Post-Program Reflection

Reflecting back upon my language learning experience in China, the rate at which we learned was astonishing. While abroad, every day was spend fully immersed in the Chinese language, so that even when class was not in session our opportunities to practice our language skills were abundant. By using these opportunities to talk with locals and learn more about their way of life, myself and my classmate were able to better integrate ourselves into the culture of China. There were certainly incidences in which Chinese culture seemed strange or backwards to me, but I always tried to enter a situation with an open mind. Beyond gaining exposure to an unforgettable number of experiences, my time in China allowed my Chinese ability to improve by leaps and bounds. My fluency has reached greater heights and after my time in China I can easily discuss complex social topics. Overall, my Chinese improvement exceeded what I imagined possible.


I am exceedingly grateful to have had the opportunity to travel to China and continue to learn a language that I am exceedingly passionate about. Perhaps the greatest effect that this program had was teaching me to not be afraid and push outside of my comfort zone. Everyday I was faced with challenges and new experiences that I could have easily ignored, but I chose not to and as a result created some of the best memories in my life. To anyone even thinking about applying for an SLA grant, I urge you to do it. As cliche as it sounds, study abroad truly does change your life. Everyday should be treated as an adventure, a chance to go out and experience something amazing. Study abroad opportunities should be cherished as some of the best parts of your youth.


Now that I have arrived back at Notre Dame, I will continue to take Chinese classes each semester to maintain and continue to improve my proficiency. Beyond just continuing to learn in the classroom, I hope to someday get an internship or even a job in China. Since high school my future career and Chinese have been intertwined, something that I do not see changing anytime soon. It is my wish to continue my Chinese language education for the rest of my life. Until I can reach those aspirations however, I’ll continue to practice Chinese with my friends and siblings. My return from China does not signal the ending of my Chinese education, merely the beginning of a new chapter.

Post-Program Reflections

I am very grateful for the opportunity to study Swahili in DRC thanks to the SLA Grant and the Amani Language Initiative. Engaging with communities in Goma really helped elucidate not only the context and nuance in the language learning process but also provided a glimpse into local worldviews and meanings. I particularly enjoyed getting to know university students and volunteering at ULPGL exchanging ideas in French, English, and Swahili. I feel that I reached some of my language learning goals that I set out before the program in terms of identifying local idioms that are relevant to my research. However, one of the challenges I faced was distinguishing between Congolese Swahili and Kiswahili as well as slang Swahili and formal Swahili. It was especially hard for me as I had to juggle with French as well. I did not anticipate having to focus my attention on learning one language while needing to speak another depending on the setting.

I highly encourage the SLA study abroad experience. To learn a language the best thing one can do is to go to a country that speaks that language and immerse into the culture. I would suggest students to keep a language journal with them at all times. Having a journal where you can quickly jot down a word you don’t recognize or a song lyric that catches your attention could come in handy and expediate the learning process. I would also encourage students to live with people who don’t speak English so you can practice the language daily.

My summer language study abroad experience has been very useful, giving me an insider view into everyday life in Congo. My language learning experience helped facilitate cross-cultural communication and enabled me to build rapport with my interlocutors. The SLA grant and language skills I learned during this summer has built the foundation necessary for me to complete my dissertation research in the Great Lakes region of Africa. I intend to continue advancing my language fluency in Swahili by private lessons and independent study. I also look forward to continue taking classes at the Amani Language Initiative upon my return to Congo. Thanks to the generosity of the SLA grant, I am able to move forward with my doctoral research and career.

French, KiSwahili or Congolese Swahili?

Before I came to Congo, I thought that my French language skills would come in handy and I would be able to communicate easily with people since French is the official language of the country. However, a harsh reality hit me when I realized Gomatriciens or those living in Goma prefer to speak Swahili. Only 46% of the population can read and write in French (OIF 2014). At church, at the market, at the workplace, and in everyday life, Swahili is spoken more commonly and frequently. French is usually reserved for official meetings. Stewart, my Kiswahili instructor explained that if you cut the country down the middle, the East speaks predominately Swahili and the West speaks Lingala.

My first day in Swahili class at the Amani Language Initiative, Stewart and I had a good laugh. Well, mostly Stewart. As the founder of both the Amani Language Initiative, a training center that teaches Swahili, French, and English classes as well as the head of a non-governmental organization, Stewart had just won a Young African Leaders fellowship. As he told me about his award and travel plans, I congratulated him in Swahili by saying, “Hongera!” All of a sudden, Stewart burst out in uncontrollable laughter. I couldn’t understand what was so funny. After a few minutes, Stewart explained that hongera is a very formal Swahili term and he didn’t expect me to use it let alone know it. This was my first lesson in Swahili—the Kiswahili I had begun to learn the prior semester was completely different from Congolese Swahili.

