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  • Yaa at Talking Drums

Culture | The power of speaking African languages

After years of thinking about it, saying I would do it, and even attempting to self-teach, I finally enrolled on a Kiswahili (or Swahili) language course. Why Swahili? You may ask. Why not? Is my response.

No I am not East African, yes I have been to East Africa, ok... I will wait for you to finish chuckling. I never receive such responses at having to study French for five years at school and still only improving marginally year upon year! Yet a West African wanting to learn one of the most widely spoken languages in East Africa apparently makes no sense. So let me break it down:

I used to find whenever I decided to do something related to Africa - be it travel, expand my literary collection or learn a language - I would be met with lots of confusion, a sprinkle of intrigue and an abundance of questions. Yet should I announce that I intended to spend the summer in Rome or Florence to learn or perfect Italian, no one would bat an eye lid. Thankfully, however, the tide does appear to be changing.

Whilst my first encounter with Kiswahili was through the Lion King (yes! Simba means Lion, Rafiki means friend!), my first real encounter with Kiswahili (known in English as Swahili) was volunteering in Tanzania for three months in 2014. I found the language to be music to my ears, it literally sounded so melodic.

During those three months I picked up Kiswahili quite well, I could hold a conversation, order '14' of most things given that we were a group of 14 volunteers, and also learnt how to say that I was originally from Ghana, to provide people with the answer to their unasked question, written all over their expression - 'why is her Kiswahili like this?' It was through volunteering in Tanzania that I realised what I thought were my obviously West African features were not necessarily that obvious, and that there was a polite expectation that I could speak Kiswahili.

My quest to learn the language properly, that is academically or to understand the rules and syntax, stemmed from a desire to do the same for my mother tongue, Twi. With both languages, I may not be fluent, I may be far from perfect, but the ability to communicate with people, of different ages and backgrounds, fills me with so much joy. It adds to the travel experience, and there is a certain level of appreciation bestowed, when citizens in your host country can see you have made an effort. Yes, they may laugh in your face, but if you bring them joy in return for their welcoming you into their home, then I think you are on your way to repaying them for the privilege.

If you are interested in learning languages from Africa or Asia, check out the language centre at SOAS:

Disclaimer: I am currently affiliated with SOAS. I enrolled on the Kiswahili course prior to this and all thoughts are my own.


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