The University of Iowa

Swahili popularity increases at UI

May 10th, 2011

By Kirsten Jacobsen, The Daily Iowan

Sara Manos said her favorite Swahili phrase means, simply, “to sleep deeply.”

“Lala fo fo fo,” Manos scrawled in Swahili on a piece of paper late last month.

The University of Iowa African Studies student, who’s in an intermediate level Swahili class this semester, is one of 64 students in the program.

Swahili — known as “Kiswahili” in the language — has been taught at the University of Iowa since 1991, and the program’s increasing popularity has made it one of the largest in the nation, said John Njue, one of the two Swahili instructors at the UI.

But despite the program’s relatively large size, Swahili has received minimal funding from the UI, he said. The UI only offers beginning and intermediate courses with an occasional composition class.

The Language Media Resource Center at Phillips Hall has only one Swahili language instruction resource; the Iowa City Public Library has three.

“The ‘bigger’ languages, they have a lot of resources, a lot of programs, but in Swahili, you’re lucky to have one [edition of] text come out in every five years,” Njue said. “For the students who wish to go further, they have nowhere to go.”

So which UI students would rather greet each other with jambo instead of hola or bonjour?

Njue said many students seek an entirely different language than one to which they’ve been exposed before.

“When you say, ‘I know Swahili,’ it’s an immediate attention-getter and conversation starter.”

“When you ask someone if they speak any other languages, and they say yes, it’s not impressive to hear ‘I know Spanish or French,’ ” said Nicholas Hunsberger, a junior majoring in political science.

But when you say, ‘I know Swahili,’ it’s an immediate attention-getter and conversation starter.”

At the UI, Swahili classes are most often occupied by African American students or athletes, many of whom learned about the subject through word of mouth, Njue said.

Manos suggested that incoming freshmen looking to fulfill the language requirement be given a booklet listing all the applicable courses, allowing them to choose beyond the usual Eurocentric mix.

“I don’t know how many academic advisers are well-acquainted with [the Swahili] program … I think if more students knew about it, more students would be willing to try it,” she said.

Unfamiliarity leads to an ignorance of the culture, she noted.

“People often say, ‘I don’t speak “insert various tongue clickings here,” ‘ ” Manos said. “Many people have no idea where Kiswahili is spoken or by whom … they have no idea what the culture is like.”

Now, the key for interested students will be exploring countries where Swahili is spoken.

This summer, the UI Study Abroad Office will offer its first summer program in Tanzania, which may help eager students advance their Swahili skills while obtaining a unique education.

“Maji usiyoyafika hujui wingi wake,” a Swahili proverb states. “You cannot know the extent of water in a pond that you have never been to.”