Studying an African language at U-M not only prepares students for study abroad, research, and volunteer work in Africa, but it also opens avenues for students to reflect on the importance of heritage and connecting with the African continent in a more personal way. Students at U-M have been able to study Swahili on campus since 2008 and will have the opportunity for on-campus study of Yoruba starting fall 2019.
The African Studies Center (ASC) awarded language study scholarships to three students to study Swahili in 2018-2019. Below these students reflect on what drew them to the study of Swahili, and how they plan to use the language in the future.
“Taking an African language allows students like myself to connect with the continent in a way I simply could not in English. Swahili affords me a chance to not just talk about these communities, yet instead, engage and listen to them,” says Maxwell Otiato (BS in Biology and International & Comparative Studies). He plans to use his Swahili language skills to conduct research and develop interventions to support the self-management of chronic diseases among young people in Uganda, and ultimately to engage with communities across East Africa on health issues.
Asha Hill (BS in Sociology) became interested in Swahili as a child because her family was involved in the establishment of an African-focused organization with members that spoke Swahili. She did not have an opportunity to pursue the language until her time at U-M and was thrilled about studying Swahili as a way of reconnecting to her childhood memories. “I was excited because I was going to be able to learn from the perspective of somebody who really knows the culture and language and not from the media.”
Isabell Astor (BS in Computer Science) also saw studying Swahili as a way to connect with her heritage. Additionally, she believes that her Swahili language skills will help advance her career goals. “As innovation rises in East Africa, it is vital for foreigners working with East African companies to learn the language and the culture of East Africans as a sign of respect; when respect is earned, trust across borders can be built.”
Starting in fall 2019, U-M students will be able to study Yoruba on campus in addition to Swahili. Yoruba was added to the African languages program of the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies in response to a 2018 student petition expressing interest in Yoruba as another important heritage language for students with connections to Nigeria, Benin, and the Americas (since Yoruba is also an important language in the African diaspora in many parts of the Americas). ASC provides scholarships to eligible students to study either language.