They Learn Swahili. The Community Reaps the Rewards

February 23, 2024 By Alice Berry, Alice Berry,

Nifasha Diomede was far from his country of origin, but the course brought him closer to home.

The second-year University of Virginia student was born in Tanzania, though his family moved to Roanoke in 2008. His parents – and most of the African community in Roanoke – speak Swahili, but Diomede couldn’t speak the language as fluently as his family or the people he grew up around. Signing up for a Swahili language course with associate professor Anne Rotich helped him connect with his parents.

“Being able to converse with them, just about everyday things, is so important,” Diomede said. “I just want to be involved in those conversations.”

Swahili is one of the most commonly spoken languages in east Africa, with more than 200 million speakers worldwide, according to the United Nations. The number of people who speak Swahili swelled in the 1960s as the language became associated with liberation movements in Tanzania and Kenya. The African Union adopted Swahili as its official language in 2004 and the United Nations declared July 7 as Swahili language day in 2022. About 90,000 people speak it in the United States, and many people know Swahili phrases like “hakuna matata,” thanks to Disney’s “The Lion King.” 

Despite the language’s prominence, UVA is one of only about 100 colleges and universities that offer Swahili – out of nearly 4,000 higher education institutions in the U.S.

Diomede’s newly acquired knowledge of the language has enabled him to learn more about his culture, too.

“It’s helped us spend quality time together,” he said.

Related Story

Candid photo of Nifasha Diomede and Daniella Nkere in conversation

Audio: Swahili Conversation(1:04)

In a conversation in Swahili, heritage speaker Daniella Nkere and Diomede bonded over their families’ shared country of origin. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)


When UVA Today visited Rotich's classroom, Diomede was involved in a conversation with Daniella Nkere, a heritage speaker who works in UVA Health’s Digestive Health Center.

“We just learned that his parents and I come from Burundi,” Nkere said, referring to Diomede’s family. “We’ve been bonding over that.”

Nkere was helping Diomede speak Swahili more easily, too – filling in when he didn’t know the Swahili word he was looking for or correcting pronunciation.

The students give back, too. Volunteering to help Charlottesville’s Swahili community is a required part of the class, whether students are translating documents to help Swahili speakers get their driver’s licenses or working with the International Rescue Committee in Albemarle County. It’s one of the ways UVA is working toward President Jim Ryan’s goal of being a good neighbor to the Charlottesville area.

“Sometimes a school needs to send an announcement to parents, and the students will translate that, or they volunteer with the [Volunteers With International Students, Staff & Scholars] program,” which aims to foster cross-cultural connections between domestic and international members of the UVA community, Rotich said. 

After having some instructors teach Swahili part-time, UVA hired Rotich in a full-time position in 2015. Rotich has taught introductory and intermediate Swahili every semester since then, , and enrollment has grown every year.

“I did not imagine the program would become this big,” Rotich said.

The Future of Medicine Just Broke Ground in Virginia | Learn More About What It Means to Be Great and Good in All We Do
The Future of Medicine Just Broke Ground in Virginia | Learn More About What It Means to Be Great and Good in All We Do

Nkere has been visiting the Swahili classes for three years now, a relatively new tradition for her.

“Every time we have these sessions, they’re all different, but also beautiful in their own ways,” Nkere said. “It’s helped me feel closer to UVA.”

For Sierra Martin, the class was life-changing.

The fourth-year student started at UVA during the pandemic. She was alone in her bedroom when she learned her first words in Swahili – “hodi hodi,” which means “knock knock”; “karibu,” meaning “welcome”; and “hamjambo” and “hatujambo,” a call-and-response greeting.

Martin knew she wanted to take a less commonly taught language when she looked through the course catalog of languages offered at UVA. In high school, she remembered learning little about East Africa and thought it would be an exciting opportunity.

“I felt lost coming into UVA, and taking Swahili has opened my eyes and influenced my outlook,” Martin said.

She finished out the course sequence and became a teaching assistant for the Swahili classes. Now a global public health major, Martin hopes to use what she learned from Rotich and the local Swahili-speaking community when she starts her career.

Candid photo of students engaged in the Swahili class
Students in Rotich’s course complete community service for Charlottesville’s Swahili-speaking community. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

Students in the course typically wind up volunteering because of the course, but Mackenzie Durham came to the course because she volunteered.

The third-year student worked at the IRC and started taking Swahili in her second year.

“A lot of the refugees that I work with speak some version of Swahili because they’re Congolese or Sudanese. They speak many languages, but Swahili seems to be the common thread,” Durham said.

With her new language skills, Durham can communicate more easily and connect more deeply with the community she serves.

For Rotich, the class is evidence of what is possible when people come together for a mutually beneficial engagement. 

“It’s hard work, but we’ve done a lot together,” she said.

Media Contact

Alice Berry

University News Associate Office of University Communications