Congolese Swahili uses a mixture of Swahili, Lingala, and French. For example, the response to “biko aye?” which is the common way to ask how are you or what’s up in Congolese Swahili is “iko bien.” Bien is a word in French signifying good. There are many of these phrases that borrow from French, Lingala, or even English. Examples are daktari, volkano, penseli, etc. So I was faced with a difficult decision in my Swahili classes—whether to continue learning Tazanian/Kenyan Kiswahili or Congolese Swahili. What complicated matters more was that French was the fall-back language. So if I didn’t understand something in Swahili, it would be translated in French. My brain had a ball trying to disjoin the three languages and be productive and eloquent in at least one!

The Market and Everyday Life in Goma


One of my favorite things to do when exploring and learning about my new surroundings is visiting the market. My first week in Goma I decided to go to a market near my neighborhood that I had heard about. I got directions from a friend, grabbed some empty plastic bags, and headed towards the lake. I turned left into a wide cobble-stoned street that had a slight incline. Motorists, cars, and pedestrians all juggled past each other. Along the road were small shacks, barbershops, and people selling tomatoes and onions. As I got closer to the road of the market, there was more activity as people came and went, trading their goods. There were young girls trekking yellow jugs of water from the lake up the hill and young men carrying goods to and from the market. There was a large crowd gathered outside one of these little shops. As I peeked inside, I could see a small television screening a movie in French. With intermittent electricity, this was the only chance young kids could watch a movie on their Saturday. I continued the walk up the hill and wondered how much further I had to go. I greeted passer-bys with the colloquial Swahili greeting, Jambo. Some returned the greeting, Jambo sana or greeted me in French. I asked a group of teenagers selling Airtel money on the corner, where the market was and they said I had to keep going straight and follow the curves of the cobble-stones.

As I made one final turn, I could see the main road on the other side as the place burst with activity. I reached the market, a large outdoor opening with wooden awnings and rows of sellers. There were rows dedicated to herbs and plants like tshitekutaku, a spinach-like green, pumpkin leaves, cabbage, and spinach. There also rows of bell peppers, tomatoes, onions, carrots, and potatoes. Most of these vegetables came across the border in Rwanda. My favorite was the fruit aisle filled with mangoes, tangerines, and avocado. The women selling the products spoke in Swahili and broken French so it was a perfect place to practice my Swahili language skills. The market wasn’t just one single entity. There were ladies selling chickens, brooms, and fabric all along the market street. Groups of young children crowded the market to sell plastic bags to customers. There were also ladies walking around with large, round baskets on their head selling sambasa, a local freshwater fish. All along the road was dried cassava, a starch used to make a Congolese speciality, ugali.

After buying my groceries and chatting with the children, I made the trek back. When I returned, my housemates were surprised that I had gone alone and by foot to the market. They explained how it was unsafe to venture into neighborhoods alone without someone from the community accompanying me and began to tell me stories of muzungus being targeted and attacked by street children. This was hard for me to hear because the way you get to know a community is by visiting, talking, and trying to follow daily practices as lived by the local population. I reflected on Congo’s long history of outsiders, namely UN and military officials, and their exploitation and at times harming of civilians and realized many people don’t want to welcome outsiders into their communities. I didn’t want to go to the muzungus market, which is conveniently located in the center of town and mostly caters to expatriates. The beauty of learning a new language is hanging out in outdoor markets or the local restaurant, getting a feel for the everyday lives of the people of Congo.


Lokua Kanza Concert

Today I went to a Congolese concert with my friends in Goma. We were really luck to see Bukavu-born singer song-writer Lokua Kanza. The concert was held outdoors at the youth center. Young kids were standing at the back while older folks were seated in white lawn chairs awaiting the famed artist. Raw Bank, the largest national bank, was hosting the event. The stage was decked out in Raw Bank’s paraphernalia and anniversary celebrations. Before the main act came on, we were serenaded by a young female artist and back-up dancers. There was also a comedian that had the audience roaring in laughter. I could catch some simple words and phrases in Swahili, but I lacked the fluency to understand the nuance of his jokes. I wrote down a few of phrases I heard to take to my Swahili teacher so I could master.

Suddenly, the lights went down and there was cheering and pride welcoming Lokua on stage. As I mentioned in a previous post, Congolese are talented polyglots and Lokua is no stranger to languages. He sang soulful ballads in French, Swahili, Lingala, Portuguese, and English. My favorite song was Mutoto, which means dream. It is a touching song that roughly translates to, “night is falling, with the many troubles of today, go to sleep because tomorrow is a new day.”

