoing federal arrangement: the protection of linguistic rights in Tanzania

Alike the experience of most postcolonial countries, Tanzania results of a myriad of different ethnic, linguistic and religious groups: more than 120 ethnic groups can be listed, encompassing indigenous groups, mainly Bantu, and other populations that migrated to Tanzania in various waves, especially to the coastal areas (for instance, the traditional Arab presence in Zanzibar). This ethnic complexity is also reflected on the linguistic side: over one hundred languages are spoken in the country, although Swahili and English emerge as the two official languages, the former for primary education and the socio-political arena, the latter for secondary education and legal matters. As far as religion is concerned, according to the 1967 census (the last one categorising religious beliefs), followers of local (animist) beliefs represented 37% of the population; Christians were 32% and Muslims accounted for 30% of the total, mainly concentrated on the Indian Ocean coast. The peculiarity of Tanzania, in addition to the already complex ethnic situation, with the presence of numerous minorities in the country, resides in the choice for a federation after the independence. At the beginning of the 1960s, two countries arose from the territory which is now called Tanzania: Tanganyika (a former German colony until 1919, then under British rule from 1919 until 1961) and Zanzibar, a British protectorate from 1890 (year of the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty between Britain and the German Empire) to 1963. In April 1964, soon after the independence from the British and the Zanzibar Revolution, the two countries merged and became the United Republic of Tanzania, thus uniting mainland Tanganyika with the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba. Within this union, sacred by the so called Articles of Union signed on the 22ndof April, 1964, Julius Nyerere, the father of independent Tanganyika, was to become the President, and Sheikh Abeid Karume the Vice-President of the federation. However, this geographically logical merger does not seem to be one if demographic data and historical legacies are considered: Zanzibar had always had trading links with the other peoples bordering the Indian Ocean, and its population’s connections (mainly Arab and Muslim, with a conspicuous presence of Portuguese and Indians) with mainland Tanganyika had historically been weak. Nevertheless, the merger resisted and nowadays Tanzania is still a unitary state in spite of the numerous challenges faced by this federal pact. As far as linguistic choices are concerned, a tendency toward the use of Swahili, timidly emerging already during the German period, is clearly evident: the choice of fostering the use of Swahili as a lingua franca instead of English, as suggested by Nyerere, has generally been successful, and this constitutes more of an exception than the rule in the broader context of linguistic shifts in postcolonial countries. Whilst Swahili originally was the language of the population residing in the coastal areas and in Zanzibar, it quickly developed as the common language to interact among different groups, not only in Tanzania, but also in the broader East African region. Thus, the current situation in Tanzania could be described as a three-tier system: vernacular languages are employed in informal contexts; Swahili is the language of trade, culture, communication, education and of the judiciary (but only for the lower courts); English is used as a last resort for international communication, administration and the higher organs of the judiciary... (segue)

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