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?”