As part of their advanced training in Swahili at the University of Michigan, graduate student Margaret Barnard and undergraduate students Olivier Bahizi and Madelynn Carter produced the film “Maisha ya Mama Esperance”/ Life of Mama Esperance. The film’s language is Swahili (with English subtitles), and it documents the life, family, work, and aspirations of “Mama Esperance.” Esperance lives in Ypsilanti with her family after moving to the USA from Rwanda, having grown up in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The film is beautifully shot and highlights a strong connection between the students and Esperance. She documents her daily life in her adopted home, including a broad array of topics such as her new sewing business, her hopes for her family, and adapting to life in Michigan.
The film was produced as part of a Swahili course taught by Nyambura Mpesha, who has been teaching at U-M since 2009. Instruction of and participation in Swahili has grown in strength at U-M since Mpesha first joined, as the university now has two full-time appointments. Mpesha teaches advanced Swahili, while Mwipopo teaches the beginner and intermediate levels. As part of her advanced course, Mpesha encouraged the students to produce the film, which received funding support from the African Studies Center.
Mpesha told ASC that studying Swahili generally, and at U-M specifically, is essential for many different reasons. Some students dream of traveling or conducting research in East Africa, others may have a family or friend from the region, and they want to develop a deeper connection to it. Mpesha stressed the possibilities associated with learning Swahili at U-M. It has opened up some unique opportunities for past and current students who, in addition to learning more about the language and the various cultures in East Africa, have attained impressive jobs after completing their degrees at the university.
This sentiment is shared by two of the film-makers, Margaret Barnard and Olivier Bahizi. Barnard, a second-year Master of Public Policy student at U-M's Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, mentioned that the primary reason she decided to continue studying Swahili “is because I think speaking the language of someone else is the biggest sign of respect you can show. I knew my Swahili was okay, but it got much better under Mpesha’s teaching.” Barnard hopes to continue using her Swahili in the future as she plans to work on USA/East Africa relations. U-M has helped provide this foundation for her as its “Swahili program is top-notch, very organized, and practical.” The short film helps document the students’ proficiency in Swahili, but it also portrays their deep commitment to communicating with Swahili speakers, and as evidenced through Esperance’s comments, learn more about their lives and histories too.
This sentiment is shared by Bahizi, majoring in Film, Television and Media Studies at U-M who told ASC that “the film shows how important it is to speak African languages and to have knowledge of others’ languages. When we made the film, I thought it is good to see refugees being welcomed in the USA and being welcomed by the American people. There are 82 million Swahili speakers in the world, and languages can make bridges between cultures and make people more comfortable with each other…and help create a family of humanity with little means.”
Mpesha expressed pride in her students’ initiative in representing Esperance’s story and emphasizing the doors that learning Swahili can open, both in East African and in the USA. “We are grateful for ASC’s support because they gave us the grant to complete the project in the summer of 2020 during the COVID-19 shutdown.” Mpesha is impressed by the three students who filmed and produced the film and would like to encourage all U-M students to consider studying Swahili and “to know how much they are capable of achieving.” Mpesha also would like to express her thanks again to Mama Esperance, “who told us about her life with courage, and told her story by being so open in the film.”