African Americans And Native Speakers Keep Swahili Language Alive

Jun 13, 2014

RadioActive Youth Producer Leija Farr
RadioActive Youth Producer Leija Farr
Credit KUOW Photo

RadioActive’s Leija Farr grew up celebrating Kwanzaa, the year-end celebration that started in 1966 as a way for African Americans to connect with their African heritage. The Swahili language is at the heart of the celebration. As Leija discovered, that language connects her with new immigrants from parts of Africa. Like Leija’s community, native speakers are grappling with how to keep the language going. Here’s Leija’s story, in her own words.

Kwanzaa is a lifestyle for me. I find beauty in the oddest places: the smell of the fire as it lights the mishumaa saba, or candles, the pouring of the water as we welcome ancestors into the room. While everyone looks forward to Christmas, I’m more excited about the day after when the week of Kwanzaa begins. 

The kikombe cha umoja which is the cup used in Kwanzaa to pour libations.
The kikombe cha umoja which is the cup used in Kwanzaa to pour libations.
Credit Leija Farr

As part of our celebration, we place items on the table that we call by their Swahili names. The mkeka (mat), kinara (candle holder), kikombe cha umoja (unity cups), mazao (crops) and zawadi (gifts).

I’ve always thought Swahili is a very pretty language. As my grandmother Corinne Farr puts it, “It's very melodic. It has soft tones to it.”

Everyone does not feel this way. I had a friend back in elementary school who was a native speaker of Swahili. He said he didn’t speak his language because he felt it was "uncool."

That word has stuck with me.

Recently, I spoke with my friend Ilhan Ali, 16, who is also a native speaker. "I think it's sad to hear people think it’s uncool," she said.

Ilhan and I are both sophomores at Cleveland High School in Seattle. Our friendship started with Swahili, a language I have adopted and she’s spoken her whole life.

Ilhan moved to Seattle two years ago from Nairobi, Kenya, where she “had to walk almost 10 miles to go to school.” In her new home, Ilhan was very shy. Then one day she heard me chanting a song in Swahili, and the two different worlds we come from became one.

Where Ilhan is from, Kwanzaa is not celebrated. She told me she was honored that people in a different country were speaking her language, and wanted to learn more about Kwanzaa.

In the Kwanzaa celebrations, corn represents children and symbolizes that they are capable of anything.
In the Kwanzaa celebrations, corn represents children and symbolizes that they are capable of anything.
Credit Leija Farr

My father Jamal Farr describes Kwanzaa as “a genuine tradition as opposed to a co-opted one.” He says unlike holidays like Valentine's Day and Christmas that get more and more commercialized, Kwanzaa has remained more true to its roots.

Being able to stay connected to African heritage is one of the many passions my dad has. Ilhan shares this same passion.

“It’s important to keep the language going,” she says in Swahili.

She tells me that her future children will know where they come from. As she puts it, “You have to make them understand why it’s important to continue their culture so that they continue with it.”

RadioActive is KUOW's program for high school students. This story was produced in RadioActive’s Spring Introductory Workshop. Listen to RadioActive stories, subscribe to the RadioActive podcast and stay in touch on Facebook.