|Zanzibar roadside, on Tanzania's Swahili coast|
On a Saturday afternoon when I was in Middle School back in Baltimore, I returned home after taking the SAT’s as part of an academic admissions process. "How did it go, son?" my mom eagerly inquired as I walked in the door, dazed. "Ugh, it was impossible—the test was in, like, SWAHILI or something!" I exclaimed. At that moment, the East African language was the most foreign, unintelligible gibberish I could imagine.
Today, after recently completing Georgetown’s Tanzania Summer Program, I can actually speak and understand a reasonable amount of Swahili, and no longer consider the language’s name a synonym
for "indecipherable." On our first day of classes at the University of Dar es Salaam, when our professor informed us that rather than two genders, Swahili has 15, I and my fellow students all realized that prior experience with Romance languages wasn’t going to get us very far in this language.
Early on, one vocabulary word was permanently ingrained in all our minds. From the first day in Tanzania, we were forced to adjust to living as wazungu, the Swahili word for "Westerners" or "foreigners," which—we had to be repeatedly reassured—was supposedly not derogatory.
Almost two months later, in our last week in the country, a few local fishermen sat staring at a group of us, pointing and conversing loudly, assuming we knew no Swahili. By that time, however, our language skills had improved just to the point that we could be sure that they were discussing how many cattle each girl in our group would fetch as a dowry but—much to the ladies’ frustration—we couldn’t make out just what those quantities were.
The language was not a barrier to my enjoyment of Tanzania for long. In Dar es Salaam, we learned to navigate the chaotic public bus system, adapt to the peculiarities of life with our host families, barter with local merchants, and to spot the monkeys which scampered among the treetops of the university campus. Our experience was not confined to bustling Dar es Salaam, however: we ate freshly caught seafood and wandered the narrow alleyways of the famed spice isle of Zanzibar, visited the missionary outposts of the ancient Arab trading port of Bagamoyo, and gaped in awed reverence at lions, elephants, cheetahs and the numerous other majestic creatures we encountered in Serengeti National Park and Ngorongoro Crater Reserve.
During the second half of the program, at St. Augustine University near Mwanza, a city on the southern shores of Lake Victoria, we studied Tanzanian Politics & Civil Society and East African Ecology, while volunteering with local NGOs.
In Mwanza, as in Dar es Salaam, local residents were eager to introduce themselves, especially while we watched World Cup games together and rooted for the African teams. Tanzanians especially loved to hear our impressions of their country, and never hesitated to share their own views of America, whether informed by fact or—as was frequently the case with children—entirely by what they had seen in rap music videos.
Though of course, my own knowledge of Tanzania's culture and the Swahili language was clearly lacking at that age, too.