America's Unofficial Ambassadors

We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.

The Price of Stability

By Frank Sunderland

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Frank Sunderland is a senior at The Ohio State University. He studies History and International Studies, both with a focus on Africa, and is also working toward a minor in Swahili. He comes from Cincinnati, Ohio where he has lived for most of his life. This summer, Frank taught English as a Second Language to students at Hamamni Secondary School and St. Monica’s School in Stone Town, Zanzibar.  Frank hopes to grow his capabilities with the Swahili language, and learn more about the broader East Africa region. Frank is an avid reader and soccer player/fan. His favorite teams are Arsenal FC and the team of his namesake Sunderland AFC.

If I hop off a plane, whether it be in Zanzibar, Shanghai, Vladivostok, or Timbuktu, I have the assumption that I can communicate with people in at least the simplest of manner. Why? Not because I am a traveled polyglot, but because my native tongue is the one people have come to deem the international language – English. This summer, I am living in Zanzibar to teach English as a second language in local high schools. It is easy to dream of establishing English as the global lingua franca – where a businessman from Ethiopia can speak to a taxi driver in India without any barriers to communication. While we have yet to build our Tower of Babel, leading to the dystopian future portrayed in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, we must still question the comfort of this seemingly simplistic world. As Huxley asks us, what price are we willing to pay for this stability?

Aspects of linguistic collision can be seen in Zanzibar, the heart of the Kiswahili world. Kiswahili, often referred to as Swahili in the West, has its origins in the 2nd century, along the coast of East Africa. The language has since evolved to reflect the unique history of the region. While Europe was experiencing an era commonly called the Dark Ages, the Swahili coast of East Africa was expanding: powerful cities became hubs of trade, the arts, and melting pots of the Indian Ocean world. Kiswahili thus became an eclectic mix of those groups engaging in this arena. The language is syncretic in the way it fuses local Bantu languages and Arabic, the language of the traders who came from the Middle East and made East Africa their home. As European traders and explorers became eager to profit from the trade networks of spices, slaves, ivory, and gold, they too left their linguistic footprint. The start of 20th century saw the evolution of Kiswahili; confronted with the challenges of colonialism, Kiswahili speakers created a new vocabulary, rather than borrowing from English lexicon. Using the Zanzibar dialect, Kiunguja, a standardized form was established for the language going forward. Thus, Kiswahili was just as much a resistance to British occupation, and its cultural imperialism, as any freedom fighter. Today it is the uniting language of East Africa, the official language of Tanzania (including Zanzibar), and spoken by over 100 million people.

There are few better places to experience a “pure” form of Kiswahili language and culture than on the islands of Zanzibar. As someone who has been studying Kiswahili for three years, I am benefiting from the ubiquity of the language. As a white American trying to speak Kiswahili, I still get befuddled looks from Zanzibaris, but not one has been dismissive of me. Conversely, during my time in Arusha—a city in the north of Tanzania— last summer, I encountered a different attitude. I was playing soccer and asked someone their name in Kiswahili. He responded curtly with “I know English,” to imply that I was questioning his intelligence by speaking in Kiswahili. Zanzibar is a bastion in the preservation of Kiswahili, but even here you can see cracks in the foundation. At the secondary school where I teach, teachers repeatedly tell me that the problem with their students is not an inability to understand or a desire to learn, but instead a lack of English. On the first day, many students told me their favorite subject in school was English because it is an international language and important if they want to be successful in life. They were curious as to why I would want to learn a language like Kiswahili if I already possessed fluency in English.

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At some Zanzibari schools, teachers and principals require students to speak English throughout the day. Signs (such as this) are posted throughout the school.

These moments have inspired me to reflect on the role of language in our increasingly connected world. I am in a unique position as a native English speaker where I have never had to think, “If I do not learn a certain language I will not be able to accomplish my dreams.” After my students expressed this disheartening mentality, I wanted to tell them “Forget about English! You speak a wonderful language that is far less obnoxious and illogical than my own.” I believe a balance between English and Kiswahili is attainable, though I fear we may discover that balance after it is too late. I cannot shake the feeling that there is a real danger in prioritizing certain languages. It is a problem when kids get teased for speaking their family language, or being unable to converse in English. It is a problem when we think of non-Western languages as being synonymous with “low class.” It is a problem when parents don’t teach their children their native tongue because they view it as impractical. If language is the foundation of culture, what price are we willing to pay for removing it?

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This entry was posted on September 21, 2016 by in Volunteer Related.
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