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The Swahili Beyond the Safaris and the Maasai

a woman in front of a field

by Katrina Spencer

a map

This map shows a journey from Nakuru, Kenya in East Africa where Dr. Anne Rotich grew up to Charlottesville, Virginia in the United States where she now lives and works. Map Credit: Google Maps

If you saw Dr. Anne Rotich walking about Charlottesville, you might just assume she’s a highly melanated sister from around the way. In actuality, she traveled quite a ways to get here. As a matter of fact, 7,547 miles and some change to be exact. The first born of five siblings in her family, Dr. Rotich grew up in Nakuru in Kenya’s Rift Valley. And for those of us who are geographically challenged, that’s in East Africa– near the fictional kingdom of Wakanda.

Her community was intimate and interdependent and gave meaning to the popular phrase “It takes a village to raise a child.” Her neighbors were her caretakers when her parents were occupied and her parents minded her neighbor’s children in return. Dr. Rotich tells me that her childhood of the 1980s was spent playing outside, unlike a more contemporary generation who may spend more time indoors entertained with electronics. Her schooling abided by a system inherited from British colonialism, which was regimented, requiring uniforms, limited hairstyles, punctuality, obedience, and sharp academic performance. A student’s failure to comply with any of these meant the promise of corporal punishment and public humiliation, which are now outlawed. If the children were not beaten for misdemeanors, they could otherwise face menial forms of labor as punishment like being instructed to uproot a tree, to weed a garden, or to lay a pathway of granite. At times, having arrived late to school, a student could spend the whole day kneeling and not learning at all, she recounts. The British who held power in Kenya from the early 1890s into the 1960s, she shares, subjected Kenyan farm workers to beatings, ergo the trickle down abuse that was also heaped upon the children. Before 2010, when Swahiili became a national language of Kenya, even speaking it at school where English was the language of instruction could earn one a heinous reward! Seeing all this, who would have expected Dr. Rotich to later become a Swahili language instructor? 

At home, Dr. Rotich’s parents spoke Swahili to one another and taught their mother tongues to their children. Her father’s people spoke Kalenjin. Her mother’s people spoke Taita. And the people in her neighborhood spoke Kikuyu! So linguistic diversity is something she has long known. Dr. Rotich, as anyone else might, recalls her childhood’s bitter and sweet notes, acknowledging the pressing social and financial responsibilities of being the eldest girl in her family. She helped to raise her younger siblings and paid some of their school fees once she was able to work so they might pursue education. Her own educational trajectory brought her to the United States in 2005 where she landed in Ohio for graduate school. Though her parents rationed the children’s watching of television at home, the depictions she received of the United States were communicated through shows like Good Times, The Jeffersons, and Days of Our Lives. And the American music she heard included the likes of Michael Jackson, Kenny Rogers,  Dolly Parton, and Mariah Carey. Despite these, perhaps little could have prepared her for Midwestern winters which accompanied her throughout the course of her studies. Kenya had but two seasons: wet and dry. Ohio had delivered at least three frigid gifts: blizzards, snow, and ice.

Having spent over 15 years in the U.S., Dr. Rotich recognizes that the representations of East Africa in the media are limited and unfair. The North American idea of East Africa is mainly from the media and films like The Gods Must Be Crazy, The Lion King, and George of the Jungle, she says, and a thematically narrow swath of documentaries that cover game reserves, the jungle, wildlife, and the Maasai people. What we don’t get as often are broad displays of sprawling metropolises like Nairobi, the “Kenyanized” pilau dish, the mandazi fried bread pastry, or the wry humor, among other cultural manifestations. Dr. Rotich was happy to see Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther and Wakanda Forever, which brought new ways to envision Africa and Africans to the West and Westerners. Other creators who are expanding the world’s imagination regarding East Africa include TikToker and international superstar Elsa Majimbo, known for her sarcasm, and Ugandan comedian Anne Kansiime, known for her skits on marital life. When I asked Dr. Rotich what more she wished Americans knew about the continent, she shared three points to start: 

  • (1) Africa is diverse. 
  • (2) There was a slave trade in East Africa, too, in addition to West Africa, which is known as the “Indian Ocean Slave Trade.”
  • (3) East Africa has been part of a global trade system for centuries, and the Swahili language, an admixture of Arabic, indigenous Bantu languages, and loan words from a variety of other source languages, is its cultural byproduct.

We may need a plane to take us 7,000+ miles to capture the diversity of the African continent. And we may need additional reading material to learn about the Indian Ocean Slave Trade. But we don’t have to cross the Atlantic for exposure to the Swahili language. We have a community of speakers right here in Charlottesville. Many of the local speakers of Swahili, Dr. Rotich tells me, are refugees, people displaced, in this case, due to war. This group is populated with people of all ages who come from the Congo, Burundi, and Tanzania, and are now making Charlottesville their home. Dr. Rotich recommends engagement with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) for anyone interested in getting to know local Swahili speakers. It is through volunteering with this organization that Dr. Rotich’s students from the University of Virginia partake in community engaged-learning, namely the translation of needed documents for resettled residents from East Africa. Another possibility is the pursuit of Swahili language training through the local language center Speak! Or Duolingo. Dr. Rotich (ajr6y@virginia.edu), too, is willing to offer contacts for tutors and teachers as well.

So whether you want to learn a new language or lend your neighbors’ a hand, know that you have both options here in this tiny but big town of Charlottesville, and your first Swahili-language conversation, beyond the well known “hakuna matata” (“no worries”), may go like this:

You: Habari gani? (How are you?)

Your new friend: Nzuri! (I’m good!)

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