Swahili studies - in a doughnut shop?

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

It's 9 p.m. on a Monday, and Voodoo Doughnuts - the all-night doughnut shop that stands on a corner in downtown Portland, Ore. - is looking like a classroom.

In one corner of the tiny store, eight people sit on wooden benches, eyes fixed on a small chalkboard displayed just under a listing of doughnut varieties.

The store won't open for business for another hour yet. But that doesn't bother these patrons. Their interest is not in pastry but in Swahili lessons.

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Even as three women steadily churn out doughnuts at the deep fryer, instructor Abdi Muhina carefully chalks watoto awu (Swahili for "children") on his makeshift blackboard.

Moments before, Mr. Muhina, who is still in his teens, had passed around the room a book entitled "Songs and Stories from Uganda."

There are no grades, exams, or fees associated with this class. Students and teacher alike are drawn here simply by enthusiasm for Swahili.

Free Monday night Swahili lessons at Voodoo Doughnuts began in the fall of 2004 when Jay Rubin, a fryer at the doughnut shop who had studied Swahili while he was a student at Boston University, started offering lessons in the hour before the shop opened at 10 p.m.

When he gave up teaching last January, Muhina picked up where Mr. Rubin had left off.

Muhina, who was born in Tanzania and who grew up in Kenya, moved to the United States a year ago, where he is now enrolled in high school.

He hopes to attend a four-year college next fall and then go on to medical school to become a doctor. He plans to return to Africa eventually.

But for as long as he can during his tenure in the US, Muhina plans to continue offering free Swahili classes in the doughnut shop. His goal? To help spread knowledge of Swahili, the language he loves.

Each class Muhina teaches is a bit different, but all generally include grammar, skits, lectures, conversation, and storytelling in Swahili.

In addition to standard worksheets and textbooks, Muhina teaches his students to translate songs like "Don't Worry, Be Happy" from English to Swahili and to play "Swahopoly" (Swahili-ized Monopoly).

Recently, Muhina's students have also been writing letters to Swahili-speaking pen pals in Kenya. Receiving mail from their African penpals is a huge treat, they say. It's tangible proof that they can actually communicate in Swahili.

Muhina's students have various reasons for wanting to learn Swahili.

Nicole Fraley says she has always felt a connection to Africa, even though she's never been there. "Learning this language is a way of experiencing this land I have thought about so many times," she says.

Others say they plan to travel to Africa.

"I wanted to take lessons because I am going back to Tanzania and want to brush up on my Swahili proficiency," says Michelle Rintelman.

In Muhina's home region of East Africa, many Kenyans and Tanzanians do not speak English, even though it is an official language in both countries. So for travelers to the region, Swahili is a necessity, Muhina says.

Swahili is the most widely spoken African - or Bantu - language, with more than 50 million speakers in East and Central Africa, particularly in Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda.

The word "Swahili" is an Arabic word, which means "people of the coast." It is also called Kiswahili ("kit" is a prefix that means "language").

Swahili includes words borrowed from Arabic, probably as a result of the Swahili people using the Koran written in Arabic for spiritual guidance.

In Kenya, where Swahili was declared the national language in 1974 by the late president Jomo Kenyatta, a new language is now widely used: Swahili mixed with English. It's a tongue that some Swahili speakers worry could eventually replace the original.

Teaching Swahili to English speakers is not easy, says Muhina, because many words in Swahili are concepts that do not translate directly into English, such as kijiwe, which means "a sitting place."

Although Swahili isn't technically an endangered African language like el molo and yaaku - two other Bantu languages spoken in Kenya - there has been worldwide interest in preserving the language.

But for the little band in the Portland shop, concerns are less lofty. They are mostly focused on mastering the rudiments of the tongue and making the most of the unusual evening tutorials.

Taking a class in a downtown doughnut shop is different from any other classroom experience she's ever had, says Ms. Fraley.

"It's a little crazy, but fun," she says. "When people stop in to ask the class for spare change for a lottery ticket ... I see their surprise when they first see the class learning Swahili next to vats of doughnuts being made."

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