Swahili (2018)

I Didn’t Expect To Learn Swahili

October 2018

I didn’t expect to learn Swahili when I walked into the room. Honestly, I didn’t know what to expect at all.  

Sorry, let me back up.

I was walking into my first day of youth refugee tutoring, unsure of what to expect and how I would be able to relate with the children. I was nervous, because while I had some experience working with underprivileged children in Camden, New Jersey, I had never tried to help individuals who spoke a different language. It turned out that my nerves were completely unnecessary; within minutes I had kids asking me to put them on my shoulders and challenging me to arm wrestling competitions (in which I wasn’t always victorious).

Once tutoring commenced in the classroom, it became clear that each child possessed a different level of English language ability. I noticed one particular child, Joshua, and went over to try to make a connection with him. He didn’t want anything to do with the language practice worksheets on the desk in front of him, so I took away the papers and simply started talking. I didn’t ask questions at first, I just talked. I just narrated anything that came to mind.

But then I started asking him short questions—his favorite color, his favorite food. I channeled my inner Cindy-Lou-Who by putting my hair into a vertical ponytail and his laughter thundered throughout the room. But what Joshua really enjoyed doing was teaching me words in Swahili. I asked him how I would say, “you’re super cool” and “I like dogs” (only the essential phrases, of course). It seemed as though he was so pleased that someone was genuinely interested in trying to learn his language. In the short time that he had spent here in the United States, everyone had automatically expected him to learn English, but nobody had made an effort to communicate with him in his native tongue. The realization hit me that nobody had made an effort to communicate with him in his unique way.

My way of communicating is through music. Some of my strongest relationships and best memories have resulted from using music as a form of communication, therapy and interaction. Writing songs is the way that I interpret the world around me. It’s the way that I make sense of a world that otherwise feels like it’s in chaos. When I feel lost, I write songs. When I feel hurt, I write songs. When I feel anxious, I write songs. Art is my language and I want to share it with the rest of the world.

Relationships are built upon the foundation of meaningful interactions, just like my relationship with Joshua started with making the effort to learn something that mattered to him. I thought I was going to teach English; instead, I became the learner—and that’s precisely the point. The most influential, life-changing experiences are the ones for which you truly have no idea what to expect and therefore you just allow the moment to turn you into a learner.

I didn’t expect to learn Swahili when I walked in the room, but I did. And that experience has changed everything.