Critical Language Scholarship Program | Celebrating Black History…

Celebrating Black History Month with CLS Alumni

In celebration and recognition of Black History Month, the CLS Program is highlighting the perspectives of Black CLS alumni and the ways in which they connected with the African Diaspora and Black culture while on CLS. For Black scholars participating at CLS Program sites with large African diaspora communities, their time on program presented a unique opportunity to reflect further on their identity as Black Americans and connect with Black culture in their host community. The CLS Program asked three CLS alumnae to share their experiences on the CLS Portuguese Program in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and the CLS Swahili Program in Arusha, Tanzania. Read on to hear their perspectives on connecting with the local culture, navigating identity abroad, building lasting relationships with their host families and cohort mates, and more!

Meet Nafi!

Nafi Sall participated in the CLS Portuguese Program hosted by Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Nafi recently graduated from Wheaton College with dual degrees in French and International Relations. Equipped with the knowledge of world languages and a multicultural understanding, Nafi hopes to contribute to crisis stabilization in Sub-Saharan Africa and beyond as a U.S. Foreign Service Officers.

Why Portuguese?

I am a first-generation Senegalese American. My dad is from Senegal and came to the U.S. in 1993. I’m connected to my roots in the U.S. but also deeply connected to my Senegalese side too. The first time I applied to CLS, I applied for the Swahili language. My grandfather speaks Swahili and is also a polyglot, so I wanted to follow in his footsteps. I wasn’t accepted to the CLS Swahili Program, but I decided to apply the next year for CLS Portuguese with the same goal of expanding my language skills. Ultimately, I hope to go into the U.S. Foreign Service working in International Development on crisis stabilization and democracy. It’s something that’s very important to me as a person whose family came from the developing world. I was interested in learning Portuguese to work in Mozambique and Angola but was excited to have the opportunity to study in Brazil and deepen my understanding of another region. I want to have as much language acquisition as possible so I can work in Sub-Saharan Africa as well as other places around the globe.

Connecting with Afro-Brazilian Culture 

There were a lot of different ways that we were able to connect with African culture. In our cohort, many of us were interested in the same exact thing and sought it out. We were very lucky to be in Rio de Janeiro because they had a large population of Afro Brazilians. On one occasion, my cohort mates and I went to one of the areas of Rio de Janeiro that has the largest Black population. We ended up stumbling into a local festival called the Wakanda festival. There was Afro Brazilian rhythms playing and food like pastels and coxinhas (similar to a chicken croquette, a typical Brazilian street food). We took it upon ourselves to find these opportunities to connect with Afro Brazilians. We also had a language partner  who took us on different field trips; one of these was to visit an unknown grave site of enslaved Africans who arrived in Brazil between the 1500s and 1800s. The site is now known as the Memorial of the New Blacks and was transformed into a museum and research center to preserve its history. The visit was an opportunity to learn more about the history of enslaved Africans in Rio de Janeiro. From the 19th century on, Rio de Janeiro became the largest slave city in the globe. We had the chance to interact with the sad and painful parts of Afro Brazilian history as well. More information on the Memorial of the New Blacks can be found here.

Making Local Brazilian Friends Through Language Partners 

I learned so much about Brazilian culture through my language partners. I had the benefit of basically having two language partners because my language partner was best friends with someone who was also a language partner in our cohort. I loved having their two perspectives. There was one specific event that happened every Thursday, and it was for people who were interested in meeting international people or people from the Brazilian community who spoke different languages. We wore different stickers that showed the languages we knew. If you saw someone with the same sticker, you could go up and talk to them in that language. People were really interested in talking to you if you were an American. It was an amazing way of practicing my Portuguese with locals.

Navigating CLS As a Portuguese Beginner

I started CLS at one of the lowest levels of Portuguese. At first that was very intimidating, but I decided to stick with my cohort members who were more comfortable at the language than me. I wanted to get to their level, and they were open to helping me. We each faced unique challenges on CLS, for some of my cohort it was their first time abroad. Connecting over the language and our career aspirations allowed us to build friendships - I still talk to cohort members weekly. 

Missing The Pace of Life in Rio

I really miss the weather— the classes, that structure of the days, our daily three-hour classes that were intensive and interactive. I found that Brazilian culture was so interactive in general, people always going out to hang out with their friends and to talk with each other and share meals. It’s even reflected in the classroom in how everyone interacts with each other in some way. I also find that outside of the U.S., people tend to have more of a work-life balance. And I miss it because I was able to get so much out of it academically but also live life to the fullest at the same time. It shows you can have both.