Usiku inafika, tot’a mam’inapash’ulale

Duniani maneno, tot’a mam’inapash’ulale

Toto wa mama, usiku inakuja umuzikawejo

Usiku inafika mtot’a mam’inapash’ulale

Duniani maneno tot’a mama inapasha ulale

Hapa dunia ni mambo mengi mtoto’a mama

Mapendo ndo mwisho mungu alituomba

Usiku inafika tot’a mam’inapash’ulale

Duniani maneno toto a mama inapasha ulale

Mtoto wa mama mlale

Traditional Healers

As a medical anthropologist I have a vested interest in understanding cultural conceptions of health and illness and the different avenues and tools people turn to for care and well-being. Traditional healing is regarded as one of the oldest forms of medicine and used to be an integral part of agricultural societies. Traditional medicine involves the use of herbs, plants, animal or mineral-based medicines, energetic therapies, and/or somatic techniques. When I got to Goma, I didn’t realize how much of a prominent role traditional healing played in Congo. I remember my friend in Uganda telling me that her family drove her nine hours to Congo to see a traditional healer because nothing was working and Western biomedicine wasn’t helping her. I asked my Congolese friends if they had ever visited a traditional healer or knew anyone who did and the majority explained that they usually went to the healer as a second option. “If the doctors in the hospital can’t help or if the hospital fees are too expensive, we go to the healers.” After meeting Dr. Pascal, a pharmacist who integrates healing remedies with biomedical treatments, and hearing about his cutting-edge research on treating malaria with a local herb, I wanted to hear more about his story and the work of traditional healers in Congo.

He introduced me to an older lady who has practiced traditional medicine for over ten years. She only spoke Swahili so with the help of Papa Pascal, I was able to ask her some questions. She explained that a Congolese doctor trained in London, Father Cyrille, came to her village when she was young and recruited people who were interested in learning the methods of traditional medicine. She reflected how special it was because he didn’t care about identity, ethnic background, or whether you were rich or poor, young or old –just people who were interested in learning a vocation that helps people. She took the opportunity and left the village. After extensive training with Father Cyrille, thousands of people came to her for help. She explained that most people first go to the hospital and then come to her. She explained people come to her for stomach ailments, malaria, high blood pressure, hemorrhoids, fibrosis, prostate problems, urinary infections, and birthing issues. Some of the herbs she uses are: locomost for trouble sleeping, capsine for kidney issues, sedatox for nerves and insomnia. When biomedicine fails, people rely on traditional medicine, especially with chronic or difficult cases. She explained that traditional healing has become a lucrative job and now many young people are trying to bring roots and herbs to sell on the street. It’s a way to survive, but some of them are not trained.

A few weeks after my meeting with the traditional healer, I started seeing signs advertising traditional medicine along the streets of Goma. This was a rare sight to see because traditional healing was something that was kept discreet due to the stigma around it. The signs around Goma was a testament to people’s need for care and support in an uncertain and precarious environment.

Gorilla Trekking with Friends (kuongezeka sokwe na marafiki zangu)

The world’s largest ape species can be found in Democratic Republic of Congo. The eastern lowland gorilla, also known as the Grauer’s gorilla is the largest of the four gorilla subspecies and can only be found in the Kahuzi-Biéga National Park in the eastern region of the country. The park is named after two extinct volcanoes, Mount Kahuzi and Mount Biéga and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Due to widespread insecurity, poaching, and the presence of armed groups in the park for the past 20 years, Grauer’s gorilla have been critically endangered.

My good friend, Dominique, founder and director of Strong Roots, works tirelessly with local and indigenous communities to find sustainable strategies for the development and conservation of Kahuzi-Biega National Park and the people living around the park. I have always wanted to see the gorillas but didn’t want to be just another tourist visiting the park and neglecting the local communities living on the boundaries of the park. When Dominique offered the incredible opportunity to accompany him and his team, Sarah, and Beatrice to go to Kahuzi-Biega, I was overjoyed! We were joined by anthropologist and behavioral ecologist, Dr. Amy, who works very closely with the only habituated family of Grauer’s in the park. We all crammed into the land cruiser with bottles of water and took the 2 hour journey to the park. The bumpy ride showcased the beauty of Lake Kivu, workers breaking volcanic rock to make building material, and vast fields of cassava, maize, and tea.

When we got to the field site, we were met by park rangers who protect the park, L’Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN). One of the rangers lead our trek into the jungle the through dense green. After walking for about twenty minutes, we stopped to listen for the gorillas. We quickly switched directions and after trekking for five minutes, we came upon a group of gorillas basking and napping in the sun. The rangers told us that they had just finished a meal of fruits and leaves. The large silverback was cuddling with his children. It was the most profound experience because we were so close that we could look into their eyes and their gentleness. We sat and stared in awe of these majestic animals. Dominique looked over to me and said, “see how important conservation is?”



