Rehema takes Swahili to the world

IS the vibrant mosaic of cultures that make up our global community, one individual stands out as a bridge between continents and languages.

Rehema Majollo, a 47-year-old Tanzanian educator, has woven a tale of cultural preservation and connection through her dedication to teaching Kiswahili, the language of East Africa, to diaspora children in the United States and beyond.

“The burning desire for our diaspora kids to speak fluent Swahili including my own is what inspired me to start teaching Kiswahili in the United States,” Rehema remarked.

Rehema’s journey began in Tanzania, where she was born and raised. Her educational odyssey took her from Mapambano Primary School in Sinza, Dar es Salaam, to Zanaki Girls Secondary School, culminating in her high school graduation at Tabora Girls Secondary School in Tabora. In 1998, she ventured into higher education at the University of Dar es Salaam, majoring in Computer Science.

Foreign country

The turn of the millennium saw her crossing the Atlantic to complete her Computer Science degree in the United States in 2000. This marked the first step in her transformative journey, a journey that eventually led her to a Master’s in Education, specialising in Curriculum & Instruction from Sam Houston State University. Rehema’s professional evolution is a testament to her passion for education and cultural preservation.

Initially a mathematics teacher in the Houston public schools, she experienced a significant career shift driven by a burning desire to ensure diaspora children spoke fluent Kiswahili.

“This shift came with its own set of challenges, including leaving a secure full-time job. However, my joy of witnessing children embrace Kiswahili became a powerful motivator to me and the parents,”she narrated

The establishment of Habari Academy

The genesis of Habari Academy, Rehema’s brainchild, occurred during the intense days of the Covid-19 pandemic in the summer of 2020. Quarantined kids, seeking engagement, found a haven in Rehema’s virtual Kiswahili classes.

“The response was overwhelming, drawing students not just from Houston but from all corners of America and Canada,” said Ms Rehema. As the demand soared, Rehema dedicated herself entirely to the academy, realising the potential impact of her efforts.

The diverse student body at Habari Academy reflects the global diaspora, with children and adults from various nationalities and backgrounds. While Rehema welcomes all, it’s the diaspora kids, primarily from Kenya and Tanzania, who form the core of the academy.

The goal, however, extends beyond borders, reaching out to communities across the US and Canada. Unique stories from Rehema’s classes highlight the impact of Kiswahili beyond the virtual walls. Parents share videos and feedback on how their children apply Kiswahili in schools.

One standout example is a parent sharing how their child used Kiswahili in her application to a prestigious secondary school, emphasising the unique value the language brings to the table in a diverse society.

Rehema’s commitment to cultural enrichment goes beyond language. Students at Habari Academy delve into East African foods, such as ugali and learn about various aspects of Tanzanian culture, including the Masai people.

Virtual tours and cultural insights provide familiarity with East African countries, instilling values like respect expressed through words like “shikamoo.” The cultural aspect, according to Rehema, fuels enthusiasm among students. Stories of cultural emulation from students’ homes delight parents, creating a unique bond within the diaspora community.

Teaching Kiswahili in a virtual setting posed an initial challenge for Rehema. Adapting her teaching approach to maintain a vibrant classroom vibe required creating engaging lessons and a rich curriculum. Virtual games and robust engagement strategies have contributed to the students’ enjoyment and success in the online learning environment.

The rewards of Rehema’s current role are deeply fulfilling. Seeing diaspora kids confidently speak Swahili, fostering a sense of belonging when they visit Tanzania or Kenya, is a source of immense joy. The language has become a unifying force, overcoming barriers that previously made visits to East Africa short-lived for many diaspora kids.

While Habari Academy is physically located in Houston, Texas, its impact transcends geographical constraints. Rehema emphasises its global reach, with students participating from the U.S. and Canada, making it a truly international school.

The broader impact of Habari Academy on the community is evident in the awakening of parents to the possibility of their children speaking Kiswahili. Testimonials pour in, affirming the power of language in shaping cultural identity and fostering a sense of community.

Tailoring the teaching approach to accommodate diverse student backgrounds involves incorporating relatable assignments.

This strategy ensures that students connect with the material on a personal level, enhancing their learning experience. Asked if she is getting cooperation from the Tanzania Embassy as far as Kiswahili promotion is concerned, she replied, “The collaboration between Habari Academy and the Tanzanian Embassy in New York is a noteworthy partnership. Students from the academy were invited to celebrate Kiswahili Day at the United Nations, a testament to the growing recognition of Kiswahili as a language of importance”.

Achievement

Rehema acknowledges the ongoing growth and evolution of teaching methods. Habari Academy continually adopts new ways of engaging students, ensuring that the curriculum remains dynamic and effective. Reflecting on her journey, Rehema sees herself as a global teacher.

“Over three years into the venture, Habari Academy has created a community that extends far beyond physical boundaries, uniting parents with a shared vision for their children’s linguistic and cultural development,”she narrated. “One particular success story stands out—a student’s acceptance into a prestigious STEM-focused secondary school in North Carolina.

This student, while undoubtedly intelligent, distinguished herself by starting her application essay in Kiswahili, showcasing the power of uniqueness”. Looking to the future, Rehema envisions expanding Habari Academy’s reach.

The ambition includes extending the academy to US public schools, recognising the growing prominence of Kiswahili and its celebration by the United Nations.

The goal is to develop a robust app, making Kiswahili education accessible globally. Excitement surrounds upcoming projects, with the development of a dedicated app for Habari Academy taking centre stage.

“This initiative aims to empower learners to engage with Kiswahili from anywhere in the world, at any time”. Rehema’s advice for aspiring language teachers echoes her own journey—teaching Kiswahili as a secondary language is not just possible but requires great work and strong ambition. She encourages persistence, emphasising that doors will eventually open.

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