Words of Advice

Regardless of if you want to work abroad or in international relations, living outside your community is a valuable skill for many aspects of life. Experiences like CLS greatly expand your possibilities in anything you pursue, providing transferable skills. CLS has brought me so much and added so much to my life and broadened the number of opportunities I can apply to. I've applied lessons from CLS to opportunities I never expected, like Fulbright and Peace Corps. Though challenging, I can now confidently seek out experiences in new languages and cultures knowing the difficulties will be worthwhile. I tell others at my school about CLS for this reason - it provides opportunities and the ability to see yourself in different places. CLS grew my confidence to step outside my comfort zone.

Meet Camryn! 

Camryn Allen participated in the 2023 CLS Swahili Program hosted by MS-TCDC in Arusha, Tanzania. Camryn is a graduate student at the American University School of International Service. She is pursuing a career in foreign affairs to diversify and improve U.S. diplomatic ties with developing nations—especially in Africa—by contributing to enhanced refugee and migration policies, development programs, and cultural exchange..

Why Swahili?

My interest in the Swahili language stemmed from a deep-rooted desire to connect on a deeper level with those I sought to help in my own career. I focus on migration governance and have a regional interest in East Africa; whenever I have the opportunity to choose a region for case studies or analytical papers in my master’s program, I am intentional about bringing attention to these countries. Even though I have this interest and intentionality, I felt that there was a gap between my academic and professional work and my cultural and personal experiences with the region. CLS was an amazing opportunity for me to put my money where my mouth is and delve into the Swahili language, which is spoken by at least 14 East African countries. More importantly, this was a chance for me to explore my own identity as an African American woman in an entirely new and lifechanging way.

Connecting Through Black Womanhood

I was able to connect with Tanzanian culture because of my ties to the African diaspora. Oftentimes, while roaming through Arusha or riding the dala dalas [minibuses that are the primary mode of transportation in Tanzania], communities assumed I was Tanzanian or at least African until I spoke my beginner Swahili. 

I found that there was a lot of room for connection when people learned that I was African American; I was especially met with a lot of enthusiasm when I shared that this was my first time on the continent. While sitting in class, I was able to connect with my Tanzanian professors and language partners on a deeper level because we shared the common experience of being Black, and oftentimes of being Black women. In my host family, for example, I lived with two Tanzanian women which was an amazing experience because I learned a lot more about Tanzanian culture and the African diaspora through my exploration of Black womanhood. Just like my grandmother and mother do, my host mother and sister high-fived me when we made a joke; we shared cooking habits; and exchanged different understandings of what it meant to be a woman in Tanzania vs. the United States. There were times where my connection to the diaspora challenged me in unexpected ways as well. 

For example, since I was one of the few African Americans in my classes, and also one of the most novice Swahili speakers out of the CLS group, I put a lot more pressure on myself to learn the language and culture. I was harder on myself for making mistakes and beaming with pride when I received praise from Tanzanians because it all meant much more to me than just completing the CLS Program. I was unfairly testing myself on whether I had the intangible right to claim a connection to the African diaspora. It wasn’t until I decided that who I was, with or without Swahili skills, was enough that I truly started to bloom and excel during my time in Tanzania.

Building Mutual Understanding Between Black Americans and Tanzanians 

I was able to share my Black American culture with Tanzanians primarily through conversing about different cultural ideas and their origins. My language partner and I exchanged many laughs when she asked why Americans eerily smile at her as they pass even when they do not know each other; and when I told my host sister how my first time riding a dala dala [a minibus and the primary transportation system in Tanzania] to school went considering that many Black Americans hyper-value the concept of personal space. Music was also a big way to connect with Tanzanians. Every night while doing dishes, my roommate, host sister, and I would share music we liked and I oftentimes played a variety of Black American artists, from Whitney Houston to Pop Smoke. Lastly, storytelling was a big way of sharing my culture with Tanzanians, whether about my experience as a Black student in the majority White CLS cohort as we travelled through Arusha collectively, or how I was perceived as an African American woman when by myself without my cohort. 

Advice to Future Scholars 

My advice for Black students considering study abroad would include four things:

First, be intentional about reflecting on your experience while abroad. Whether through journaling, meditation, or discussions with at-home or abroad friends, this is key to both getting and giving the most during your experience. Being the most aware and balanced version of yourself allows you to be a better visitor rather than just being someone who extracts from the host community. 

Second, set a few overarching and specific goals for yourself before going and after returning home. There will be times when living and studying abroad is frustrating and moves slowly. Other times, things will fly by. Having a few goals helps to keep you grounded throughout the whole experience. It’s important to remember why you came and how the experience is a part of your larger story. 

