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Swahili swerves into the internet age

Historic language of East African traders adapts to modern world — it's even on Facebook.

A girl holds a lollipop behind a fence as she watches other children playing on the street below in Zanzibar, Tanzania, Nov. 22, 2007. Tanzania is the most thoroughly Swahili-speaking country in the world and it painstakingly built its identity on the language. (Finbarr O'Reilly/Reuters)

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — Swahili, the language that blossomed hundreds of years ago on the trade winds of the Indian Ocean, splashed into the internet age this June with the launching of the Swahili version of Facebook.

It was only the latest boost for one of the world's most broadly spoken indigenous African languages. Swahili’s caretakers — academics, writers, researchers and politicians — have long dedicated themselves to keeping the language relevant in times of quickly changing technology.

Nowhere is better suited to lead Swahili into the electronic era than Tanzania, the most thoroughly Swahili-speaking country in the world. A steady stream of foreigners comes to Tanzania to study the language, called Kiswahili by its native speakers. In 2004, researchers at the University of Dar es Salaam helped launch Jambo OpenOffice, an open-source Swahili office suite for the Linux operating system. Swahili literature and newspapers in Tanzania are thriving.

In fact, Tanzania prides itself on its Swahili, even to the point of vanity. A local adage says that Swahili was born in Tanzania, got sick in Kenya — where a Swahili patois called Sheng is spoken — and died in Uganda. Since independence from the British in 1961, Tanzania painstakingly built its identity on the language, and it is the only country for which Swahili is both a national and official language.

While many Americans’ exposure to Swahili is limited to "The Lion King," Tanzania’s relationship with the language is more about heritage and history than Disney. (If someone greets you on the streets here with "hakuna matata," he’s probably trying to sell you something. The phrase, which the famous Disney movie made popular, means “no problem” in Swahili, but around here, it’s little more than a lure for tourists.) Swahili instructors do brisk business here, and sometimes export their services abroad.

Yet for all the innovation and seriousness surrounding Swahili in Tanzania, the national language is still negotiating its global role. While scholars develop Swahili words for new technology, colloquial speakers tend to use English derivatives. And although one may meet the occasional Chinese contractor who speaks Swahili, the high-rolling, Swahili-speaking foreign businessperson is unusual.

“Most businessmen who are coming here, they will be doing big business. And in doing big business, it means they meet people who are educated,” said Perpetual Katondo, a training coordinator at Kiswahili na Utamaduni (KIU), an institute that offers language courses in Dar es Salaam. She said English still dominates the elite business world.