My Experience – Q&A

Reflect on your language learning and acculturation during your SLA Grant experience.

   After my experience abroad, I know for a fact that my understanding of Japanese has definitely improved. Other than just learning more about the language itself, I now find it easier to understand what people are saying in Japanese (as well as pick up phrases in the anime I watch) and respond articulately. I had fairly low expectations for my goals in traveling abroad, but knowing how much I have actually improved has made me realize my goals were met far beyond what I could have expected. Studying in another country truly does enhance your mastering of a language, as well as further your understanding of the country’s culture, which in turn emphasizes differences between that country and your own. For me, just simply interacting with objects and people in Japan on a daily basis helped me to engage in the country and language.

Reflect on your SLA Grant experience overall.

   Japan is the third country to which I have traveled abroad to, but it hasn’t been any less of an impactful experience. In fact, since the city I was living in spoke almost wholly Japanese and little English, it may have been one of the most enlightening study abroad trips I’ve been on. It has made me realize that even if people speak different languages, have varying customs, or just generally act differently, we’re all still the same at the core. We all laugh at what we find humorous and have conversations about the strangest topics. Every time I travel, it makes me remember, bit by bit, that the world is a lot smaller than it seems, even while containing about 7.5 billion people. Anyways, other than the philosophical perspective I gained from the experience, it was a great learning opportunity. For those seeking the SLA Grant or considering studying abroad, I highly recommend going somewhere you know you’ll have an interest in and won’t get bored of easily. Every place has something to offer if you take the time to look for it.

How do you plan to use your language and intercultural competences in the future?

   After my study abroad, I planned to take the next level of Japanese language, which is what I’m currently doing. From here, I hope to continue learning Japanese during my time in college, and trying to apply to opportunities that require an understanding of the particular language. A huge possibility I am considering is the JET program, which sends students to teach English in Japan for about two years. Although none of my future plans are set in stone, a possible path I could take includes working in Japan as a teacher if I enjoy my time in the JET program, or working at a company that translates Japanese texts and shows to English. Either way, I hope to integrate my knowledge into my future career, and I have the SLA Grant to thank for allowing me to learn as much as I did and help me find out what I want to use my Japanese for.


Reflections on my time in Russia

My time abroad in St. Petersburg is now, I believe, far enough removed that I can properly reflect on it. First, I will touch on my linguistic experience. I have like have made big strides in my abilities with the language, although I have learned that gaining fluency is not something that will happen passively. Before my program, I laid out five goals for my language learning. My first was to be able to hold a conversation on various topics. By and large, I believe I have met that goal, although I still struggle with understanding spoken Russian. My second goal was to understand both perspectives on U.S.-Russian relations. I have definitely met this goal; from meeting Russian locals to visiting the U.S. Consulate, I have greatly improved my knowledge of the countries’ relationship. My third was gaining ability to read Russian literature. I have not yet tested this, but I believe I am capable. My penultimate objective was achieving 2 semesters’ worth of study during my summer; I believe my time was actually more equivalent to something a semester and a half. My final goal was to gain greater insight into the human experience. I firmly believe I accomplished this, seeing another side of the globe and experiencing new perspectives.

Overall, my SLA Grant experience was extremely rewarding. I have learned how to view the world differently. Most importantly, I learned the outsiders’ view on American exceptionalism. That term has many connotations, both negative and positive; this summer has allowed me to more fully see both sides. This is not to say that I was a blind nationalist before, learning to see American evil; rather, I have learned to recognize both the good and the bad in America, what it represents, and where it stands in the world. I would highly recommend the SLA Grant to anyone considering applying. My biggest advice would be for them to think about more than just the language. My biggest regret, mostly due to the cultural divide, is not making true Russian friends. If you are preparing to study abroad, embrace the unusual and the unique, reach out, and immerse in not just culture, but also language.

Going forward, Russian and my time in Russia will play a large role in my life. I decided against skipping a year of Russian and am currently in Intermediate Russian I, where I can solidify my knowledge of Russian grammar. I am tentatively still going to receive a Russian minor, but I may pursue another study abroad next summer and push to receive a major or supplementary major. Beyond the classroom applications, this experience will help my future career goals. I outlined before the summer how I hope to work in international relations, security, or a similar field, likely in the public sector. This experience, in addition to improving my linguistic abilities, has also gained me an international viewpoint others in my field may lack. Most importantly, this experience will stay with me for the rest of my life. It is possible that I will return to Russia, most likely to Moscow, for study next summer, but it is also possible I may never see Russia or have any such experience again. When, in old age, I look back at my time at Notre Dame, there will be many fond memories, but my study abroad through the SLA Grant may stand foremost among them.