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Undergrads, high schoolers invited to participate in tuition-free Swahili program


This summer, Ohio University’s Center for International Studies and the Department of Linguistics will be hosting an intensive elementary Swahili program over the course of four weeks beginning on July 5. The course is a great learning opportunity in a fun environment, and it is being offered tuition-free.

The program is accepting applications until June 10 from undergraduates at any institution as well as high school students from the surrounding school districts. Students who enroll will learn about African economics and culture and take part in three field trips, in addition to learning Swahili.

OHIO faculty and staff members Peter Githinji, Catherine Cutcher and Peter Mwangi received grant funding for the program from STARTALK, a program of the National Foreign Language Center at the University of Maryland. The support from STARTALK will cover in-state tuition and fees for 20 students who will attend this summer’s program, along with the costs for books, meals and three field trips.

Mwangi, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Higher Education and Student Affairs in the Patton College of Education and Swahili language teaching assistant, will serve as the primary instructor of the program. He will have support from Cutcher, assistant director for global studies programs at the Center for International Studies, and several teaching assistants and cultural consultants.

Once students complete the summer program and the online work assigned during the fall semester they will earn four hours of college credit for Elementary Swahili I, SWAH 1110.

Swahili is the official language of the East African Community, the regional intergovernmental organization of the Republics of Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania. Swahili is also spoken in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique and Somalia. Currently, there are approximately 100 million people around the world who speak Swahili. For anyone interested in traveling to eastern or central Africa, knowing Swahili would be invaluable. 

Students accepted in the Swahili STARTALK summer program will attend class Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., with scheduled snack breaks in the mornings and afternoons and a lunch break around noon. In the mornings students will learn Swahili vocabulary and grammar; in the afternoons they will learn about African people, society, economics and culture. During lunch, students will spend time with the two program teaching assistants and converse with them in Swahili.

The program will be as interactive as possible, and all activities are meant to reduce anxiety about speaking Swahili, Mwangi explained.

“We want them to have a community of learners learning from each other,” Mwangi said.

The instructors will also be taking students on trips to the Hocking Hills, The Wilds, and to visit the Somali and Swahili-speaking communities in Columbus as part of the course. Additionally, the instructors will simulate a typical East African open air market.

During the trip to The Wilds, which is east of Zanesville, students will experience what it would be like to go on a wildlife safari in East Africa alongside native Swahili speakers.

The hike in the Hocking Hills will offer students the opportunity to stretch their legs outside of the classroom while learning about the land and nature. 

“When I think about my experiences in Kenya and Tanzania, we spent a lot of time hiking and working outside with local people. I think it’s a good opportunity to learn about the environment outside of the classroom,” Cutcher said.

The field trip to Columbus will give students the opportunity to visit African immigrant communities, specifically Somali and Swahili-speaking communities. Students will be meeting with Columbus Refugee and Immigrant Services (CRIS), an organization that assists immigrants and refugees, many of whom are Somali or Swahili-speaking people. They will also talk with Ohio University alumni from the Somali community.

Students will also visit the Masjid Abubakar Asiddiq Islamic Center where they will learn about how the Arabic culture and language and the Islamic religion have influenced the Swahili culture and language.

The Global Mall on Morse Road will be another stop on the field trip. Often referred to as “Little Mogadishu,” the global mall is a Somali shopping mall where people can buy African clothing, grocery items and many other things.

Finally, students will eat at Hoya’s Kitchen, a Somali restaurant where students can experience traditional African food and culture.

Mwangi also plans to simulate an open air market as part of the course in order to teach students how to shop for necessities and how to barter.

Unlike in the United States, there are not many malls in East Africa. When someone needs to go shopping, they go to an open air market, much like a flea market. 

The prices of items are never fixed; they may have price tags, but the prices are always negotiable. 

“If you pay someone the price that is on the price tag, you are obviously a tourist,” Mwangi said.

Mwangi wants to teach students how to thrive in this type of culture. The ultimate goal of the program is to prepare students to travel to Africa, so learning to barter and knowing what to expect and what you can buy at an open air market is an important skill for students to learn.

Another goal of the program is to prepare students to take Elementary Swahili II, SWAH 1120, the following spring. In order to help students retain their knowledge over fall semester, Mwangi has planned assignments and assessments that they will need to complete online. 

The Swahili program will take place from July 5 to Aug. 5 and applications are due by June 10. For more information on the program and to apply, click here.

STARTALK, whose slogan is “start talking,” is an organization that seeks to increase the number of U.S. citizens learning, speaking and teaching critical need foreign languages.