Indian Language Words Flourish in East Africa’s Lingua Franca

Letter from New Delhi

Pilao, Biryani, Chappati, Samosa

Pilao is the national dish of Tanzania. Biryani is a traditional dish of the East African coast. Chappati is a well known word in Swahili, the common language of East Africa. Samosa is the most popular snack in this part of the world. The Indian influence on the lifestyle of East Africa is not just confined to cuisine.

Other Swahili words with Indian, Arabic and Persian roots are: duniya or world, kitabu or book, dasturi or law, meza or table, duka or shop, biri or beedi and so it goes on and on.

Prof Abdulaziz Lodhi, a well-known Swahili scholar, estimates that over 600 common words in Swahili have Indian roots. Hindustani, Gujarati, Cutchi, Punjabi, Sindhi, and Konkani are some Indian languages that have intertwined with Swahili for this rainbow vocabulary.

Indians in East Africa are generally known as Muhindis in Swahili. This word comes directly from Hindi, the ancient Arabic word for Hindus, the name of anyone who lived between the Indus River and the Arabian Sea. This description is like Japanese: anyone who lives in Japan, or like French, German, American or Canadian today.

Prof Lodhi, who hails from Zanzibar, has identified three categories of languages used by the Indian Diaspora in East Africa:

1. Regional Indic (Indo-Aryan) language at home, mixed with Swahili and English in many cases.

2. Classical languages (Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit) as liturgical (for religious purposes) languages.

3. Standard languages (Gujarati, Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi), limited use as mother tongue and for education at nursery/primary school, cultural events, and private correspondence. These languages are spoken in Indian homes even today.

Thus, these Indian languages are alive and well in Eastern Africa. Indeed, the impact of Bollywood movies and music has enhanced their popularity. The satellite telecasting of Indian TV channels has brought them right into the homes of not only the Muhindis but also Africans.

Prof Lodhi quotes a case study of language use among Tanzania’s 85,000 Asians speaking five different Indic languages – Cutchi, Gujarati, Punjabi, Konkani and Urdu in descending order of numbers. This linguistic data collected in Dar es Salaam by Kassam (1971) indicated that about 40% of the Cutchi Sunnis, and almost all other Cutchi speakers (Shia Imami, Ismaili, Hindu and Jain), were literate in Gujarati, due to their Gujarati medium primary schools. Most Asian Muslims of all denominations could read Koranic Arabic. They used Cutchi in 52%, Gujarati 14.5%, Swahili 7.3% and English 26% of their working situations.

At least 13% of the Muhindis (all Muslim) claimed they spoke Swahili at home; and the Tanzania Library Survey (Hill 1969) showed that every tenth borrower in all the libraries of the country put together was Asian. The Dar es Salaam survey may be taken as representative of the whole country, but certainly not for the rest of the East African region in which Swahili and English are the dominant languages among the Asians today, according to Prof Lodhi.

The Hindu and Jain communities are jointly referred to in Swahili as Baniani; this comes from the Hindi word Bania; the Sikhs are called ‘Kala Singha’ and Hindu Punjabis termed as ‘Kanjabis’. Since a large number of Muhindis left East Africa for the West from the late 1960s onwards, other Muhindis from South India have arrived to fill executive and IT positions with more Cutchis, Punjabis, Gujaratis and Maharastrans. So South Indian languages are spoken by these micro South Indian communities at home but words from them have not percolated into mainstream Swahili.

If some scholar has the initiative to embark on compiling a list of Swahili words with Indian roots from such diverse areas as architecture to zoology, it would indeed be very interesting indeed.

* * *

Dr APJ Abdul Kalam:

A Scientist, A Spiritualist, A Poet and above all, A Humanist

“The religious man is one-dimensional, just as the scientist is. Albert Einstein is one-dimensional, so is Gautama the Buddha. And between these two a few artists exist who have something of both the dimensions. The true man will be all three simultaneously: he will be a scientist, an artist, and religious. And I call the fourth man the spiritual man,” says Osho.

Dr APJ Abdul Kalam was a scientist who read spiritual books, wrote poetry, played the stringed instrument called Veena, and made his mission to teach and inspire the young generation for excellence.

Thus there could be no better person than the former President of India, Dr APJ Abdul Kalam to whom Osho’s two-volume set, ‘Einstein The Buddha’, published by my friend KPR Nair of Konark, should be gifted. His was my first thought when given the opportunity to meet him in 2006. When he was presented with Osho’s vision of Einstein The Buddha, he said, “Yes, I know about Osho and have read him. Thank you.”

This happened at a meet with some students and publishers following the launch of one of his books that answered questions from students from all over India who interacted with him on his website.

Always smiling and listening intently to everyone, he responded almost instantly as expected from an outstanding person with a brilliant mind. After the formal presentations, we moved to another hall next door where tea was served. Now he was even more informal and went over to talk to almost everyone. When he came over, I asked him about Osho’s thinking and he said it was out of the ordinary and provided new understanding.

Earlier, he met 14-year-old student, Sudarkkadi, from Kalapur, Vellore district of Tamil Nadu, who was brought in by Mr KPR Nair, the publisher of Kalam’s biography, ‘Who is Kalam?’ In a Tamil monthly for children, she elicited the best response from Dr Kalam to her question, ‘Please rank yourself among the following: Scientist, Tamilian, Human Being and Indian.” His answer was, “One can find all three in a Human Being.’

Earlier, on 13 June 2003, she went to Delhi to receive the first copy of a biography, ‘Who is Kalam? A Good Human Being’ by the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as she had contributed to the selection of its title thanks to her question. When it came to be known that she needed help to complete her studies, a number of generous persons offered to finance her studies. Today, she is Dr Mrs Sudarkodi Sukumar. Now 28 years old, she works at IIT Madras after her PhD from National University Singapore.

Focused on India 2020, as a real time futurist, Dr Kalam always motivated the youth. In 20 years, he had personally met 16 million young Indians. Everyone who met him was given a small card with his photo and a quote by him.

“Indian youth is energetic and less biased and above all, they have the urge to live in a prosperous, safe and peaceful developed India. Now, Indian youth are asking, ‘What can I do to transform India into a developed nation?’ This is a great sign for me,” said Dr Kalam.

Kul Bhushan worked as a newspaper Editor in Nairobi for over three decades and now lives in New Delhi

  • Published in print edition on 31 July 2015

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