South Asians and their descendants, generally known as ‘Indians’ or ‘Asians’ in East, Central and Southern Africa, form less than 1% of the total population of this vast region. Their exodus beginning 1960 mainly to the West, India and Pakistan resulted in the bottom figures in 1986 giving an estimate of about 265 000 in East, Central and Southern Africa (excluding the Republic of South Africa which had about 2 million Asians at that time). Their number in tropical Africa has been reduced and it increases very slowly due to constant emigration in spite of new immigrants from India and Pakistan.
Asians in Eastern Africa are commonly called Wahindi in Swahili and the other local languages, and they regard themselves as North(west) Indians. Monolingualism is generally unknown among them. This phenomenon has two linguistic aspects, viz. multilingualism and diversity, and their various subgroups however are not based on their community language, but rather on their religious and denominational differences and affinities.
General language typology of Asians in Eastern Africa:
a. regional Indic (Indo-Aryan) language at home, mixed with Swahili in many cases
b. classical languages (Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit) as liturgical languages
c. standard languages (Gujarati, Urdu, Hindi), limited use for nursery/primary instruction, private correspondence, etc.
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 Daressalaam 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. Some price tags, lists and shop notices were in Gujarati, while both Gujarati and Hindi were used as written and printed languages. 13% of the Asians (all of them 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 Daressalaam survey may be taken as representative of the whole country, but certainly not for the rest of the region in which Swahili and English are the dominant languages among the Asians today.
Nairobi, 2016. Vol. 13, no 1, 7-13 p.