Bill's mom Dawami just happened to mention it this week, while we were chatting. Since Bill came to America two years ago, refugee agencies, school officials, and teachers have thought English was his second language and Swahili - his parents' only common language - his first.
Initially, he struggled with English; last year, ICS teachers saw his frustrations with the language move him, relatively often, to tears. But now he chatters with his friends and fights with his brother Igey in English, using it so handily that his mom insists the boys speak only Swahili with her, for fear they'll forget it.
Now I learn that their difficult first year in American school - Igey in kindergarten, Bill in first grade - wasn't the first time either boy had been to school. In Mkugwa Camp in Kibondo, in Western Tanzania, where they were born, both of them attended school: Bill for two years when he was 6 and 7, and Igey for one year when he was 5. Because the camp was a special one, devised as a haven for mixed Hutu-Tutsi couples fleeing Burundi, most of the other folks there were Burundian. (I haven't yet gotten to the bottom of why Dawami, Tanzanian but widowed by a Rwandan Hutu, and Hassan, Congolese, ended up there - or even if they know why.) So the camp school, where Bill first learned his numbers and alphabet, and began to spell and read, was taught in Kirundi, a primarily Burundian language of which his parents speak only a few words. By chance, one of ICS's three Kirundi speakers - Janine Ndayaremwa - is the teaching assistant in Igey's first grade class this year.
That's what makes this project so different from any reporting I've ever done: talking with children, and with adults across a significant language barrier, the story comes out in dribs and drabs and occasional bombshells. Suddenly, a long-held, or even much-discussed assumption is shattered, and Bill's thought-to-be-dead paternal grandfather is resurrected (as happened in August), or Bill himself may be stuttering from the strain of processing English words through Kirundi and Swahili - and back again.The latest print story in the series about his Bill's school appears today.
Also, remember, if you'd like to ask Bill a question, I'm interviewing him for an audio report in early November and am taking questions from readers, posted to this blog or emailed to email@example.com. He and I read the first batch of your questions together last night, and he was thrilled.