U event celebrates Swahili language

Swahili Open Day raises awareness of the return of Swahili courses to the U.

Justin Horwath

Chelsie Frank, a global studies and environmental and sustainable environment senior, sat behind a table in the Sabathani Community Center in Minneapolis wearing a traditional African dress and writing basic Swahili phrases for visitors.

As a woman approached Njeri, Frank’s Swahili name, she wrote the words “kar bidu.”

“It means welcome,” she said.

Saturday, the African-American and African studies department sponsored Swahili Open Day, an event ­­­­the University’s only Swahili instructor, Angaluki Muaka, said was held to get the word out to the community that Swahili is back at the University.

The department offered Swahili until recently, when a professor retired from the program. Now, armed with Title VI grant money, a new instructor and student interest, the department will offer the course for at least another three years, according to department chairman Earl Scott. About 50 students are enrolled in the classes.

But dwindling funds might spell the end of the program, Scott said, and he hopes events like Saturday’s will help connect with the burgeoning African community in the Twin Cities.

“I believe it’s a tremendous service to a community to offer a language spoken by a large amount of people,” he said.

About 40 million speak Swahili as a first language and more than 100 million as a second language worldwide.

Swahili is mainly spoken in east African countries like Kenya, Tanzania and Somalia.

The department started offering two beginning Swahili courses and an intermediate course this year.

“We want to attract any student that wants to understand Swahili,” Scott said. “Our overall mission is to prepare students to examine and participate in African culture.”

Frank, who eventually hopes to move to east Africa, said she hadn’t taken a Swahili class before she went to Kenya last semester and has been frustrated because “the University of Minnesota didn’t offer Swahili in forever.”

At this weekend’s event, organizers offered a glimpse at Swahili language and culture.

Beaded bracelets made by members of the Masai Tribe from Kenya sat at one table, while Frank and other Swahili students from the University were teaching common Swahili phrases.

At times the students, wearing traditional African dresses, broke into African dances and songs.

Also in attendance was Maulana Karenga, the creator of the African holiday Kwanzaa, which focuses on African pride and values.

Intrigue and controversy has followed Karenga since his involvement in the black power movement in the 1960s. His visit to the community center drew a crowd of about 75 people.

He also spoke at the University Friday in the Mayo Memorial Auditorium. At both events, Karenga spoke briefly on Swahili, focusing on “the ethics of sharing” on Friday and “Pan Africanism” Saturday.

Scott said Karenga was chosen for the event because “he transcends those communities – African and African-American.”

At the community center, Karenga, now a California State University professor, spoke passionately on the role of language in culture.

“One of the things you have to learn about African language is that they’re collectively focused,” he said. “The language teaches values.”

Sitting in the auditorium was Regina Jackson of Minneapolis, waiting for Karenga to speak.

“I was just real excited because I have celebrated Kwanzaa for 10 years,” she said.

Jackson added that she hasn’t seen Swahili taught since a class was offered at her middle school.

“It was fun identifying with African culture,” she said.