Third, enter the experience with little expectations for what the time abroad will be, how it will change you, and what you’ll get out of it. Go into your new environment with an open mind. Besides my professors teaching me Swahili, my Resident Director keeping me safe, and my host family providing me with food and shelter, the host community does not owe me anything, nor you as a traveler/visitor/student. You should be able to graciously accept the good and bounce back from the bad. 

Lastly, center gratitude at the start of everyday. Living abroad while being a student can feel stressful, even monotonous sometimes, especially as a novice speaker with perhaps less confidence at the start. Focusing on gratitude at the start of the day helped me to remain optimistic, aware that this experience is a gift rather than just a stepping stone for my career or life goals. I am grateful for all the good and challenges that came my way.

Meet Serah! 

Serah Njoroge participated in the 2023 CLS Swahili Program hosted by MS-TCDC in Arusha, Tanzania. She also served as a 2023 Digital Ambassador sharing her experience abroad  throughout her CLS Program. Serah is a Communication Disorders Sciences and Services major at Loyola University of Maryland. Serah’s career aspiration is to work with Swahili speakers as a Speech Pathologist.

Why Swahili? 

My upbringing in a Swahili-speaking family sparked my interest in the language. Both of my parents are native Swahili speakers. Growing up in a Swahili speaking environment as a child, I always wanted to learn. When I heard of CLS, I thought, this is a perfect opportunity for me. I’m also a Speech Pathology major and working in East Africa with Swahili speakers is a goal of mine. CLS really aligned with both my personal and career motivations.

Engaging Deeply with Tanzanian Culture

Our program did an excellent job of providing cultural opportunities and various excursions which allowed us to connect with the host culture. Among them, my favorite was the African dancing session, which was incredibly enjoyable with vibrant drumming. In class, we delved into the significance of greetings and forming connections with everyone. We had the opportunity to foster connections with individuals from all walks of life. We even befriended and became good friends with a gardener. CLS did a great job of connecting us with our host families too. I love my host family dearly and they were eager to immerse me in their culture. Whether cooking with my host mom or spending time with my host siblings, every day presented an opportunity to learn more about their way of life. Overall, both at home and at school, we had ample chances to deeply engage with the culture. 

Bonding with Tanzanian Family 

We took a trip to the Snake Park, which was one of my favorite trips because my host mom doesn't like snakes, so it made for fun family bonding time. Every single day, we would just sit at the dinner table altogether - my host sister, the daughter of the person who works on our house who was like another host sister to me, and my roommate from CLS. I loved that despite our cultural differences, we were just teenagers being teenagers. We made TikTok dances together. When washing clothes, we would listen to music. It was a connection that felt like family, like I was at a family cookout. 

Being Kenyan-American in Tanzania 

I think my Kenyan American background was helpful at times but also made aspects of my experience challenging. I had a lot of knowledge about East African culture and saw many similarities to Tanzania, but I also sometimes felt expected to know more because of my background. Even though I grew up around Swahili, I was still a beginner in the language. At the same time, my background kept me focused. I had to also remember to give myself grace. I'm Kenyan American but I'm learning this language like everyone else in the program. Being Kenyan American helps because I can speak Swahili at home with family, which keeps my language skills sharp. When I visit my family now, we speak in Swahili. I have an even stronger connection with my relatives. So even though I felt behind in the program, my background now motivates me to keep improving. 

Bonding Through Shared Experience 

In our cohort, there were six or seven Black American students. From the first week, we made an effort to meet up every Wednesday as a safe space to discuss different topics and things going on. It was a chance for us to really connect. Those were some of my favorite days where we would all sit at a table. It allowed us to have a safe space to connect back to being American but also connect with Tanzania, its history, and what it represents for Black Americans. 

Words of Advice for Future CLS Scholars

I would tell say, just go for it. If you have the opportunity to study anywhere in the world, take it and don't be afraid. I know people are often afraid to go alone, but I'm a big proponent of doing things solo. You don’t need someone to go with you - you'll meet people once you arrive. You'll feel like a different person after each new experience and place you visit. You'll meet amazing people along the way. I don't want anyone to feel shy about going abroad, especially an experience like CLS that is all positive. If you have the time, put yourself out there and apply. The worst that can happen is you get rejected or don't go. My advice is if you want something, do it alone, because you'll never really be alone once you are there. It's just the idea beforehand that's daunting. When I look back at my time in Tanzania with CLS, I think "Wow, I was in Tanzania!" I loved every second of it.

Posted Date

February 29, 2024


Portuguese Swahili

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